What Actually Constitutes Design Language?

Visual communication is exceptionally complicated. It’s diverse, boundless, and relentless. To induce a sense of clarity and coherence to it, we need to establish a series of constraints that will help us communicate with our end-users. This is where Design Language comes into play. 

Historically, we’ve done the same thing with natural languages. Syntax, semantics, and morphology allow us to organize thought into meaningful narratives and aid in exchanging ideas. 

In today’s article, we’ll take a closer look at what Design Language is, how it’s created, and the people involved in its development.

Let’s dive right in, shall we? 

Design Language: Why Is It So Important? 

A Design Language is a set of rules and principles that guide an organization’s visual identity, which ensures that their designs have a sense of continuity. 

What goes into a Design Language?

For it to be prescriptive, a Design Language must contain a series of visual and conceptual standards. 

The central elements of a Design Language are: 

These three pillars define the use of colors, typography, iconography, interactions, animations, valuable resources, folder systems, naming conventions, and the product’s grid system. 

Similarly, it must provide an in-depth understanding of the brand’s tone of voice and its values. 

The need for Design Language

The need for a unified visual language can be defined from two perspectives: internal and external.

The former ensures that all the teams throughout a company can follow the same rules and methodologies. This allows them to have a set of reference points and coordinates that makes the design process efficient and free of confusion. 

The latter is oriented towards its users and the platform within which a product exists. By following broad industry standards, organizations can create designs that are intuitive and familiar to the people interacting with it.

Therefore, by blending these two perspectives, companies can make the design process more efficient, craft a memorable brand identity, and quickly improve usability

A few examples of  Design Language

Let’s take a look at how successful organizations explain their need for a Design Language. 

One of IBM’s design philosophy is to create instantly recognizable designs. 

If you covered up our logo or name, would you identify an execution as being designed by IBM?” 

A distinguishable visual identity is vital when it comes to building brand recall and user fidelity. One of the ways IBM achieves that is by engineering their grid systems like the 2x Grid

Precise use of the grid, along with consistent shapes, angles, and radii, help define a particular aesthetic that’s critical in expressing the “IBMness” of our illustrations and reveals a well-considered and systematic approach” — IBM.

Airbnb’s Design Language aims to achieve the same thing, but the difference here is that the startup has experienced massive growth over the last few years. Therefore, they’re focused on creating a visual language that allows them to continue to scale while preserving their brand identity. 

Here’s the simple truth: you can’t innovate on products without first innovating the way you build them.” — Airbnb.

Airbnb’s language allows them to make the communication process between designers and stakeholders much easier, as well as standardize their practices throughout platforms and devices. 

Creating a Design Language

Putting together a Design Language can be an arduous, time-consuming task, but it’s well worth the effort. Here are a few essential steps that will help you lay its foundations:

Start with a UI audit

It’s often a good idea to conduct a UI audit to lay down the foundations of your language. It will allow you to address pressing issues, ensure consistency, and generate documentation, which is essential during implementation. 

Create a vocabulary

A vocabulary should contain and clearly define a product’s visual elements. Its main goal is to contain a systematized pattern library of building blocks, accompanied by a style guide. 

To promote consistency and clarity, your style guide must provide directions on the elements’ purpose. Here’s an example of how this can be approached:

“This [design element] from the [library] allows us to express [purpose]” 

This enables organizations to establish the meaningful constraints we’ve mentioned above while allowing their designers to streamline decision-making. For instance, here’s how Atlassian explains the logic behind their color palettes:

“Our primary palette is comprised of neutrals, white, and blue to bring boldness to our brand and is used in logical ways throughout product and marketing to guide the eye and highlight the important bits. We pepper warmer, secondary palette colors throughout to soften the experience and to impart confidence and optimism.” — Atlassian.

Define the design principles

The principles behind a product’s design philosophy are a litmus test for evaluating the quality and the purpose of a design. It allows an organization to assess whether or not a prototype adheres to its general guidelines.

For example, Airbnb’s design principles are oriented towards accessibility and functionality. Their goal is to create “unified, universal, iconic, and conversational” designs. 

On the other hand, IBM’s principles state that they aim to create designs that are “carefully considered, uniquely unified, expertly executed, and positively progressive.” 

Set the rules

An organization’s design rules are subsets of its principles. They are essential when it comes to making a designer’s work more efficient and ensuring a great user experience. 

The rigidity of these rules can vary — some can be strict; others can be malleable. Having a class of looser rules provides designers with the flexibility to make improvements where they see fit. 

Allow the language to grow and expand

We must be mindful of the fact that having Design Language is never an end-goal in itself. As time passes, an organization’s language must adjust to changes in its industry and account for technological debt. Industry standards tend to shift and change, and so should your Design Language. 

A unified design language shouldn’t be just a set of static rules and individual atoms; it should be an evolving ecosystem.” — Airbnb.

Allow your language to gradually take the shape of the market it exists in so that it remains relevant to the current Zeitgeist. 

Similarly, the potential for a language’s growth stems from their users’ needs and the organization’s competitors.

Continuously researching and refreshing your customer personas allows the organization to serve its users better and keep the quality of their services high. 

Understanding the organization’s competitive landscape allows it to explore strategic design opportunities and create a distinct visual identity.

Who’s Responsible for Creating a Design Language?

A Design Language isn’t exclusively a designer’s responsibility. Instead, it’s the collective effort of a broad spectrum of departments and specialists that include:

  • UX/UI Designers — responsible for the visual components of the language;
  • Accessibility specialists — ensure that the language abides by accessibility standards;
  • UX writers/Content strategists — responsible for the tone of voice guidelines and brand spokesperson parameters;
  • Researchers — provide valuable insight into the needs of the end-users;
  • Front-end developers — instrumental in writing efficient code and assisting with documentation;
  • VPs and directors — ensure that the language aligns with the organization’s goals and its identity.

Conclusion

The development of a consistent and detailed Design Language can be very time-consuming. Bear in mind that multiple iterations will be necessary. 

Despite these significant investments, a unified visual language will allow an organization to create convergent and coherent experiences, significantly decrease spendings, and set a high design standard that’s easy to follow. 

Developing a Design Language is a collaborative effort

An essential part of creating a visual language is effectively collaborating with a wide array of professionals. UXpin is an excellent tool for managing your design projects, conducting UI audits, building design systems, and storing your documentation. Sign up for a free trial and try the most advanced design system management tool in the market.

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