DSN+DEV+OKC Lightning Talk

Jun 12, 2017

Read time: 3 mins

I recently was asked to give a short lightning talk at a DSN+DEV+OKC, a local design and development user group meetup. I chose to give a few tips from building out a design system in my first few months at Datebox

You can download my slides, but I also wanted to write out the basics of what I communicated in that talk below.


My name is Ty Carlson, and I am the Lead Front End Developer at Datebox. Datebox is a local startup, providing resources for couples to strengthen their relationship through a fun, simple, date night delivered every month.

I want to share a little bit tonight about a project I’ve been working on since I joined this team in March. As with most growing web products, we are fighting against entropy. Things quickly stray from convention and become messy and difficult to manage.

Creating a design system can reduce entropy. Use whatever word you want: design system, pattern library, styleguide, but ultimately it is a collection of visual components, documentation of writing style, code conventions use across your products

Here are a few tips from problems that I encountered/solved when building out a designs system:


Remember that a design system should be dynamic

Your design system is never “done”. The first thing you should build is a process for adding/editing/removing/etc. You will constantly be encountering new features or UI that need new components. Allow for changes.

Your design system is its own product. Prioritize it or it will die or become unusable. Schedule sprint tasks to work on it, or even give it it’s own dev cycles. It should be it’s own git repo, and make it portable: gem/npm/whatever. Use semantic versioning so you can conditionally push changes to your products that use it.


Control your colors

Every color ever used should be pre-defined. If you find yourself dropping in a random hex value, stop. I see a lot of code where people define colors in one-off variables,

Recently I’ve moved to using a single source of truth for my colors in a Sass map ( Sass’s concept of a collection of key/value pairs). Use this too build a collection of your colors, then build a function to grab hex values from your predefined list. This keeps everything in one place, and forces you to think about whether adding that new color is really needed.

This also allows you to dynamically build color variants for your components, and when a new color is added to the main map, it generates new component colors as well.


Separate your spacing

The second you bake vertical spacing into a component, your designer will screw you over. We might style this heading like so, and the next feature will be some sort of sub-heading and blows away your defaults. Move all vertical spacing into utility classes. Tachyons - I haven’t completely jumped ship into using only utility classes, but can definitely see their value in some places.


Give your teammates the best possible tools to do their job

For fellow developers: Document all of this code for your fellow developers. CSS is way more complex now with pre-processors.

For fellow designers: Provide real production ready markup. Not all designers should code, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make it as easy as possible for them to start if they want to.