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Design Systems, UI Kits, and Style Guides. You may have heard these terms being thrown around whenever branding is brought up, and they perhaps bring up more questions than answers. What’s the difference between the three? Are they interchangeable? Which will be best for you and your organization?

Before we jump into that, let’s imagine you’ve just bought one of those popular furniture-in-a-box chairs to go in your empty living room. In this example, the Style Guide is your instructional manual, your UI Kit holds the tools and parts you need to actually build the chair, and the Design System is how you decorate the rest of your room based on those first decisions. 

A Style Guide informs the UI Kit which in turn informs the Design System. All three topics aren’t interchangeable, but are closely related. 

Let’s take them in order. 

Style Guides 

A Style Guide conveys the visual style and associated principles of the UI. Style Guides tend to be slightly more overarching and brand-oriented than UI Kits, and often include documentation that helps drive further design decisions down the line, such as the types of imagery to use and the voice and tone behind the content. 

They are typically assembled by one or more designers with input from a front-end developer on issues like accessibility. While ideally built for longer-term use, they can change over time if an organization chooses to refresh their brand.

A typical style guide contains principles and usage guidelines for:

  • Accessibility 
  • Colors
  • Icons
  • Imagery
  • Layout & Spacing
  • Logos & Branding
  • Typography
  • Voice & Tone

UI Kits 

A UI Kit is a collection of assets used to establish the user interface of a digital product and can be static or coded. When coded, they are often referred to as Component Libraries. UI Kits differ from Style Guides in that they are more tactical and tend to relate directly to the specific components found in a product’s interface. 

A good example would be form elements: a UI Kit will contain the default states of every possible form component in addition to its focused and active states, plus how it should be treated in situations with errors. 

UI Kits are generally assembled by one or more designers and vetted by front-end developers. For Component Libraries, front-end developers will essentially code the designed UI Kit as the single source of truth for developing the application.

UI Kits outline and demonstrate features including:

  • Accordions & Tabs
  • Buttons & Controls
  • Custom Components
  • Dialogs & Banners
  • Icons
  • Interaction Examples or Guidelines
  • Interface Themes
  • Inputs & Text Fields
  • Navigation
  • Tables
  • Templates & Views
  • Typography Applied

What is a Design System?

A Design System is a centralized set of components, patterns, and principles that work together to provide a single source of truth and efficiency for those designing and developing digital products at scale. It is typically multidisciplinary and covers content, design, and development. A successful Design System is reusable, robust, well-documented, and often contains the following: 

  • All the elements of a Style Guide and UI Kit
  • Organized, coded components, including updates and revisions 

Who benefits from a Design System? 

Design Systems can provide value to everyone within an organization. Essentially, it acts as a single source of truth for product and design, and can be leveraged across multiple departments. 

A robust Design System eliminates miscommunication between departments, and does three crucial things: 

  1. It creates helpful guidelines for content producers .
  2. It offers examples and documentation of visual assets to help designers streamline their workflow.
  3. It houses coded components for developers to use in order to save time and effort while maintaining consistency.

For every stakeholder, a Design System provides ease of access to a central reference for collaboration across the product teams—and the promise of scalability should the system need to evolve for increasing breadth or complexity over time.

When managed appropriately, everyone who uses the Design System will also be notified of changes or updates, ensuring consistency across the brand. For example, if a team member introduces a new component or changes something about an existing one, all team members will receive the update from the design system, keeping everyone in sync.

And there you have it! A Style Guide informs the UI Kit which in turn informs the Design System. While a ll three topics aren’t really interchangeable, they are closely related. 

If you’re a smaller organization or just getting started with branding, we’d suggest starting with a Style Guide. From there, a UI Kit and Design System will come more organically. If you know you need a Design System , or are looking for a more complex Design System, we can show you how to build one , or build one that meets your every needs .

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