Crafting a design system for higher education

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. If the developers are any good, they can also help craft editorial experiences that empowers non-technical users to create on-brand components using your CMS.

What’s the difference between style guides, pattern libraries, and design systems?

In my organization, we’re trying to implement an integrated marketing plan which will be helped along greatly by a sound design system. In order to implement this properly, a shared vocabulary needed to be created so we could be sure we were referring to the same thing. In this post I do my best to explain the terms style guides (editorial and visual), pattern libraries, and design systems.

What a design system consists of
What a design system consists of

A design system forces your organization to think about people and process before a technology solution is introduced.

I think there is a lot of confusion over what exactly a design system is. In my handy Venn diagram, I’ve included what I think a design system consists of. Note that the size of the circles don’t correspond to importance.

Principles are your organization’s foundational ideas that your editorial style guide, visual style guide, and pattern library will live by. These are the ideas that ideally should be running through your organization and be expressed in the style guides and pattern library.

For our design system, I’ve taken this area a bit further and aim to include our main governance policies for our most strategic sites and marketing assets. Most of the principles will be abstract concepts, but some specificity certainly can’t hurt and can provide the organization with a public facing place to review web policies. This is especially important for large, decentralized organizations.

Editorial style guide is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the preferred editorial style for web writing. Including things like whether to use AM/PM or a.m./p.m. when referring to time as well as agreed upon vocabulary for the institution make an editorial style guide useful. If some sites are using “dorms” and some sites are using “residence halls” to describe on-campus housing, a standard should be picked and added to the editorial style guide. Overall voice and tone is also an important piece of an editorial style guide.

Visual style guide is what most designers would call a “branding guide” back in the day. Well crafted branding guides would typically include some editorial guidelines, including voice and tone, whereas a visual style guide only focuses on the core visual pieces of an institution. Items like logo usage, colors, color combinations, typography, and spacing are pillars of a visual style guide. These are the areas of the brand that won’t often change and should be referred to often. To use Brad Frost’s analogy of the store front/workshop, this is the store front. The pattern library is the workshop.

Pattern library is where all the components that are available live. Ideally these patterns are created using the core tenets of the visual style guide such as proper spacing, typography, and colors. A pattern library is far more dynamic than the visual style guide. The web is never finished, new needs are always being created, and therefore new patterns may need to be created to serve those needs. Pattern libraries are where designers can go for inspiration and download code samples. Pattern libraries are where the rubber meets the road in your design system.

You may notice in my Venn diagram above, that I have the visual and editorial style guides overlapping with the pattern library. It is because it’s impossible to completely separate patterns from visual style and editorial style.

Your pattern library is a place where stakeholders can see the fruits of the design system in action. If there are strong editorial and visual guidelines, a pattern library can really shine and stakeholders can see components that can be used across the organization that comply with the brand.