Using open source Design Systems: pros and cons
Having a proprietary Design System (DS) in your company certainly brings many advantages:
- It is a tailor-made solution, and it is built on the basis of your company’s needs. This means that the Design System will adapt to your company’s needs, not the other way around.
- A proprietary DS allows high quality and consistent products to be produced with less effort in design and development.
- It allows you to create a set of reusable interface components that give consistency to products and user experience.
- It allows for a shared repository of components (and best practices for using them), bridging the gap between design and development.
But let’s be honest: not every company can afford to have a proprietary Design System.
Designing and developing a Design System requires a long period of elaboration (and consequently a substantial budget).
Building a DS also requires a dedicated team to carry out the project continuously and to maintain it. And not every company can have one.
So what can we do? Don’t worry, there are other solutions!
No problem: we have open source Design Systems
As you probably already know, many major companies have created their own design systems and made them available to everyone. To name the best known: Material Design by Google, Carbon Design by IBM, Polaris by Shopify and ADG by Atlassian.
The use of an open source DS can greatly facilitate the work of a company.
- Open source Design Systems are real ecosystems — if there is a potential design situation, surely the DS has a well documented set of rules on how to handle it.
- They have extensive and up-to-date documentation — for each DS component, there is detailed and constantly updated documentation explaining how to use and implement it.
- Ensure good design consistency — having a consistent library of components and having guidelines explaining how and when to use them helps us as designers to give consistency to our design.
- Saving time (and money) — starting from an existing DS, it is possible to design and develop an interface in a rather short time and reducing costs.
All that glitters ain’t gold
Sure, open source Design Systems are great. But when we decide to use them, we have to keep a few fundamental aspects in mind.
Open source DSs are often associated with the identity of the company that produced them, as it reflects its characteristics. This is not necessarily a problem. But for a company that has a strong identity and values, an open source Design System may not be the best solution.
Furthermore, open source DSs do not take into account the specific needs of your brand and company. However comprehensive and well-documented it may be, it may not meet the requirements of your project (especially with regard to identity).
For example: for some projects, the components of an open source design system may be inadequate or insufficient. In these cases, it is possible to find a compromise between the DS we have chosen and our needs. The risk is to compromise the nature of the component or of the DS itself, in which case it is perhaps useful to seek an alternative path.
In some cases, open source Design Systems can be a limitation for designers. As you can see, DSs offers a solution for all (or almost all) design situations. This may lead us to adapt to the solutions offered and may limit us in finding alternative solutions that are more appropriate to our situation.
What is the right way?
Fortunately, there are not only black or white!
We can find a compromise by deciding to use the elements of an existing Design System and integrate it with components we have created ourselves.
This approach will certainly save us a lot of time compared to creating a DS from scratch. It also gives us more freedom in design and allows us to contribute to the evolution of the Design System.
Moreover, when we decide to use an open source DS, we have to choose the most suitable one for our needs. Each DS has its own characteristics, and we have to take them into account in order to make the most of them. For example, if we need to design and develop a web application in a relatively short period of time, Material Design can be an excellent ally.
A proprietary Design System is certainly more useful for companies that have a strong brand identity and values, sell proprietary products and services that evolve over time and operate across multiple channels.
An open source Design System, on the other hand, could be a good starting point for companies or start-ups that do not yet have a well-defined identity and do not yet have the tools to develop their own DS.
What is important is to ask yourself the right questions at the beginning of the project. If you define the requirements well, it will be clearer to you which way to go.