It’s a trap!

UX Planet recently published The Hidden Trap in Design Systems by Brian McKenna. In it he positions that design systems “can make designers lazy” that “risk[s] losing our users in … sameness”.

I have a bone to pick with characterising anyone as lazy, but that is a moot point. Instead what I want to do is highlight some underlying assumptions about creativity.

To begin with Brian’s thoughts are somewhat mixed.

On the one hand he is stating that using design systems is a problem. On the other he states “design systems are a benefit to the design process”.

The “hidden trap” that Brian refers to is an impulse to not think critically. Supposedly the mere use of a design system is all it takes.

But I don’t think Brian meant to be didactic. Jim Ramsden points out that the trap isn’t the design system itself, but being prescriptive in its use.

If you treat the system as a set of rules and not guide lines you run into trouble.

Quite how much of a problem this is, I’m not sure. There are other reasons why you might use something as is – it’s not simply laziness.

For example, I worked on a client project where they would have benefitted from bespoke icons and illustrations.

But they had no budget for it. So I used Font Awesome instead.

Does that make me a bad designer? Perhaps. But I also think I was being professional and responsible.

It is a pervasive myth that being unique and creative go hand in hand.

We’re told sameness is to be avoided; uniqueness sought out. Turn on the TV and watch any advert and you will find examples where this plays out.

Thing is I sit here as a white middle-class male, writing a blog about design, on an iMac sitting on top of IKEA furniture. How unique am I?

The rally against uniformity is not the special preserve of design, but it is common in web design.

I think Audrey Hacq makes a useful distinction. Being consistent does not mean being uniform. And this is surely what a design system is for: to be consistent.

If we are going to be critical of design systems, then there is an irony using Medium – a platform that is evidently designed to homogenise – and concluding:

We don’t want a product that is page after page of basically the same thing

Perhaps this is the real trap.

— Alexander Blackman