I love this entire post from Dave, which matches my experience helping scores of organizations navigate their design system efforts. Design systems are a hard sell on their own, as Dave explains:

There’s no particular “hair on fire” problem that design systems solve that instantly sells to management.

It’s really only through what Dave calls “Event Triggers” that organizations perk up and pay attention to the value that design systems can bring:

In Dungeons & Dragons and other action economies there’s a concept of “Event Triggers”. For example, a treasure chest looks like a normal treasure chest but turns into a monster when you try to open it. An event (opening the chest) exposed a problem (a monster) and now you need a solution (might and magic) to solve the problem. Design systems are a similar mechanic because the problems they solve are almost theoretical until you trigger an event.

Here’s some event triggers I’ve come across in my years of design systems work…

  • Marketing commissioned a new logo, brand, and design language
  • Oh, those brand updates rolling out in TV commercials next month
  • Oh, and we’re launching a new line of hardware tablet devices
  • The great re-platforming initiative
  • An accessibility lawsuit
  • A font license lawsuit
  • Good design, poor code implementation
  • Interface inventory reveals 60 different buttons and 12 site headers
  • The CEO gets fired and you need to remove his face from the entire site
  • 10 designers with high autonomy and no design review process
  • 10 engineers with high autonomy and no design review on code changes
  • One department with more autonomy than the other because it “makes the money”
  • Company wholesaled the entire off-shore team and 150 new people start next week
  • A year of heavy turnover and the time bomb of technical debt goes off

Getting buy-in for design system as a standalone thing can be incredibly challenging, so riding the wave of other “hair on fire” issues can be a great way to bot address urgent issues and put critical front-end infrastructure in place. As my partner Josh Clark recently shared in his post Digital Leadership In Lean Times:

Position your work as asset creation, not operational expense. This is not only better accounting, but better storytelling: “we’re creating value, not a cost center.” It means that the company understands your digital organization as a builder of enduring, profit-generating machinery. The design system you build for savings and efficiency becomes more than an operational artifact: it is a platform. It is critical front-end infrastructure and a financial asset of enduring value.