Design systems don’t kill creativity. But that wasn’t the question.

Justin Stahl tweeted, “It’s been tough to recruit product designers with great visual design and an eye for detail. Did we atomic-design-system and product-manager-skills a generation out of having them?” It’s a fair question.


Justin isn’t looking for an artist. He needs people who have a solid understanding of layout and type. Design systems aren’t incompatible with that knowledge or the skills to implement them. As the person who popularised Atomic Web Design, you’d expect Brad Frost to have an opinion on this, and he did:

“Just a friendly reminder that atomic design and design systems, in general, are not at all incompatible with great visual design and detailed execution.”

Brad and designers like Dan Mall—another person with creative talent and an understanding of design systems—proved this time and time again with their work. Design systems themselves can be full of “beautiful details and intricate craftsmanship”, and can help scale and spread those attributes across products and teams.

So what might be the problem Justin’s facing recruiting product designers with great visual design and an eye for detail? And is he right in blaming design systems for what he sees as lacking in design recruits? These are questions that prompt more questions.

Do—what we now call—product designers typically know how to choose and combine typefaces and use them? Do they understand the fundamentals of typography, hierarchy, leading, and the measure, to name a few? Do they know about layout design, including ratios and other aspects of grid design? Do they understand colour theory and how to create accessible and appealing colour palettes? Fundamentally, do product designers have the ability and knowledge to create as well as they can solve users’ problems? And do they even want to?


While interviewing candidates for a product design position recently, I found that not everyone who designs products sees themselves as a visual designer. I spoke to many candidates dedicated to user research, customer journeys, system design, and user testing.

For these people, design systems are tools for delivering consistency and scalability. Their building blocks make implementing a design more straightforward and less error-prone. This reliability is important for product companies whose aims are to reduce complexity, increase efficiency, and, most importantly, reduce risk. They also form a bridge between design and engineering teams who are responsible for developing and maintaining them. In some companies, a design system can turn visual designers into assembly-line workers to whom typography and layout fundamentals were never taught.

Many of the product designers I know do not have a background in graphic design. Many of the students I’ve met weren’t taught aspects of visual design important to a product at university. At Manchester Metropolitan University—where I’ve taught most regularly—many students were interested more in user experience rather than the visual aspects of digital design. Many have gone on to successful careers as user-experience designers without learning the fundamentals of typography and layout. Digital design education often focuses on processes, technologies, and tools, but students are left to learn design fundamentals independently, and many choose not to.

Although my friend Chris Murphy and others are working hard to address this by teaching those fundamentals, I suspect the issue isn’t uncommon. If students need to educate themselves, we need to provide creative examples and better resources for learning design fundamentals.


But, the issue Justin raised is more nuanced than simply expecting product designers to need to know, or want to know, colour theory, typography, or layout design. In Justin’s original tweet and throughout my response, I’ve used the term “product designer” as if it’s a clearly defined term with an even clearer set of responsibilities. The reality is very different.

While interviewing candidates recently, some people referred to product design mainly in terms of user research, customer journeys, system design, and user testing. Other candidates had a broader definition which included the aspects of design that Justin is looking for. Finding candidates with solid user-experience design skills and visual design talent is difficult, so the solution must be a collaboration between people who possess a broad range of complementary skills and are keen to work together.

“Did we atomic-design-system and product-manager-skills a generation out of having them?”

I don’t think we did. Atomic design methodologies, design systems, and product management are just tools. They didn’t create the problem that Justin—or anyone else who recruits designers—faces.

What did is our failure to properly educate product designers who want to learn “great visual design and an eye for detail.” Then we conflated user-experience and visual design skills by calling the role “product design” and expect to find them both in one individual.


 
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