On Design Systems with Özlem Gürsoy-Bozkurt

On Design Systems with Özlem Gürsoy-Bozkurt

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Call me a digital nomad. This week, I'm working remotely, from a location I won't disclose yet. (If you're curious, you should follow our YouTube channel for the reveal.)

As digital nomads, we get to immerse in diverse cultures, and that's great. But even better is how we get to hang out and collaborate with different people.

This week, I've had the pleasure of co-living with a couple of my closest friends, who also happen to be in the design and tech industries. Allow me to introduce one of them to you: Özlem Gürsoy-Bozkurt.

Özlem is a product designer and mentor, with a decade of experience in visioning and crafting digital solutions. She has designed for startups, global enterprises, and government institutions, in both hands-on and leadership roles.

In a late-night conversation with Özlem by the pool at our Airbnb, I suddenly realized how she's a perfect mentor for the Design Disciplin community. So we turned on the voice notes and let it flow.

As a senior designer, what advice do you find yourself giving to juniors most often?

Respect the design system.

Every company has their own design system. Many of my clients use principles of atomic design, or adopt a framework like Material Design. And each company has their particular implementation of those principles – hundreds of variations out there, specific to each company.

Design systems are built and looked after by lead designers (or design system teams). Unfortunately, in many companies, communication between leads and junior designers is not great. Occasionally they might have one-on-ones. But more often, juniors talk to seniors, and seniors talk to leads.

Because of this, many juniors end up not being adequately familiar with and committed to the design system.

What can lead designers do, so that their design system is used properly?

You really have to keep maintaining and nourishing your design system.

The lead designer, or whoever is responsible for the design system, should organize and chair frequent design system meetings. Most often, the cadence of these was every two weeks, at the larger companies I've worked with.

All designers – graphic designers, UI designers, UX designers, marketing communication designers – should be called to these meetings. Others from the org – like developers or marketers – can also be called, so they can ask questions and develop their awareness of how design works.

If there are changes made to the design system, these meetings are the place to bring them to people's attention. And when there are no changes, the meeting is an opportunity where you can educate your colleagues to use the system effectively.

When junior designers are hired, they receive the design system as part of their onboarding. But the junior receives a lot of information in the onboarding process. So they might overlook important aspects of the design system. In fact, they overlook very frequently.

That said, even though looking after the design system is the job of a more experienced designer, by fully appreciating and really working with design systems, juniors could become much more effective in their roles. This is the way.

Many companies don't have and don't need a design system. Are design systems really that important?

Most companies that hire full time designers are not small companies. They have achieved a certain level of size and maturity.

My estimation is that more than half of software designers, more likely two thirds of them, find jobs at companies where some semblance of a design system is in use.

In many industries, even early stage startups may require design systems and UX processes due to complexity. In fintech, there are companies with 300-400 people that are still considered early startups. I've had a client in legal tech where the company employed more than 1000 people, and still called itself an early stage startup. Many industries and projects innately have high complexity, and complexity requires high design maturity.

What are your favorite design systems that we can learn from?

I really like Atlassian's Design System and IBM's Carbon Design System.

And Google's Material Design is used in practice by many companies out there. Startups often adopt Material Design wholesale to build their early products, and many of the design systems I built for companies have been based on Material Design as their foundation.

What books do you recommend for designers to level up?

I'm partial to O'Reilly's books. Straight from my Kindle:

Mehmet Aydın Baytaş

Mehmet Aydın Baytaş


Mehmet is the founder of Design Disciplin. He has been designing and building since 2005, and spent 10 years as academic computer scientist and design researcher.