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Design system truths and misconceptions

A prescribed versus flexible experience

Now that you know what a design system is, what is it not?

Many people believe that design systems are made up of individual pieces and parts and that developers and designers are free to group those pieces together and style in any configuration. That is not the case: a true design system is holistic, easily upgradeable, and creates a prescribed experience. Design patterns, UI components, technical behavior, and visual treatments are bound together and meant to be used in a specific fashion to solve common business problems, improve speed and workflow of users, and meet or exceed legal requirements, such as accessibility or localization.

However, this does not mean that there is no flexibility or creativity within a design system. Many final decisions about placement, the surfacing of content, the flow of work to be done, and an application's branding is up to the designer working in the system. As a designer, you organize ideas, optimize flows, and focus on what really matters: helping users accomplish their goals and serving the needs of the business. 

The parts work together but differently

The following diagram illustrates the differences between the parts of a design system and how they fit together. 

 

A design system upgrades automatically, is tech-agnostic, follows prescribed design, maintains regulatory compliance and is needs and style-focused. Pattern libraries exist within a design system and may use varied approaches, non-prescribed design, are style-agnostic and needs-focused. Style guides are within pattern libraries and design systems, are brand-specific and style-focused, very prescribed, focus on UI presentation only.

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