In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at the differences between a design system and style guide, what to include in each, and when to put them to use.
When developing a website or app, it can be tough to keep everything straight when it comes to user interface design.
Sure, you could use Google docs or other note trackers to document your HEX color codes or typography choices. But what about something like button design? How do you ensure that all your buttons are designed the same way? And that buttons with different and distinct purposes are designed correctly?
A style guide can help with this, but it might not be enough.
Larger websites or apps, omnichannel experiences, and growing product teams all add extra layers of complexity that style guides just aren’t able to address. That’s where a design system comes in handy.
What Is a Style Guide?
A style guide is a document that describes and depicts the core visual elements and styles used by a brand. It can be a standalone set of guidelines or it can appear within a larger design system.
The Yelp style guide has a good analogy for how it works.
Style guide elements like colors and fonts are the ingredients. Designers refer to the style guide in order to know which ingredients to use when making a particular “recipe”.
But this is where the style guide typically ends. It shows us what the main ingredients are and basic guidelines for how to use them. However, the full instructions, finished entrees, and cookbooks (i.e. the digital product and user experience) are not addressed.
For some brands and design teams, this is enough.
The Purpose of a Style Guide
A style guide provides designers with a set of foundational guidelines to use when creating visual assets for a brand. This applies to everything from designing a website to creating business swag, and everything in between.
It’s not just web designers that use style guides though. Take the Disqus style guide, for example.
This micro set of brand guidelines is helpful for those in the media. People like journalists, reviewers, and influencers refer to these visual resources and downloadable assets to ensure they use the right version of a company’s branding when mentioning them online.
So a style guide serves two big purposes. The primary purpose is to help designers imbue a digital product with consistent visual styles and elements. The secondary purpose is to ensure that a brand’s visual identity is correctly depicted across the web.
What to Include in a Style Guide
Whether it’s an employee or a media outlet looking at your style guide, there should be no doubt about how to handle brand elements like the logo, colors, typography, and iconography. But that’s not usually enough to help designers create the UI of your digital product.
That’s why some style guides include additional specifications related to the grid, spacing, layout, icons, animation, and more. Including a section on accessibility is becoming increasingly popular as well. So too is a small collection of the most commonly used UI components.
If you take a look around the web, you’ll notice that style guides differ from brand to brand. For example, the style guide for Drupal includes guidelines for the following:
- Design principles
There’s also a section called Words and phrases that lays out content style guidelines for the Drupal brand.
The brand guidelines for Frontify, on the other hand, include the following:
- Brand identity
- Brand imagery
- Product imagery
- Image citations and sizes
There’s also a section devoted to “Material” UI. It has guidelines for user experiences outside of the primary digital product, like the company’s stationery, packaging, swag, and email signatures.
Ultimately, the style guide is yours to flesh out. Start by adding the core elements like logos, colors, and fonts. Then build out from there.
When to Create a Style Guide
Unless you’re building a small, personal, and non-commercial website, there’s really no good reason not to create a style guide.
It gives you a place to document the most critical design decisions with regards to your brand’s visual identity. Even if you work alone, you’ll find it valuable to have all of that information in one place.
What’s more, a style guide is a great resource to develop and share with clients. Whether or not you continue working for them after launching their website or app, the style guide can ensure that your initial design decisions are upheld. And when changes need to be made, the document can be updated so that everyone who uses it in the future remains on the same page.
What Is a Design System?
A design system is the visual language of a brand. The style guide is just one small part of it. Design systems are entire toolkits that also include design principles, reusable components, pattern libraries, design resources, and more.
Let’s pick up where we left off with the Yelp analogy.
If style guide elements are ingredients, then recipe instructions would be the various components that you put into the UI, like buttons, fields, cards, lists, avatars, and more. It would also include patterns that combine these components into useful and interactive elements on the page.
The style guide’s “ingredients” ensure that each component and pattern is designed with a consistent look and feel. The component and pattern libraries ensure that you bring everything together in the right order and manner for the best outcome.
Other pieces of the design system — like code snippets, design tokens, and resources — help you follow the instructions so you can turn the recipe into a great end product.
The Purpose of a Design System
Consistency, clarity, and quality are the natural outcomes of working with a design system. On the Seeds design system home page, Sprout Social explains why this is so vital:
“A distinct and consistent brand presence sets us apart from competitors, builds trust and familiarity with our customers, and eventually leads to long-term brand value.”
Design systems aren’t just useful for documenting how to create a single digital product. Though that’s often how they start out.
A design system provides you with all the instructions and guidelines needed to put together visual assets for your brand. That makes it an indispensable toolkit for scaling brands. For example:
- A shop that’s expected to grow its inventory exponentially from year to year
- A digital team that’s expanding and onboarding new staff in order to meet the business’s changing needs
- A brand that’s branching out to new channels and needs a quick and effective way to do it
With growth comes complexity. The bigger your product, team, or reach gets, the harder it’s going to be to keep everything straight and consistent when it comes to UI design. This is why design systems are a must if your goals are growth and scalability.
What to Include in a Design System
Like style guides, what you decide to put in the design system is up to your brand and what you’re building. That said, design systems are all-encompassing toolkits, so most include the following:
- Brand introduction
- Design principles
- Style guide
- Component library
- Pattern library
- Design tokens
- Resources like libraries, templates, and tools
Some also include a section on content as the Atlassian Design System does.
This section provides guidelines on how to deal with:
- Inclusive language
- Language and grammar
- Voice and tone principles
- Writing guidelines
- Writing styles
This is just one way in which a design system serves a cross-disciplinary product team. When included, a section on design tokens helps bridge the gap between the web designer’s aesthetic choices and the implementation of them when developing the product.
You’ll find a great example of what to do with design tokens in Talend’s Coral design system.
This is why design systems are commonly referred to as the single source of truth for distributed teams. They enable anyone to come in and make confident decisions when it comes to designing digital products, assets, and experiences for a brand.
When to Create a Design System
It’s clear how advantageous design systems can be for digital teams.
They provide designers with a consistent visual language to use when developing a brand’s assets. They cut down on miscommunication, misinterpretation, and mistakes. They also make it easier and faster to design and update visual interfaces.
However, they take a lot of work to build and maintain. So it’s important to consider whether it’s a worthwhile investment before developing one for your brand.
If you’re designing a website for a personal project, for a small business, or with static content that likely won’t change or expand much or at all, then a design system likely won’t be beneficial to you.
While you can’t have a design system without a style guide, you can have a style guide without one. And there are various reasons why you might choose the latter option.
A style guide is a great way to keep track of the design decisions that lay the foundation for your brand’s visual identity. And if you’re unsure about needing a design system, a style guide doesn’t require as much of a time commitment. You also won’t have to get buy-in from other team members and stakeholders.
So, at the very least, plan on making a style guide for every professional project you work on.
Now, if you’re starting work on a major project — be it an enterprise site, a massive ecommerce marketplace, a mobile app, etc. — chances are good you’d benefit from a design system. With more moving pieces, contributors, revisions, and complexity overall, a design system is the only way to ensure that what you create is consistently executed at the highest level.
Check out our Design Systems 101 guide to learn more about the benefits of building design systems, what to include in yours, and to see more examples of design systems in action.