Choosing a name for your design system

In what I hope becomes a series, I’ve been recording myself as I drive home from dropping my daughter off at school. Shifting away from more heady topics like AI’s impact on design and development, I felt like talking about the importance of choosing a name for your design system. Give it a listen:

What’s in a name?

When we say “design systems create a shared language”, a lot hinges on creating agreement on the specific names for things. We can talk about many many many different aspects of naming across the design system universe, but for now let’s stick with the formal name of a design system, such as Material Design, Lightning Design System, Carbon Design System, or everyone’s favorite Polaris (please don’t use Polaris; it’s played out now).

There are many benefits of choosing a formal name for your design system:

  • A helpful shorthand – A design system’s name is its brand name, and that name becomes a shorthand that encapsulates and embodies what the whole effort is about.
  • Mitigates confusion – many organizations have different permutations and generations of design systems floating around. Having a name that is distinct from “our company’s design system” can really helps clarify things. A design system called Splat allows people to say “Splat’s design tokens”, “Splat’s accordion”, and so on.
  • Creates a global namespace – Having a distinct global namespace for a design system is really important: it prevents collisions with non-design system code, creates a useful web component namespace, unlocks the ability to measure adoption, and more. So if the name is Splat, you could define splat-card, splat-button, splat-accordion and so on in CSS and code.
  • Helps with marketing efforts – a brand name for the design system helps disseminate it around the organization. It can be helpful, exciting, and fun to have a real product name floating around. We’ve had clients create Christmas ornaments, t-shirts, mugs, and other swag.

How to choose a name for your design system

So how do you go about creating a name for your design system? We’ve done it a host of different ways across many organizations.

  • Someone just picks a name and rolls with it. Super straightforward but potentially myopic and problematic.
  • Brainstorming sessions within the design system team, and put things up to a vote with the team and any stakeholders.
  • Create a Slack channel dedicated to a name. We had this once and the conversation quickly devolved into obscure Greek mythology. It was funny.

However you arrive at the name, there are a few things to consider:

  • The nature of the organization – picking a clever name that is thematically aligned with the nature of the business can lead to excitement, and can also be just plain fun. We worked with PetSmart on their Sparky design system, United Airlines on their Atmos design system, Caterpillar on their Blocks design system, and many others.
  • Bureaucratic red tape – we’ve worked with a number of organizations that require legal and/or brand approval for any name. Identify those things early before you get too far down the road.
  • Roll out the name across the board – Use the name consistently. That sounds like a “no duh” point, but it can be tricky when existing Figma libraries, code repositories, and documentation are floating around. It’s really important to have those existing assets to adopt the new language, even if it means having to release a breaking change.
  • Working titles as a stop gap – If you can’t reach consensus for a name, it’s important to pick a working title so you’re not blocked from getting things done. This especially matters on the code end of things, such as picking a repository name, the global namespace in code, etc. If the name changes, a quick find-and-replace can update things, but don’t let the lack of official name prevent you from getting to work.

So that’s that! Formally name for your design system, and start using that name clearly and consistently.

I hope you find these little videos helpful. if you have any feedback, comments, suggestions, or whatever, just let me know!