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Design systems and style guides are different. Here's how

Design systems and style guides are related, but they're not the same and neither of them are brand guidelines, either. We break it down.

Illustration by Anita Goldstein.

Profile picture of Nick Babich

2.22.2023

5 min read

“Design system” and “style guide” are two of the most common terms in design. When designers discuss a product, they often mention one or another during the conversation. Although both terms are not new, there are still a lot of misunderstandings regarding what exactly they mean. This article explains design system vs style guide, what design features each has, and how product teams can utilize both to make their design process more efficient.



What is a design system?


A design system is a collection of reusable functional elements, including components and interaction patterns, that allows product teams to create a unified, consistent experience across all digital products that an organization offers.

Components, design tokens, pattern libraries, and guidelines are the four main categories that make up a design system. Let’s dive into more detail.



1. Component


A component is a modular piece of a user interface, such as a button, card, or data table. Think of a component as a building block that allows designers to create a product. Well-designed components share two integral properties—reusability and modularity.


First, components in a design system are designed to be reusable, meaning they have a visual consistency that allows them to be used across a brand’s multiple products and projects, without having to be redesigned each time. For example, the same call to action button can be used for a contact form or as a primary call to action button on the landing page.


A component’s second necessary property, modularity, means that it's possible to combine a few components to create a new component. For example, you can combine a button and a card and create a component card with a button.


A screenshot of five different button designs in the Google Material Design system.
Different types of buttons in the Google material design system. Screenshot: https://m3.material.io/components/buttons/overview


2. Design token


Design tokens are the visual design elements of a user interface, such as color, typography, spacing, and more, represented as variables in a common format, such as CSS style property, that are used to construct and maintain a design system. No matter what design the team creates, whether it’s a mobile design or CMS web design, design tokens make it easier to turn the design into code.


For example, suppose you specify a token with a name “primary-color” and set a value for it. When developers will implement your design, instead of hardcoding a value, they will use the token “primary-color.” So that the CSS code will look like this: “h1 { color: primary }”.


A screenshot of color tokes in the Shopify Polaris design system.
Design tokens: colors in Shopify Polaris design system. Screenshot: https://polaris.shopify.com/

3. Pattern library


A pattern library is a subset of a design system; it's a collection of design patterns that can be used to build user interfaces. Common examples of design patterns are navigation menus, data input forms, etc. The goal of a pattern library is to provide a repository of well-designed patterns that can be used to create consistent and efficient user interfaces. A pattern library allows designers to create specific components and write guidelines for using them to create consistent and efficient user interfaces.



4. Guidelines


Guidelines are the set of rules and best practices that advise how product teams should use components and visual styles. Unlike style guidelines, which we’ll get into more below, design system guidelines describe how components should behave functionally, and how users are expected to interact with them. Explicitly written guidelines help onboard new designers to the product since they help them understand how to make the interface functional and visually consistent.


A screenshot of UI elevation specs in Google's open source design system, Materials 3.
Material Design guidelines for using elevation in UI by Material 3, Google's open-source design system. Screenshot: https://m3.material.io/styles/elevation/overview.

Within guidelines is a subcategory called brand guidelines, or a set of rules and standards that define an organization's brand identity, including its visual elements (such as the brand's logo, typography, and color palette) and the tone of voice that the organization uses to communicate with its audience.



The difference between a UI kit and a design system


A UI kit and a design system are both tools for organizing and managing the design of a product, but they serve different purposes. A UI kit is a collection of pre-designed graphical user interface elements, such as buttons, forms, and icons, that can be used to create user interfaces.


On the other hand, a design system is created specifically for a particular organization. The goal of a design system is to provide a unified and consistent design experience across all products and platforms that this organization offers so that every element in a design system aligns with the brand's established standards.



Why do designers use a design system?


There are several reasons why product teams should use design systems:



1. It's a single source of truth


Design systems become a single source of truth for all designers involved in the product design process. Whenever designers need to create a new design or modify an existing one, they rely on the design system to get all the required information. Having a single source of truth is especially important on large-scale projects when multiple designers or design teams work together to create a product.


Design systems help to avoid situations when different team members do the same work twice (i.e. design the same component) or when team members create their own unique set of components that conflict with other parts of the designed product (visual or functional inconsistency).



2. It allows for scalability


Design systems make it easier for the design team to update design elements. As a product grows and becomes more sophisticated, the ability to introduce changes in the design without significant reworks becomes integral.



3. It encourages teamwork


Well-crafted design systems result from the co-creation of designers and developers involved in the product design process. Since both parties contribute to the design system, it helps to establish a strong bond between two teams—not only do the teams share the same visual and functional language when building a product, but they also actively collaborate during product design and development.



What are examples of design systems?


Here are some of the most well-known design system examples:



1. Material Design by Google


Material Design is a comprehensive design system that includes visual design guidelines, interaction patterns, and a library of reusable components for designing and building digital products. Material Design was originally designed for Google's web products and Android, but because this design system is so versatile, it can be used for different product types.



2. Atlassian Design System


Atlassian, a company behind Jira and Confusion, has a solid design system that provides guidelines, components, and style guides for creating visually and functionally consistent experiences across the Atlassian product suite.



What is a style guide in design?


As the name suggests, a style guide is a collection of visual styles used in a product design, including colors, typefaces, imagery, and negative space. A style guide is a part of the design system that defines the visual language of the product. Style guides can serve as a reference for designers and developers, providing a guide for creating new design elements that align with the established standards for the visual language.


Primary color palette from Atlassian’s style guide.
Primary color palette from Atlassian’s style guide. Screenshot: https://atlassian.design/foundations/color

Design system vs style guide: what's the difference?


A style guide is a subclass of a design system that defines the visual language of the product. A style guide only covers visual styles such as colors, typefaces, and white space (like kerning, leading, margins, padding, etc). On the other hand, design systems go beyond just the visual design—the components are created on top of the visual styles defined in the style guide.


The design system also specifies the rules that help product team members use design consistently. For example, a design system might determine the exact font size that should be used in a component, like an input field.


A T-chart listing the differences betwee a style guide and a design system.
The high-level differences between a style guide and a design system. The main thing to remember in reference to their relationship to each other: a style guide fits under an overall design system.

Consistency, efficiency, scalability


Those are the benefits that design systems bring to the organization. Design systems and style guides offer design features that make it easier for designers and developers to create cohesive and user-friendly products even as products and platforms evolve and grow over time. By establishing a solid foundation for a product's visual and functional design, design systems can help streamline the design process and support collaboration between people involved in the design process.

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