Growing design systems

Looking to boost the impact of a design system? Then I might be the person you’re looking for. I’ve worked collaboratively to advance two design systems, at organizations with more than 50,000 employees.

When developed with the right intent and strategy, a design system can strengthen an organization’s products sustainably. They’re also a great place to build documentation, solve big complex problems, and set a minimum level for web accessibility.

Here’s 3 ways I can help design system teams:

Past experience

I have been immersed in the design systems practice for over 4 years now. I’ve experienced both the exciting, rapid start of a new design system and the slow, methodical growth of a mature design system.

Here’s what I’ve done during my time working on design systems.

GOV.UK Design System

Timeline: January 2022 to November 2023

In 2022, I made the leap across the pond (moved to the UK) and joined the GOV.UK Design System team. This world-class and relatively mature design system brought with it new challenges and new opportunities. As the senior accessibility specialist, my work and accountabilities included anything related to web accessibility.

Instead of a rapid-paced production of ‘good enough’ components, the GOV.UK Design System mainly focused on something a bit slower and more elusive: finding the right answer to complex frontend design questions. For that reason, a lot of the work I was a part of lasted months, but the end result is well-considered and solid updates.

I worked with every team member, across many disciplines, to improve web accessibility.

I worked as a core contributor for creating and updating several components, including character count, exit this page, and pagination.

I also provided web accessibility support for updates to the accordion, summary list, task list and checkboxes components.

Projects I led and co-led include an accessibility strategy, WCAG 2.2 updates, procuring an accessibility audit of our codebase, and updates to the accessibility statement.

Ontario Design System

Timeline: June 2019 to January 2022

In 2019 I joined the newly-founded Ontario Design System product team. I was brought on as a user experience (UX) specialist and to contribute my deep knowledge of the Ontario Government’s flagship website,

I was a principal contributor for several of the ‘basics’ style elements, including the fonts, colours, layout grid, images, and the use of scalable vector graphics (SVG) for icons.

I also was directly involved in component development, including for alerts and highlights, buttons, headers, footers, tables, and more.

Managing complex projects

While a design system is made up of various styles, components and patterns, a design system product team’s work goes beyond simply working on those elements individually. Building and maintaining a design system requires complex planning and project management.

What I bring

I can offer a useful combination of leadership skills and past experience, to help guide design system teams that are undertaking a complex project:

  • project management, including for the GOV.UK Design System’s WCAG 2.2 update
  • team leadership, including my time as team lead for web editing on
  • broad design knowledge, including past roles in content design, web accessibility, and user experience
  • work well with developers and have strong technical skills, including HTML, CSS, ARIA, search engine optimization and image formats

Contributing to a design system

When starting up a new design system, it can be challenging to bring together just the right mix of organizational knowledge and design system expertise. Having one without the other brings risks. It’s possible to end up with a shiny new design system that doesn’t fit the needs of the teams who use it, or with a collection of relevant guidance, designs and code that never quite come together into a design system.

What I bring

I have contributed to both new and longstanding design systems, and bring skills that can help round out a team’s expertise:

  • advanced web accessibility knowledge, tailored to design systems
  • experience building the ‘basics’ needed to give a design system a solid start, including typography, colours, form elements, and more
  • comfort working in agile teams
  • a warm personality 😊

Enhancing web accessibility

Web accessibility is the right thing to do, and a design system is exactly the right place to do it. A design system that is baseline accessible is a huge benefit to the teams using it.

Those teams can then spend less time worrying about the basics, and instead focus on accessibility issues that are unique to their products.

And hey, more accessible products means that more people can use them.

In Canada, 27% of people over the age of 15 have at least one disability (Statistics Canada). In the United States, up to 27% of adults have some type of disability (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). And in the UK, 24% of people report having a disability (UK National Statistics).

What I bring

My main skill set is web accessibility. Why not bring that skill set onto your design system team?

I have worked on improving design system accessibility through:

  • manual accessibility testing for components
  • facilitating accessible usability testing sessions with people who use assistive technologies
  • promoting web accessibility within a design system’s community
  • working with designers to incorporate accessibility in the design process
  • pairing with developers to improve code accessibility
  • supporting product managers to plan web accessibility work