Crafting a design system for higher education

June 26, 2017

As a front-end developer at a University, I can see first hand why design systems can be such an integral part of an organization's communication (and marketing) strategy. This post aims to explain the reasons why large organizations, including higher education, can benefit from having a robust design system in place.

What process is like before a design system

At the University I work at, there are talented designers spread all over campus working for various departments. The offices and departments that are fortunate enough to have a designer working for them utilize their designer's talents to make flyers, PDFs, and web sites. These designers all have their own style, their own tone, and their own voice. Certain departments use Arial and Helvetica for their typography on print pieces while other departments use Whitney and Sentinel.

It doesn't take a branding expert to see why this is problematic. All parts of the communications and marketing stakeholders need to be rowing in the same direction in regards to branding.

For most other offices and departments, there are no designers on staff. This means that someone who isn't necessarily trained in web or design is now responsible for the office's web site or flyer design. Often times there aren't enough tools available for this person to create a nice web site and what ends up happening in some cases is that it becomes easier to create a Word document or InDesign file and put a link to that on their site. Or content is simply copied on to the website from a Word document.

I don't blame offices and departments around campus for doing the best they can with the limited resources they have, but there's got to be a better way...

Hypothesis: a design system can empower existing designers and lower the barrier for non-technical web editors

It's often easier to blame your web editors or departments for being difficult to work with or not technically capable. In higher ed, we seem to think we're a little special. We think we have such a unique situation that no industry solutions could possibly work. Often times this leads to a web team trying to support all their institution's web sites and all the sites look a little different and are structured a little differently. This leads to an apathetic web team who is constantly putting out fires.

To be fair, I can understand the apathy because it can seem like a dauntingly huge problem to solve. However, this doesn't seem like a sustainable solution for the long term. There needs to be a process, a plan, in place that allows for quickly building a branded website within the organization. It needs to be so easy that an intern, administrative assistant, or anyone really whose job isn't web. If it doesn't work for them, the website will fail because these are the people who are updating the website.

What if there was a way to empower existing designers in the college to all be on the same page? What if we provided tools to web editors in departments that don't have a lot of technical literacy to make their jobs as easy as possible?

The first step to answering this question is to get your ducks in a row and build a design system.

This is what we're attempting to discover at work and it's a pretty fun process! To learn more about what a design system actually is, check out my post on the matter.

After a design system is in place, developers can integrate components into whatever CMS you're using. They can also help craft editorial experiences that empowers non-technical users to create on-brand components using your CMS.