Subatomic Design Systems
The following theory of “Subatomic Design Systems” is loosely based on an amalgam of existing design system theories and programming architecture approaches, including Brad Frost’s Atomic Design, Yandex’s Block-Element-Modifier, Harry Roberts’ Inverted Triangle CSS, Nicole Sullivan’s Object-Oriented CSS, and general functional programming concepts. It aims to take these practices, further abstract them so they are applicable to domains of both Design and Engineering across different mediums, and provide a framework for thinking about—rather than practical artifacts for building—design systems.
The rules of the theory are straightforward and intentionally quite loose; they are based principally on 2D digital design systems, but could easily be applied to 3D mediums such as Virtual Reality or exhibition spaces.
Above all, the distinguishing feature of Subatomic Design Systems (hereafter SDS) is the property of change through composition. These systems are designed to change over time and as an organisation or product grows—to be restrictive enough to represent a whole, but flexible enough to easily evolve and meet divergent needs.
Glossary of terms
I’ve avoided using too many indirect terms in this writing, but it may still be helpful to have a permanent reference of the terms used to define this system theory.
|Particle||The primary, lowest-level building blocks of a Subatomic Design System|
|Element||Another way of saying “composition of particles”. Loaded, and therefore avoided wherever possible.|
|Pattern||Another loaded term, but in this context meaning “complex compositions,” or compositions of compositions.|
|Composition||The combination (a.k.a. addition, merging, multiplication, applying) of particles (or other compositions) to create something new, typically an Element or a Pattern.|
Everything is a composition
In SDS, everything is a composition of the lowest-level particles of the system. In our world, the lowest-level particles are properties of color, type, line, spacing and position, time, value (or data), and function (or behaviour). Even these particles are compositions, composed only of themselves. (If you’re familiar with mathematics, you can think of particles as identity functions, the value of which is itself.) Low-level particles have no visual representation, since they are typically abstract properties. For example, even the word ‘Vegetable’ in the typeface Helvetica is a composition, and not a representation of the abstract particle of the typeface Helvetica.
By composing low-level particles, you begin to create the elements of the system that have visual form: Words, in the form of Labels or strings, which are compositions of type and color; Views, which may be composed of spacing, color, line, and function; complex Views, like buttons, which are compositions of Labels and Views.
These compositions may be referred to as Elements or Atoms (per Brad Frost’s terminology)1.
Everything is immutable
Compositions of particles may have the appearance of dynamic, changing values, but they are in fact immutable. For instance, if I have a View that is a composition of the color white as its background and dimensions (or spacing) of 100 points in width and 100 points in height, and I change the color from white to black, I am not changing the View so much as creating a new composition. The View is entirely new because the identities of the composed particles have been exchanged for different ones, rather than changed or mutated.
It is through this immutability that SDS gains its strength. A finite set of particles can be composed in practically infinite ways to create a vastly comprehensive system that remains a cohesive whole due to its finite comprising parts. Put more concretely, rather than creating a limited and vast set of UI elements, you define the system in terms of its particle properties, thus limiting the available styles but opening potentially unlimited avenues of creativity for the actual pieces of UI.
The potential here lies in the fact that we’re unburdening the system maintainer of the responsibility to provide every required Element of the system. Instead, new compositions can be created as necessary, by decomposing and reassembling UI Elements from a common set of properties.
Particles are stateless
A less abstract way of demonstrating the immutability of particles in SDS is thinking of them as stateless. A particle represents a particular, unchanging visual or behavioural property: their only responsibility is to represent that property.
States determine compositions
‘State’ in this manner refers to the state of data or value, or changes in time-based sequences (for example, the state of a piece of UI (a composition) may change based on user input or interaction). Changes in state result in changes in UI, or, as we have defined them, changes in compositions.
It’s through states—changes, presence or absence of data—that we derive compositions of particles that make our UI. As such, a given composition may be expressed as a function of state:
Where is a function that takes state and returns UI (composed particles), is a state and is a changed state, and and are the resulting compositions.
This is the basis through which data can been seen to augment and flow through a user interface powered by SDS.
Compositions can be composed
Let’s clarify the term ‘composition’ by simply defining it (for our purposes) as an act of addition. We can use some abstract symbols to represent the kinds of things we’d compose:
Above are two simple compositions. We can further simplify our composition so it becomes:
If we were to change the composition to something else, say, , then our composition would also change.
This chain of events makes it straightforward to propagate changes to the appearance of our entire system in a few simple motions. Note that this still isn’t quite what you’d consider mutability; we’re not changing the values of the composed particles or , but changing the arrangements of the compositions to create new compositions.
As a more applicable example, a composition in a design system might be the following (where is the set of particles that comprise the system):
Views comprise the majority of the system
Views will inevitably make up the vast majority of our design system because of their simplicity. A View is essentially just a composition that can contain other compositions: a sort of box, or container. A View can represent a button, a card, an invisible container, or even a complex input. At their simplest, a View has no visual or behavioural properties of its own, and exist simply to contain other Elements.
In design tools, a View may be thought of as a group (or a layer). On the web,
the parallel would be a
div. In iOS, it would be a
UIView. Assuming you are
familiar with one or all of these environments for creating UI, you’ll
understand how essential those pieces are to the process. Views in SDS are
precisely as crucial.
When you begin to combine Views with other Views, you start to build complex user interfaces, all the way up to entire pages or applications2. This is, after all, all that a user interface is at the cosmetic and functional level: a composition of compositions of Views.
Abstract rules define the particles and the highest-level compositions
By ‘abstract rules,’ I’m talking about things like brand values, context, and audience. It’s these variables that determine the colors you choose; the typefaces in use; the mediums you decide to build the system(s) for.
Similarly, these abstract rules determine the patterns you choose to solve certain user problems: how the user inputs information, navigates an interface, reads content, or signs in or out. In this way, the very lowest level pieces of the system—the particles—and the very highest—the topmost View compositions—are determined by the abstract rules of branding and context, and everything in between is arrived at by the decomposition of high-level patterns, or by composition of particles.
The system is maintained by its users
With the structural rules of the system in place, we may turn our attention to the organisational aspects of design system maintenance. While the system may be initialised by a single team, its long-term maintenance is a byproduct of its continued use and organic growth.
With the right infrastructure in place, simple rules about preventing re-definition or duplication of compositions ensure the system remains lean and predictable. Any user of the system may create new compositions, adhering to the stylistic rules set by the abstract brand and context, and enforced by the particles available.
The system is decentralized and runs similarly to a democratic government, with branches of government (product teams) charged with scoped responsibility of product areas and compositions of UI. Only in this way is it possible for product teams to maintain a high throughput, evolve the system at a matched speed, and create shared accountability and mutual interest in system improvement.
The ideas exhibited above are inspired and reinforced by notions set out by a number of folks before me. Some pieces of particular interest for continued research in this area include:
- Jon Gold’s “Declarative Design Tools”
- Brad Frost’s “Atomic Design”
- Adam Morse’s “CSS and Scalability”
- All of Nicole Sullivan’s writing on Object-Oriented CSS (OOCSS)
- “Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs” from Harold Abelson, Gerald Jay Sussman, Julie Sussman, and Alan J. Perlis
Additionally, preliminary thinking about the above system theory can be found in other posts on my blog, namely:
- Designing Product UI Systems
- Casting Graphite in Gold
- Paving The Path of Least Resistance
- A Design System Grammar
- Design System Structure
Finally, the present and abrupt conclusion above is one I am aware of. Many of these ideas are still in their infancy and have had only minimal purchase in the real-life design systems I’ve worked on. I plan to concentrate efforts on getting from the “Why” of SDS to the “How”: how, in current tools and different organisations, can a design system based on these principles be created (or, with increasing urgency, borne out of an existing system), maintained, and scaled.
I’m also aware of the lack of source material and further reading from more diverse sources and underrepresented groups. It’s easy for underrepresented voices to be drowned out, especially in the midst of posts like this written by people like me. I would be very glad to hear from you about your thoughts on this subject, or if you want to share the work of someone else you think is important, interesting, or unheard. For public discussion, find me on Twitter, or for 1-to-1 correspondence, email me.
In my previous writing on the subject of design systems, I’ve referred to these compositions as ‘Components,’ but have found that term to be loaded or confusing, especially in engineering contexts. Consider them interchangeable. ↩
Again, in my previous writing, these compositions have been referred to as ‘Patterns’: in the interest of avoiding conflation of terms, I’ve tried to reduce the definitions herein to simply those of particles and compositions. ↩