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A quick introduction to the origins of Lean Design System methodology, its values and structures, and how to implement it.

Design systems are empowering teams and organizations

Today’s design systems are the culmination of decades of experience in building digital products collaboratively. Undeniably, they are becoming the leading paradigm for organizing, evolving, and extending the component libraries underpinning modern apps and platforms. An effective design system unites product teams around a common vision and design language. It represents a trusted Single Source of Truth, provides us with battle-tested, reusable components, and defines the processes and responsibilities governing its ongoing development. It allows engineers and designers to communicate effortlessly and enables them to deliver consistent experiences at any scale. An accessible and well-documented design system also simplifies onboarding processes, as it codifies implicit structures and standardizes workflows. In summary, it’s a game-changing concept that can truly empower digital product teams when implemented properly.

So, where's the catch?

Design systems appear to be an optimal solution to achieve both scalability and consistent design quality. A solid component library can prevent technical and design debt accumulation and help teams build realistic prototypes at a staggering pace. However, they come with their own risks and costs, deterring especially smaller teams and resource-constrained startups. In their situation, promising opportunities must be tackled with everything they got and so recruiting a dedicated design systems team is a luxury they are often unable to afford. Also, additional governance processes may quickly overburden a young organization lacking any buffers. And lastly, even if the required resources are in fact available and the decision is made to build a design system, it may very well take months—sometimes even years—until it reaches a state where it's ready to be rolled out. Only then will it become apparent whether its components and processes can actually deliver the expected value.

Lean Design System methodology

Lean Design System provides a modular and evolving set of 12 tactics (organized in 4 layers) aiming to allow any kind of organization (even small, less design-savvy startups) to dip their toes into design systems and more strategic design approaches. Every tactic is designed in such a way that it works in isolation, but is also linked to other tactics supporting it. This means that the library can be explored at any pace and in a piecemeal manner. The methodology is driven by the idea that any digital product team can cultivate a naturally emerging design system by following a proposed set of principles and behaviors. The right infrastructure and a solid understanding of the artifacts that are to be maintained aim to provide a reliable and scalable framework for emergent systems—which brings us to the 4 layers categorizing the 12 tactics of Lean Design System.

  • Principles: Tactics on the Principles layer describe the methodology’s guiding principles and foundational concepts.

  • Infrastructure: Tactics on the Infrastructure layer describe what kind of organizational and technical structures can be derived from the Principles layer.

  • Behaviors: Tactics on the Behaviors level describe how action can be taken on the individual level at any time. It also describes behaviors that should be actively fostered to ensure steady improvement.

  • Artifacts: Lastly, tactics on the Artifacts level describe the actual artifacts organized in the design system’s libraries and repositories.

How tactics are structured

All tactics follow the same template: Each starts with an introduction outlining a challenge, an obstacle, or an opportunity followed by an in-depth description. Finally, they conclude with a section explaining where they fit into the larger methodology, listing other tactics they're directly supporting as well as tactics they themselves receive support from.


One of the goals of Lean Design System is to make the concept of design systems as accessible as somehow possible. Accordingly, there are only 3 requirements for adopting any of the proposed tactics:

  1. A team or organization should have at least one front-end developer and one UI/UX designer working on digital products.

  2. Teams and individuals have sufficient autonomy to experiment with new tools, workflows, and approaches.

  3. Short lines of communication within an organization allow for the quick evaluation of results and experiences.

In case a team or organization only meets two or fewer requirements, a few adaptations to the methodology might become necessary. Get Involved explains how Lean Design System can be forked and customized for that very purpose.

Authors and contributors

D. Kurfess

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