1 February 2019
Alan Cole

About design systems

Design systems are maturing and becoming an emerging trend so government agencies can provide a more consistent user experience. At a national level we have the DTA’s Design SystemExternal Link and many states also have their own design systems, such as Victoria’s Ripple (which Salsa helped design, build and now maintains — see our case study) and NSW’s Digital Design SystemExternal Link .

Should you use a design system?

If you’re a government digital agency about to build a new website, you may already have a user experience in mind.

In terms of the design/user interface you have at least three choices:

  1. Reuse/use an existing design system
  2. Build your own
  3. Something in between

Each of these choices offers pros, cons and other considerations.

Design systems — reuse, create your own or something in between?

1. Reuse/Use existing design system

Using an existing design system such as the DTA’s Design system, VIC’s Ripple or NSW’s Digital Design System provides many advantages, including:

  • Reduced costs

  • Reduced build time (so it’s faster to launch)

  • Joining a community for new components and contribution opportunities

  • Updates and fixes available at no extra cost

You may be interested (or choose) an existing design system because:

  • You don’t have your own

  • You don’t want to create your own

  • You don’t have the budget to create your own

  • You want to align with an existing government standard

  • Your site is simple and a design system covers all (most) of what you need

  • You love the design system

Using an existing design system provides a low-risk starting point, however it will impact technical decisions.

2. Create/Use your own

Creating your own design system provides many advantages, including:

  • Freedom in design and functionality

  • Freedom in technical implementation

  • Tailored solution

  • No dependencies to maintain

You may go with this option if:

  • Your technical requirements don't align with an existing design system

  • Your design is radically different from any existing design system

  • Your vision doesn't align with an existing design system

  • You’d like to contribute/start an alternative to the current design systems

  • You don’t like the existing design systems

Creating your own design system gives you full control with a reduced reliance on third parties, but it comes at a higher cost, will take longer to build then implement, and requires more effort. It will also mean that your site might be inconsistent with your jurisdiction’s standards.

3. Something in between

The third option is to use elements from an existing design system, coupled with components that you build.

The advantages of this approach include:

  • Faster to launch (than creating your own design system from scratch)

  • Some freedom in design

  • Some room for community contribution

  • Some room for updates and bug fixes, albeit with some effort required

You may decide on this ‘best of both worlds’ approach when:

  • Your requirements mostly align with an existing design system

  • Your brand personality is important

  • You need to launch without the time/budget to build a completely new library of components

  • You need customisations, but still want to contribute to the community

This option comes at less cost than building your own design system and also allows some alignment with an existing design system. However, there are also a few cons, such as:

  • The design system components you use will need tweaking to be usable

  • More effort is required to introduce design system updates

  • Contributions back will require more effort to ensure the custom component is compatible with the existing design system’s look and feel

  • It’s harder to estimate work due to unforeseen complexities with integrating changes into an existing design system

  • It still breaks consistency with a whole-of-government, standardised approach

How do you decide?

The above may be enough for you to decide which option best suits your needs. Generally, Salsa will take clients through this process during our discovery phase, exploring the pros and cons for each option when applied to your individual situation.

Subscribe to Salsa Source

Subscribe to Salsa Source to keep up to date with technical blogs.