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Design Systems in Dangerous Places

Mark Boulton speaking at Milton Keynes Geek Night in March, 2017
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About this talk

Mark will talk about design system failures. Design systems that tried to grow in toxic environments, and great companies that just didn’t need one.


Thank you. Dangerous places, so I'm not going to talk about like design systems in Syria or Cardiff on a Saturday night. But I am gonna talk a little bit about Manchester. This is Manchester, it's where I'm from, Manchester. It's like this all the time, it's black and white. It snows, there's a wall and wildlings. I have a theory that the reason why great music comes from the Northwest, from places like Liverpool and Manchester is because it's like this all the time, and people are just inside, with a guitar in the corner. Now so when I was about, I don't know, 12 or something, I was allowed out of the house and I had to go into Manchester with friends and around that time in the 80s we, you know, it was grim, it was pretty grim, Manchester in the 80s. And we took a lot of drugs as a result, and around that kind of culture there was, um, well it all led down to this fella with the most amazing hair and spectacles you will ever see. This is Antony H. Wilson. He started out on Granada TV just being called Tony Wilson and as he got more serious about himself he changed his name. It kind of elongated. He was like on a moor, talking to some farmer about his sheep, that's how I first remember him. Now he was a TV presenter but he also founded Factory Records. And you may recognise some of these bands and the art work around them. Now this stuff was everywhere in Manchester. Whenever I'd go there as a kid I didn't really notice it but it was on every lamppost, every corner, there was artwork like this literally everywhere. And you grow up and you kind of absorb this visual culture. Maybe Milton Keynes has a visual culture over the years that many of you have absorbed unconsciously, who knows? But anyway, I did in Manchester, right, and this is kind of, the reason I'm telling you this is how I see design systems. Design systems, many of you might think of them as patent libraries because they're ever-so-trendy right now. But design systems have been around now for bloody ages, and they are the DNA of, all of this stuff was really the visual DNA of Manchester over a particular time. It seeps in, right? You don't realise it until sometimes it comes out in your work. There's this underlying DNA, and what I like to thingness. I think this might be a word, not sure, but it's this intangible stuff that makes up a brand, really. How it's visually shown, how it's talked about, how it's represented in physical form and digital form, and other forms, thingness. Okay, so that's one, that, I just wanted to talk about that as to what I mean when I say design systems. I don't mean a patent library, I mean thingness. Okay, now I'm gonna talk about Bradley Wiggins. So, this is Bradley Wiggins, it's from awhile ago. Now you've probably all heard of the drugs that he took, no, you probably already heard about marginal gains, right? Who's heard of marginal gains? Right, okay, so marginal gains is actually not a cycling thing, it's a management technique that Dave Brailsford stole and popularised. What it means is that, so in professional cycling depending on what source you read, Team Sky said, "We're gonna win the Tour de France "in five years, and we're gonna do it clean." And everyone in the room when ha ha ha, all the Italians. So because the difference between cyclists who took drugs and cyclists who didn't take drugs was about 15 to 19% difference in time, depending on the source you read. Now that is a massive margin in professional sport, right? It's huge. And they did it in three years, and they did it by marginal gains, the aggregation of marginal gains, by looking at every aspect of a system and making tiny, tiny improvements everywhere, right? Now if you think about that applied to thingness, the opposite is also true, which is marginal degradation. Right, so here's a quiz for you. Now we share a lot of DNA with gorillas, right? Anyone like to hazard a guess as to how much? Almost right, 98.4, very good. Now how about goldfish? We share a lot of DNA with goldfish. 68%, now, how much do you think we share our DNA with bananas? 50%, um, so that is, particularly for gorillas, if you think about the thingness of a system and a brand, 1.6% might be a reasonable degradation for leaders of an organisation to happen to their brand. But the difference between us in this room and her there, it's quite a big difference, right? So anyway, I'd like you to hold those two things kind of in your head for the next however long I'm gonna talk for. It could be 20 minutes, it could be 40 minutes. I'm looking at David who is starting to twitch. Right, so the design systems in dangerous places is kind of a follow-up to a talk I gave last year which was Difficult Places, and I defined difficult places as places to organisations where they were distributed so there were many brands and many places where those brands were, either physical or silo teams, they were devolved so those teams that were siloed were autonomous, maybe they have their own profit and loss, maybe they were motivated and rewarded for being autonomous, and they were degrading so there was no central kind of branding purpose. There was no given kind of direction. So that's what I meant by difficult. But I think dangerous goes a step beyond that which is all of those other things and unsupported, so there's absent multi-level support, meaning everyone from the CEO to where you are. Is what you're doing or the system understood and supported at every level? FUD, so lots of fear, uncertainty, and doubt, and that happens a lot at all levels, I've found. And responsibility, and this, a design system has to be someone's job, it's not something that just magically happens by accident. It has to be purposeful. So let's just go through a few of those and a few, um, that's really low! It's not so bad on my slides but it's really low. For those of you who can't see, it says unsupported. A few examples of design systems I've done over the years which were unsupported, and how I got them adopted, not me in particular, there was a lot of other people involved, but what I've found that has really, really helped is to create a model that dents peoples' brains, because it's very simple, and which they can understand the value of a system, of a design system. So the first was CERN, and we worked with CERN, god, years ago now, like four or five years ago. And we designed their design system. Dan who ran the web team there, he called me one day. I thought it was a prank, he was like, um, "Hi, it's Dan from CERN," I'm like, right. And he said, "Yeah, we'd like you to help us "redesign our website because we've got an announcement "coming up that's gonna change or understanding "of the universe, "and we need your help." I was like, maybe this isn't a prank. Anyway, well, a long story short, this is a three year project. CERN is a place where people don't give a shit about design, at all. They care about the physics, rightly so. You can remember the Higgs announcement, that it was all in Comic Sans and little hand-clapping GIFs. You know, they're announcing the most important scientific message probably ever, or at least, you know, for a long, long, time, and they've got hand-clapping GIFs. Anyway, so what we did was, all these are like, theoretical physicists, experimental physicists, they're so into the science. They don't really care. They're operating on a whole other level of understanding than you and I, my kids in school, you know, and everybody else. So we had to make them try and understand that. So we used this thing called the wonder scale which was based upon the fact that NASA's got it really easy because astronauts, space, planets, whereas CERN has got weird men and plumbing, and it's really hard to understand what they do. So what we did through a lot of research was we made this graph, and whenever we created content we did it based on this, and everybody from the Director General to the content teams, they all got this because it was simple and it dented their brain. So the idea being that scientists, wonder is the stuff that NASA, ooh, ooh, shiny, the public, general public loves that. They love pretty pictures but don't give me science because I don't get it! Scientists is the inverse. They hate pretty pictures, don't talk to me like an idiot, and they just want data and maths and science, and then they kind of converge in the middle. So that was simple enough to get the system off the ground. The most important thing about all of these is that it answers a very interesting question around trying to implement systems, design systems, which is how is this thing supposed to look? And the reason that's interesting is because everybody likes to be creative and break systems. It's naturally what designers, it's naturally what humans do. Nobody likes playing by the rules and they wanna do something different. So the idea is to create a system that is fluid enough to allow people to be creative, but to do it based on a map that goes back to data so the people in the suits with their spreadsheets can make that leap. So another one we did was Al Jazeera. This was trying to get a bunch of stuffy journalists to realise how news actually happens. A lot of journalists at the time when we worked with them thought that news, they'd create a long-form, beautifully-written story with a beginning and a middle and an end, and characters and you know, all of that good stuff that journalists like, whereas news is just really bloody messy. And not only that, but stories evolve squiggly. They don't go from little story to a big story, they go all over the place. There's a really great quote from somebody from, I think it was from Disney, the guy said that metadata is the art direction. He was just talking about the fact that pulling together content from many, many, many different sources is the way that we can create meaningful stories. I mean, that's kind of played out over the last few years. He was spot on. So, for Al Jazeera it was called The Queen Is Dead, and the idea being that the design system had to be malleable enough to deal with a number of different scenarios. And we created this thing, you know, a quadrant, everyone loves a quadrant graph, right? Breaking news to mature news, not an important story to important story. And you can map a story on here and then the system should determine how it looks, so it cuts out that kind of subjectivity. In monotype we have the solar system, some squiggles from our whiteboard, but basically this is a way to allow, so we have our core corporate brand which is right in the middle, and the rules around how we talk about that and how that looks are very rigid, rightly so, because we don't wanna dilute the core brand. As we go further and further out to affiliates and partners and lots of things in between, they come with their own set of criteria, their own set of rules. So it's just, again, this is a bunch of full circles. The thing is, right, now a lot of this is to get executives to get what we're talking about, because a lot of them don't, I'll come on to tell you that in a minute. These people, you need their support because design systems impact so many areas of an organisation, from branding and marketing to product, to you know, all over the place. And at some point that's gonna start affecting numbers, either positively or negatively, and these guys and women look at numbers, and we need to help them make a leap from their spreadsheets into our world. And the fact is that they look at these kind of diagrams all day long. So for Monotype we kind of established our baseline. We have a patent library but most importantly we made some tools. I'll come on to talk about that in a second, as well. So how do you go about, how do you go about getting a design system through a place that is unsupported and difficult? And in fact, kind of dangerous because it's sometimes nigh on impossible to get that done. So don't convince, it shouldn't be your job to go on and, I didn't wanna come across as kind of moaning and ranting, but I might. It's not, it's basically all I've been doing for three years is moaning and ranting and raving and trying to convince people that a design system is the way to go. And I shouldn't have had to have done it, really. We make a model that describes how things look because people will always be creative, and we create tools that make people's lives easier. So throughout all of those three examples, what we did is we audited a lot of processes where people were doing really repetitive things, where people were breaking the rules, where people were breaking systems, and then what we tried to do is make a tool that makes that easier and put it in the workflow, and surreptitiously put the design system in there, as well. And that's worked out very well. So fear, uncertainty, and doubt. People really don't like systems, design systems, particularly designers. They say they do but they really don't. It makes them twitch because a number of things. One, they think that they're gonna be hand-tied. They think, well why am I even here, if all I'm doing is following a set of prescribed rules? Some people actually, my experience is that they, what the fear and doubt are symptoms of, concern that you might expose their weaknesses. So if a design system is created by a really great, you know, skunk works team, highly-skilled, highly-talented, it doesn't mean that the rest of the organisation is. If you, you know, you build this thing using, you know, gruntand all of these other kind of, I don't know, a whole bunch of stuff that's, you know, the way that things are being done. It doesn't mean that the rest of the organisation is gonna be on board with that, but they're not gonna tell you that. They're just gonna keep on pecking away and making your life difficult because of this. Now I mentioned executives. I don't mean to gripe on about executives but it's really, uh, my experience is this, your own experience may be different. What my experience is that executives don't understand or care about design systems, or even just remove the word systems there. Because A, why should they, it's not really their job. Their job is to look at, you know, guide, strategically guide an organisation or you know, make X amount of profit, make rich people richer, that kind of stuff. So why should they care? Because of thingness. And that's the challenge that I've had over the last, I don't know, 10 years really, is trying to explain what thingness is and why it matters, and it's really hard to draw straight lines from something that's that abstract to cash, or shareholders, or that kind of stuff. There's this really great quote. The other one off the telly who hung around with Alan Titchmarsh, I can't remember her name, she was a gardener and she said this, and I thought this was brilliant. Because she talked about, she was being interviewed, no, it's not Charlie and it's not the one who talks like that. I can't remember her name either, but she's like that really gravelly voice from Bolton or something. It's not her. It's a rather rotund lady, I can't remember her name. Anyway, they were being interviewed at the Chelsea Flower Show or something and she was talking about all these fancy-pants garden designers doing you know, twatty things with steel and stuff, and she's a gardener, right? And so she just says, "You've got to spend your time with your hands in the dirt!" I thought, that's brilliant! Absolutely priceless, because she's right, and this is what executives don't get, I think, is that in order for a design system to thrive it's like a garden. You can't just like plant stuff in soil and expect it to grow. You need to know what the soil is and then you need to tend it, you need to care for it over time, not just like, plant it and go, right, let's see how that works and just stand back and watch it, don't even bother watering it. Design systems, thingness in an organisation takes an absolute shed-load of commitment, care, love, and attention, and all those great things that get me out of bed in the morning as a designer. So last thing I'm gonna talk about is responsibility. Really, what I mean to say is giving a shit. So when I ran an agency it was easier not to give a shit, because I could sack a client or I could walk away, or at the end of the day I got paid, I moved on to the next job. You know, you can suck it up for a little while, right? And just get paid and move on. Being in-house is a different kettle of fish. When I started out work in advertising, oh god, don't throw things at me! It was mostly crap, right? Advertising is just full of, is there anyone in advertising in here? No, good, right, okay. It's kind of a broken industry in many ways but there's one thing that's really great about it is that when you, an ad agency pitches for business, they don't win a project they win an account, and that account is based on time generally, or it used to be. It was based on, okay, you pitch for the Adidas account and you get the Adidas account for three years, and it's a commitment from the client to you and from you to the client, right? And you've got three years to learn, know, and understand the business. So in the web industry, particularly, it's totally different. We pitch for projects, and that kinda sucks because you don't get enough time to learn. You don't get enough time to get a common bond, and as a result I honestly don't think the work could be as good as it could be. If you have a longer-term relationship with a client, I'm talking one, two, three years, great work comes with that. So the point being, so when Kevin Spacey, I'm jumping around a bit here. Kevin Spacey, when he took around House of Cards, right, and he took it around all the studios, the usual way of getting TV commissioned in Hollywood, still is that you go and pitch a pilot and in that pilot you have to establish all of the characters, the plot, the sub-plot, you have to have a cliffhanger, you to have blah, the love triangle, you know, all of this kind of thing in 40 minutes plus ad breaks. And he was like, "I'm not doing that, it's ridiculous." So the reason why he said this was that he needed time for the story to play out, and that's like responsibility and giving a shit in an organisation. You're not gonna do this kind of stuff overnight, you're gonna have to commit and it's gonna take a year, two years, three years, and it really is a marathon and not a sprint. Lisa Reichelt is a good friend of mine. She drew this brilliant diagram of her mental model. I'm just gonna leave you a little while to get that. It's great, so I'll walk you through it. So, new mental model for giving a shit. Doesn't care enough, cares too much, and there's this growing space of effectiveness in the middle, until the zone of crazy. There, and that's where you're ineffective. I think this is just so insightfully brilliant, and I find myself quite a lot skirting this line here, well actually kind of like this, zone of crazy, ineffective, zone of crazy. And it led me to, I just wanna share with you a little, like, mental model that has really helped me over the last year, and I'm gonna finish on this. I'm only gonna be like two minutes. So you've probably seen, has anyone seen this? The circles of concern and circles of influence? So it's from a book called the seven, you must have heard of this book, right, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Right, argh, yeah, the book is a load of old gobbledy nonsense, except this, well, I thought it was nonsense. But I thought this was great. So the idea here is that you have a circle of concern and that is stuff you are concerned about but you can't change, like Brexit or Donald Trump or global warming, or the school curriculum or you know, big stuff that you're like, oh, this is rubbish, reading this every day, but you actually can't do anything about it. And then you've got the stuff that you are concerned about but you have influence over, right, that's in the middle. Now I found working on projects and working in-house that sometimes this happens, it's that your circle of concern gets massive and you're just running around being concerned about everything, and you can't actually change anything. You have, your circle of influence actually, because the more you get bothered about this, the more you get pissed off and annoy people and you know, make yourself unpopular, this happens. This shrinks down and shrinks down and shrinks down and your influence becomes much, much less. Now recently I, so how you begin to feel is that you can just swap these words out, really. You just worry about a load of stuff and the thing in the middle just seems like, too much or so much effort. So you can flip this around and look at it more positively, which is kind of try not to worry, and that's, I really put in the word try there. It's easy to say, "Don't worry." That's the most annoying thing anyone can say to you, right? "Don't worry," shut up! Try not to worry, and is it worth the effort? And if it is, then you focus on that and it means that you end up just focusing in this little circle here, and you kinda, you know, I'm not saying you forget about that stuff but it becomes less relevant. And then over time what happens is that that little circle grows. Isn't that nice? Right, this is Bruce Lee, and he, I don't know if you know Bruce Lee, but of course you know Bruce Lee! You know Bruce Lee. Well anyway, right, he injured his back really badly at one point and he had six months off. He had to have surgery, he was in a back brace and everything. He wrote a book called The Tao of Jeet Kune Do and it was kind of his thoughts about martial arts and about how he was actually against systems and the systems of martial arts. If you're at all interested, I recommend reading it because not only was Bruce Lee a film star and a martial artist and whatnot, he was a philosophy major, so there's some very cool stuff in there. It's very interesting. But he, I'm gonna leave you with one quote because I hate, sometimes I hate watching people get up and tell me how to do things, and I take a lot from this quote, which is, "Use only that which works, "and take it from any place you can find it." Just be open, that's really it. Thank you very much.