How agencies and freelancers talk about the Design Systems of their clients

At the end of last year the agency I work for did a survey into Design Systems. It’s been a while, but I finally got around to publishing the last part of that research: the agency perspective. Hope you’ll learn something new ;)

We separated the results from agency- and freelance participants from the in-house teams because of the differences in perspective. We kept those results out of our web-report, but you could’ve already found them in our PDF-version.

The stats below are based on 104 survey-participants in The Netherlands, all working freelance or in design-agencies. So let’s go!

Which Design System are we talking about?

As this chapter is about freelancers or people working for agencies, it’s pertinent to know which Design System we are talking about: a Design System for a client, or one the participants are working on for their own company.

The questions asked in the survey all relate to Design Systems the participants have worked on for their clients. When asked if their design agency has a Design System for themselves, only 32% answers ‘yes’ (29% ‘no’ and 38% ‘kind of’). The numbers are (understandably) much lower for freelance-particants: only 17% reports having their own Design System.

Feels a bit like overkill for a design agency to have their own Design System since we’re not having any own digital products apart from our own agency website. Internally brand related stuff is documented but can’t call that a design system ;)

As a freelancer I cannot profit from my own design system. I always help the client’s design system .

We are working for one design system for the company!

Note: for the analysis, participants who reported they never worked on a Design System are filtered out

Who are the participants?

There is an almost even split between participants reporting to work at an agency (58%) and those working freelance (42%). Most of the participants report “Design / UX” as their main discipline. Those working at agencies report their agencies to be between 1–10 people (27%) or 10–50 people (44%), only a small group of participants works at larger agencies (50–100: 17%, 100–500: 5%, 500+: 7%).

Interestingly, these participants list themselves on a higher experience level than those working in in-house teams. Only 42% of participants working in-house say they have 2+ years of experience versus 65% of freelance/agency-participants.

Experience with Design Systems

Most agency and freelance participants have made 2–5 Design Systems (56%), although a large portion also have made just one (24%).

Especially freelance-participants indicate having more experience: 59% of them report to have more than three years of experience with Design Systems. They also report having made more Design Systems than participants working at an agency (33% say they made more than five Design Systems, versus 11% for agency-participants).

Surprisingly, one out of four participants working at agencies report they (or their agency) have never worked on a Design System. The same is true for freelance workers. This really surprised us.

Clients don’t see the need to pay for a design system. They just want to see the product.

We’re just getting started to structure our design (approach) and are using a stylesheet at the moment (first step towards design system). But I still find it difficult to design a whole design system for clients that only want to have one simple website. Its not a product you work on over a long period so the value of making a whole design system is rather small I think

Who and why of a Design System…

Usually, the agency (or freelancer) initiates the Design System: 80% of participants say the initiative is usually with them.

The reasons for wanting a Design System seem to be similar as those reported by those working in-house:

The main differences are that these participants seem to have less eye for the motivation “UX/UI Consistency” and “Code Reusability”.

Why did you start your last Design System for a client?

We asked what the reason was the last Design System project was started. Apparently we are very much in-sync here with the global results (from the Sparkbox Survey ):

Difference between Freelance and Agency

Code reusability is much less a priority for freelance-clients, but increased efficiency in development is. Freelance-clients are more likely to struggle with consistency across (digital) products.

Design Systems in use

Although only mentioned once by participants in-house, apparently there are a lot of Design Systems maintained by external teams. Half of the freelance/agency-participants of our survey report they maintain the Design System for their client.

We are happy to see that a lot of in-house designers/developers are involved in maintaining the Design System.

it was possible to check multiple checkboxes for this question

Our first set up failed. It was not communicated clearly , developers were not able to join the process because of the deadline for the website. Now we are starting to see that code has to be rewritten in order to work in other places UI/UX has inconsistency because we redesigned some parts. So would like to try again and have the team carry it more together

We see that freelance- and agency-participants usually work on Design Systems that are updated less frequently than those of in-house teams (although the difference is minor).

Usage-statistics, however, tends to be similar to those of in-house teams:

Contents of the Design System

The contents reported by freelance- and agency-participants is amazingly similar to those reported by in-house teams. Interestingly, we see less code being reported as content in the Design System.

To the question: “what’s the most useful in day-to-day use”, these participants mention design source-files very often.

Tooling of the Design System

Sketch is also the favorite tool of this participant-group, even more than for in- house teams (71% vs 59% in-house). Design System specific tooling, like Storybook and Zeroheight, are mentioned less (eventhough Storybook is 3rd, it’s mentioned by 22% here versus 36% in-house). The same goes for Figma, which is on the 7th place here but on the 3rd place for in-house teams. Abstract is mentioned much more (only 11% of in-house teams mentioned it).

Participants working freelance or at an agency have experience with different tooling than those working in in-house teams

From Design System to production

One of the end-results of having a Design System is that code flows from the Design System into ‘production code’: the live website or application.

These numbers seem to suggest that in-house teams on the whole have less code from their Design System in production (they fall either in the category nothing or 50–75%, whereas agency/freelance are more in the 25–50 or 75+ category).

However, these numbers are very different for in-house teams with a Design System older than a year. Given the experience agencies and freelance report with Design Systems we would expect their numbers to correspond more with those numbers. One possible conclusion is that participants working freelance or at agencies are working on younger Design Systems.

This is an area where freelance participants are reporting to run behind those working in agencies (although they report to have more experience with Design Systems): freelance participants are more likely to be in the category 10–50% of production code is from the Design System, whereas those working in agencies are more likely to be in the category 50–100%.

Trials and tribulations

A large part of participants from agencies/freelance positions see the Design Systems they work on as not successful (37% answers ‘no’ to the question).

The main reasons are: adoption and available time (“we cannot sell it”). Those that do see the Design System as successful report the several positive outcomes: a unified way of working (“It brings together development and design as one process”), avoiding redundancy and it helps with on boarding.

The team should advocate working with this. It has been though to get time for it.

Maybe because I’m often in the process of building up the design system in a short period of time and team members who have a lot of other priorities . Also with getting adoption in the organization is hard in this fase. Development and designers still see it as something they have to do, puts on restrictions rather than freedom for creativity, cost time rather than. It needs a lot of time to let design system be the status quo and to show that it will be worth it in the end.

Lest we forget, the experience is positive for most people:

It provides in consistency and efficiency . It’s also easier to get new or temporally designers on board.

Struggles with respect to Design Systems

We asked participants what the main struggles are with Design Systems, freelancers and agency-people mainly report maintenance (63%) and adoption (50%) difficulties. This is different from in-house participants: although both indicate these as the top problems, in-house participants report less. Furthermore, in-house participants focus more on people/process problems than non-in-house participants.

With ‘maintenance’, the participants usually mean that documentation or design files are not up to date with what is used online. With that in mind, three of the top difficulties for agencies are related to tooling or content whereas most problem for in- house teams relate to people.

Clients don’t know what it is and are not sure what value it brings them.

What would you do differently if you could start over with your Design System?

Both types of participant (in-house versus freelance/agency) name “involving more people earlier” as the top thing they would do differently, if they could start over with their Design System. What’s different is that the freelance/agency participants name a focus on quality much more (37% versus 25% for in-house) as well as the different technology decisions (27% versus 16% in-house).

involve Angular developers early on . Now they seem like an add-on

Execute Design System from A to Z . More focus on tooling, implementation and governance

The difference in perception between being in-house and being on the outside

Looking at the results above, we can see there is a difference in perception of problems related to Design Systems between those working in-house and those “on the outside”. In-house teams overall seem to see more problems related to content and tooling, then people or process.

Best tip

Agencies and freelancers focus on getting the team right and communication as well. Just as with organizations there is the split between “just do it and start small” (18%) and take your time and do research (11%).

Some people offer some words of warning…

Only use it when you need it. Some organizations don’t need it. And if you’re deciding to use it, then make it work.

Not every company needs one! Only for it projects that want to ship, test fast and get customer feedback fast.

… but most people are very positive about Design Systems:

Go and do it! Even a simple component library with text and color styles works wonders for creating more consistent design way faster!

If you’re new to DS’s start from scratch with a DS for a new project / product to hit the ground running and don’t overcomplicate things by reworking a DS into an existing one.

Don’t specify everything, leave room for it to evolve

Execute Design System from A to Z . More focus on tooling, implementation and governance

So get going with your Design System!

Published before on Medium