Design Systems Like A Black Belt by Elaine Chao

Logically, her talk is about pointing out the difficulties some companies go through considering the change of workflows a design system implies, & how to implement it correctly.
With an interesting relation her upcoming karate black belt assignment, her view on how design systems change companies’ internal communication is really easy to understand!

Let’s dive into this insightful talk in our latest #ContentReview!

According to Elaine, a design system is “a common language to organisations”. Employees that work with the same assets that have the same name, on the same softwares benefit from clearer communication regarding their work. The mental image they have for one specific asset makes their communication flow & understanding better. Eventually, the work gets done faster.

”A Design System brings teams together, as a source of truth”

While practising for her 5th degree karate black belt, Elaine reflected on a way to relate her hard martial art exam, to how businesses & teams build & maintain a design system.
She outlined three main parallels between the belt-ranking there are in most martial arts & diving into a systemic approach to design.

Everyone starts as a white belt when diving into design systems.

The first is that she compares how long it takes to compete for the karate black belt.

However, you reach can reach it in 5 simple years. After that, there are only “dan’s”; certifications you get without changing your belt color after that, you only get certified without changing belt color.
By this analogy, Elaines outlines that everyone starts as a white belt when diving into design systems, but don’t start at the same place, as everyone can get design notions before diving into it.

Your job as a product manager is to introduce your teams to the vocabulary & mental images your upcoming design system is.

"Everyone has the right to be trained"

Keep on iterating

In a world where our digital interactions change every single day, a design system has to be a breathing component, where everything is subject to change.

Elaine recalls here that she joined the Adobe Team when physical tech products such as mobile phones were transitioning to touchscreens. It was a time where the design field had a complete change of market, and needs were much different because of it.

This is what your design system should be; subject to constant change. Make your own design system live just like you would do for yourself: put the best

”Technology has to change and so your design systems have to be these living breathing things that reflect the industry."

The Tao

“External factors influence the course of your thinking, influence the formation of the inner self” perfectly describes the Tao. Elaine references this widely known chinese philosophy (attributed to Lao Zu) to put it in relation with design system.
Elaine does the relation with design systems since most companies would say “there’s only one way to do design system. Here it is.”.

That’s false. There is no “unique” design system. However, YOUR design system has to be “unique” 

For her, the only question companies should ask themselves if they want to transition to a systemic vision to design is: “What does a Design System look like to meet your needs?

The last piece of advice Elaine gives spectators is to remember that a design system is first and foremost a tool, helping managers, employees, & even customer to stay on the same page, everytime.

Couple advices you can keep from this conference as an entrepreneur or product manager?

Make your design system breathe! Make it full of life, don’t stop iterating, and most importantly: introduce your teams and employees to it, and make their workflow a lot easier thanks to it. Design systems are here for it!

Do you want to have a design system, but don’t know where to start? Check out, and create a new, personalized experience for your product thanks to a centralized, comprehensive & responsibe source of truth

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