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Design & Technology September 01, 2019

Design like a God, not a dictator

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The design community creates but they also frequently dictate the creation rules. No doubt they strive to ensure quality by sharpening our processes to the extreme, but at what cost? Are we willing to do so at the cost of creativity? Fear not, there is a way of breaking free from the box created by the design community and unlocking your inner God-mode.

When I started as a designer, I taught myself the ins and outs of programs like Photoshop, Sketch, Illustrator and Adobe After Effects.
I knew every shortcut possible and had so much control over those programs that I felt as though I were pressing my keyboard keys like a professional pianist.

Then, in 2017, Airbnb tested their Sketch to Wireframe tool. A simple but powerful piece of software which allows the designer to draw something on paper and get a fully coded template in return.

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It’s a good example of what combining your style guide, pattern library and components library can lead to. This allowed the business to quickly be able to think, test, build, repeat. It’s actually a genius idea.

Design Systems – a new way of building

Airbnb had actually created a design system. A design system is a way of categorising your digital service into components. You can use small components, such as colour or typography, to create bigger components such as a button. Those items can be continuously reused for even bigger elements like a login page. The difference between this and a style guide is that instead of just defining these components you actually reference the exact piece. Meaning if you change one small aspect, it will update everywhere that it is being used. No wonder big tech companies jumped on the design systems bandwagon. They understood that they couldn’t innovate their products without first innovating the way they built them.

Searching for consistency

Two years later and everyone wants a design system which makes sense as it creates consistency. Coherence in design has two advantages: it helps the user to see the bigger picture and it helps the designer becoming recognisable for a certain style that doesn’t constantly need to be justified to clients and stakeholders. So, we designers love consistency.

Yet we seem to constantly change our own rules. Much like dictators, telling everyone that the rules we have created don’t apply to our situation because “it feels off”. This makes creating guides and libraries more complex and it drives our colleagues and fellow developers insane because our approach is unpredictable.

1999’ers vs. digital dictators

There are two types of design dictators. The first type is designers that design like it’s 1999. These are people who use a computer to make their ideas a reality but none of their components are connected. So by changing something in one location, you outdate all your other creations. This is not a very efficient way of working, so why do these 1999 designers do this? Because design systems constrain creativity to provides consistent product experiences. A lot of time is required for this and during most projects, nobody has got the time for that.

So these designers quickly iterate, rather than having to define everything upfront. And if that means designs are going to be outdated, so be it.

On the other side of the spectrum, we have the digital design dictator like myself. We put every project in a digitally connected structure which limits creativity. However, if you keep repeating this same process you will end up with the same output. Yet, we choose to put people in a box to work in a more consistent manner.

No more rules

We shouldn’t be designing like dictators, we should be designing like Gods and create a “design garden of Eden” where designs can evolve on their own. So we need a different approach. One that interconnects all the pieces but also promotes creativity. This got me thinking. Instead of following a strict design system where one thing has to be built on top of the other in a systematic way, would it be possible to only use the basic elements without any structure? So every time I use a value – a colour, a number, a corner radius, those will be the only ones I will reference. All the bigger components like buttons and input fields and pages can emerge out of those basic elements.

The cool thing about this is that there are no rules on how to use these basic pieces.

In this way, if you start turning the knobs and dials of these dynamic elements, you can start exploring emergent designs. Instead of having to think of what you want you can simply find what you want. You get all possible designs from the get-go. At any given point, you can stop and watch all the stuff your machine came up with. And if it gets a little too crazy, or when you are not satisfied with the result, just turn back the dial a little to find what you are looking for. This makes it much easier and faster to explore designs. You might even discover designs you hadn’t even thought of!

Becoming gods

This way of working lets you create worlds that are interconnected from the start. And best of all, they are truly unique. So for everyone who is going to design like a God, just match with the basics of your brand and find your own godlike commandments.

The tools for digital designers to design digitally are here. It’s now up to us to become the Gods that make a design come to life.

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