The Man in Blue


Design systems and technological disruption

There was a controversial take on design systems earlier this week by Adam Michela in an interview on the Figma blog:

Yes, design systems will replace many design jobs as we know them today — they already have. Interface development patterns, processes and tools are like interchangeable parts and factory assembly lines — tools of industrial productivity that enable fewer people to create the same product as before.

— Adam Michela

I did a fair bit of research into the economics of technological change as part of a debate on Artificial Intelligence that I was a part of at Pausefest this year. It’s a fascinating field of study that highlights the shortsighted way that we humans tend to view the world. From the printing press to electricity and the car, all technology changes are inevitably accompanied by doomsayers predicting the downfall of humanity. What actually happens is that new areas of progress are uncovered, we adapt, and growth goes on unabated.

The classic example of technological disruption is the mechanisation of the textiles industry. During the industrial revolution, Luddites decried the invention of new weaving technology and staged many attempts to destroy the machinery which was being introduced because they feared it would lead to mass unemployment. This has given rise to a term in economics known as the “Luddite fallacy”, because what actually happened in the weaving industry was that technological improvements helped workers to focus on things the machines could not do, such as running the machines.

During the period of the Industrial Revolution, textile manufacturing output multiplied by 50 times, which made cloth cheaper and consequently increased demand for the material and created more jobs for weavers. Between 1830 and 1900 the number of weavers quadrupled.

Almost every technological innovation over the last 300 years has had side effects which actually increase the number of opportunities for employment. The general trend is that the easier something is to do, the more demand there is for it.

I maintain that same level of optimism for design systems.

Design systems are certainly a new way of thinking about product development, and introduce a different set of tools to the design process, but design systems are not going to lessen the need for designers. They will instead increase the number of products that can be created, and hence increase the demand for designers. One stream of this growth will be an emergent class of new jobs that work entirely with the components of a design system. These could look something like a hybrid between a designer and a product manager. But another stream of growth will be driven by an increased upstream demand for designers to create the design systems in the first place.

Design systems do not obviate the need for craftsmanship. High quality UI and UX design still needs to be produced for the design system, and a lot of research, creative thinking and experimentation has to be performed in order to define the components and patterns which make up a system. Instead of narrowing the scope of “design”, I see a broadening of the spectrum to include not just the “crafted” aspects of design (what we currently think of as aesthetics and interaction), but at the other end of the process design will also be about using and extending design systems.

This is actually something that designers have been championing for decades – inclusive design at all levels of the company, and an increase in design thinking at all stages of product development. Now that we finally have a chance of achieving that it’s not a time to be scared. It’s a time to be celebrated.

Cameron Adams Cameron Adams is a co-founder and Chief Product Officer at Canva, where he leads the design & product teams and focuses on future product directions & innovative experiences. Read a bit more about him ›