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Consistency vs Flexibility: The Myth of Creative Restraint in Design Systems

06-09-22 Ben Callahan

Though they have numerous benefits, design systems are still sometimes seen as design constraints. Understand how creating a culture of trust can bridge this gap between consistency and flexibility in your design system.

Four or five years ago a lot of UI Designers I knew were worried about design systems limiting their creativity. For a few of them, I’m sure that fear came to fruition in the form of highly restrictive, inflexible systems. But over time, that autocratic approach has been the exception more than the rule.

Then I saw this tweet from Anna E. Cook, and I realized some folks are still struggling with this apprehension.

Whether Dave works in banking software or fashion design, it’s in his nature to resist constraint. Couple this with the fact that a lot of design systems are built in response to inconsistencies in decades-old interfaces and you can see why this concern about “creative restraint” is still hovering around.

At the root of this struggle is a lack of trust.

One area where that shows up is in the use of interface audits designed to expose the inconsistencies across an organization’s digital interfaces. Audits can be useful, but a lot of the motivations for doing them set us up for failure. They are divisive at precisely the time when we should be creating unity. The subtext of the effort is a message that our teams can’t be trusted to build consistent experiences. Instead, they need a set of rules that force them to do so. At our worst, we do these audits to demonstrate the inadequacies of an old way of working. At our best, we’re setting a benchmark for future metrics—laying the groundwork to prove our systems will create consistency. And somewhere in the middle is the misguided idea that showing our execs how poorly we did in the past will encourage them to fund us in the future.

Your design system alone will not create more consistent digital interfaces, no matter how rigid.

Building a design system that limits flexibility is only going to make it less desirable to use. Instead of making design systems that restrict creativity, we should be building systems that enable real problem-solving. Of course, the system should default to the standards you all agree on, but it should also demonstrate that you trust your team by offering them flexibility and extendability.

I can hear you thinking, “But Ben, that means they’ll do whatever they want!?”

And to you, I say, “Exactly!”

The critical word in the statement above is the word “want.” If consistency is your goal, the only sustainable way to get that is to shift what your subscribers want to do. You do this with culture, not constraint.

Flexibility and consistency are not mutually exclusive.

You can have both. But the work is not only technical, it’s cultural. If you want to build a systematic design practice, you’ll have to let go of the tools and the techniques and focus on the people. Consistent output comes from organizations that are culturally consistent—aligned on values and principles. In other words, an organization is successful when it aligns people behind a shared vision, so that everyone’s “wants” match the needs of the business.

Your design system can be a catalyst for that alignment, but it won’t create it on its own. That is the unspoken and deeply challenging mandate of a design system team. The reward is a system flexible enough to enable innovation alongside digital products that are authentically consistent. It will take time to get there, but don’t settle for anything less.

Want to learn more about design systems? We’d love to talk!

One of the things that I’ve learned in our years of working with design systems is that they’re as diverse as the companies that use them. I’m writing from my own experience here. Have you found something else to be true? If so, I’d love to talk to you about it. Find me at or on Twitter at @bencallahan.

If you’d like additional information about our work with design systems, we’ve got lots to share. Explore the Anatomy of a Design System, gauge the evolution of your system with our Design System Maturity Model Assessment, or read more about our experiences and partnerships right here on The Foundry

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