Alberto Calvo is a design architect who transforms design systems into holistic, purposeful, and inclusive experience languages. He is a hybrid designer/developer, player/coach, adept in Design Ops, and have plenty of experience with 0-1 projects and teams.
He enjoyed collaborating with talented folks from Sketch, Maze and Cabify. Alberto is currently on sabbatical.
Can you walk us through the current state of the design system you're involved with?
When the Maze’s Design Infrastructure team was dissolved, we worked on two critical projects for the company. One of our biggest challenges at Maze was introducing best practices from the ground up, starting with fundamental things I had always taken for granted. This proved difficult as I’m used to working with highly experienced teams—perhaps too much.
We redefined the entire application’s layout through the App Frame to create a coherent, responsive, and accessible app. Maze had significant layout and accessibility issues, and our team was in a privileged position to solve them holistically. This supported the company’s strategy aimed at corporate clients, who take an app that can adjust to different screen sizes for granted in 2023.
We successfully published our evolution of the App Frame documentation, where we raised the level of detail to align with the code and introduced a common language based on web standards. We agreed on terms such as app section, page, landmark, and live region, which helped us communicate more effectively and create a more solid experience.
I’d never gone into such detail on something like this, and it was an exciting project in which we created fantastic team synergy and learned a lot together. This work would later allow us to redefine our app’s information architecture and navigation experience.
Communication components framework
Our Experience Design team lacked content design expertise, resulting in significant gaps in our communication components’ UX. To overcome this challenge, we drew on my previous experience setting up a similar system at Cabify. We enlisted the help of our consulting UX Writer, stepping over the shoulders of our dedicated UX Writer, who unfortunately had to leave a few months earlier due to a previous reduction in force. Given their expertise as content specialists, they were instrumental in catalyzing the project. The words mattered more than anything here.
However, the value of the framework was not only to improve the quality of the components but to help the team understand when, how, and why it is best to use each one, complementing each other and offering the best user experience based on the context. We didn’t have all the necessary components to communicate effectively, and the ones we did have were applied poorly as a band-aid solution. For instance, we had at least 16 versions of a Callout. We tended to overcomplicate things, which distracted people from the core experience. We also wasted valuable time creating custom components that failed to meet minimum quality standards. Unfortunately, we couldn’t finish the project, but it was fun!
How do you balance the need for consistency with the desire for creative freedom among your designers?
This is a sensitive matter closely linked to the team's and its members' maturity level, and it also applies to other disciplines, such as engineering. A mature professional can produce robust proposals that improve the system and challenge any parts. On the other hand, an immature professional may have gaps in their proposals because they only focus on a specific use case, disregarding other existing parts or even the brand and failing to recognize how they fit together to create a coherent experience language. It’s putting your desire above the needs and the opinions of the entire team, and it’s making everyone go slower.
I believe that coherence is a more suitable term than consistency because it sounds less rigid and empowers thinking outside of the box. The key is to help people understand how all the pieces fit together.
I have experienced both situations, and my direction depends on the individual’s maturity level. It’s best to allow more mature people to explore, asking questions that help them move in the right direction. I’ve been pleasantly surprised many times back at Cabify. However, less mature people might experience the Dunning-Kruger effect, which can be challenging to handle. In such cases, the best approach is to expose the gaps by asking questions and taking the lead with a counter-proposal, thoroughly explaining its rationale. But, in parallel, it’s also essential to address it directly with their manager to help this person be more self-aware about their opportunities to grow. The success will depend on the individual’s willingness to become a better professional. Regardless of their level, great makers will take it as a fantastic challenge and take the opportunity to impact something greater than a specific feature, making the system theirs, too.
How do you stay true to your vision for the design system, even when faced with external pressures or trends?
Regardless of how informed it is, criticism is always an opportunity to learn and improve ourselves at a tactical, strategic, or communication level. We must take it seriously and embrace it.
Over the past few years, I have earned the trust and respect of other makers by demonstrating that design is not subjective but highly technical and thoughtful. You can achieve this by documenting things comprehensively and making them easily accessible, meeting people where they are, ensuring everyone feels what they care about has been considered, and providing solid answers and support to any discipline. However, there will be times when you won’t have all the answers and times when not everyone agrees with the choices you make, and that’s perfectly normal. It happens to me, too. It’s all about reaching a compromise and moving together as a team. The key is to be seen as a partner who is there to help, listens to your needs, and can change things when needed rather than a police officer.
But that’s not enough. Overall, the industry still hasn’t fully realized the importance of design, and we, as designers, are partly responsible for this. We’ve been too focused on tools and tactics and too little on the strategic and tangible value we bring to companies. It’s hard to imagine a bigger regression than a company that claims to be design-driven, going two years back by laying off two-thirds of its design leadership and disbanding a team responsible for boosting its makers’ efficiency and effectiveness, ultimately improving the end customers’ experience. We need more design leaders capable of articulating this value and setting Figma aside to reach far beyond our discipline.
In the past year, my manager has given me the opportunity and support to work on the most strategic part of the design system, something I wanted to do for a long time. We began measuring quality, which helped us develop a strategy for the year and approach other disciplines with tangible metrics, adjusting the speech to each one, as they all understand and value different things. Again, it’s about showing them we are there to help them and proving that we can do it. I highly recommend reading "A design system business case & business benefits - the ultimate guide" by Matěj Káninský if you want to learn more about this.
However, without proper sponsorship from the executive level, all efforts will be in vain. You need a design executive who fully comprehends your objectives and can sell them to other executives regularly. Design systems take time and often require transforming old ways of working or even the company's culture, depending on its maturity level—a challenging undertaking, especially in such times.
Are you tracking your design system? If you had to choose one metric to measure the success of your design system, what would it be and why?
If I had to start somewhere, I’d undoubtedly begin with quality. Although the quick answer is “adoption,” I’d like to share my experience measuring quality first. By correlating it with adoption later, we understood and communicated better where we were and where we should go.
At Cabify, I never had to worry about clearly defining quality because, as I said before, thanks to regularly working in remarkably mature teams, I’ve always taken good design and best practices for granted. It is the same for the scope and requirements of each project. I did it instinctively since the teams’ circumstances and working methods never allowed me to work directly with the engineer who worked with me. Instead, we worked in waterfall mode. I wanted to change that.
When I arrived at Maze, it was just Philip and me, our DS engineer. I soon discovered his tremendous appetite and potential to be part of the system’s definition, which filled me with joy. A designer and a UX writer will join us in a few months. Additionally, Maze’s design system, Ariane, was very immature. It was a new challenge for me: “How do we get a multidisciplinary team to work together with clear objectives and simultaneously progressively teach the rest of the makers how to create quality interfaces?”.
We found the answer by browsing the documentation for Primer, GitHub’s design system, in the form of the Component lifecycle. Philip and I created the first version based on it and opened it to the designer and the UX writer once they joined the team. With that,
We confirmed that consolidating and documenting the design foundations was our priority and were better equipped to answer why.
We found an effortless way to limit the scope of projects and set the right expectations. The entire team was aware of this, and we friendly reminded each other whenever we were tempted to delve too deeply into something.
We showed our makers the way. Inevitably, the product team kept creating new components while our team took off. Thanks to our component lifecycle, we gave them a list of eight minimum requirements to meet and documentation to learn how to do it efficiently and effectively.
After a few months, we began to quantify this quality and its potential for each part of the system through scores, which helped us better understand its point of maturity. With that,
We defined an annual strategy for the Design Infrastructure team, the highlight of the yearly plan for all of Experience Design.
We articulated this strategy to the rest of the company based on three attributes that progressively increased quality, directly linked to the maturity states defined in the component lifecycle: Coherent (Alpha), Responsive (Beta), and Accessible (Release Candidate). You can’t say you’re accessible without being coherent and responsive first.
We prevented investing a significant part of the annual Experience Design budget in an accessibility audit that would have been useless because there was a lot of work to do before we got there since most of the system did not even meet the requirements defined in Alpha.
By speaking in a more human and less technical language, we reached the rest of the stakeholders, and some doors began to open. Knowing the adoption rate is good, but articulating the outcomes of this adoption for the team and the product is even better.
If you could go back and change one decision you made in your design system journey, what would it be and why? How would that affect your design system journey?
I wouldn’t change the journey that has brought me here, but if I could give one advice, it would be to take a break from direct work and spend more time communicating its impact to indirect stakeholders and sharing it with the community.
Although it’s easy to say, it's not always easy to do, especially in certain positions. As an individual contributor, even as a Principal, it’s challenging to reach and influence specific profiles. And if you’re already overloaded with work, it’s almost impossible to do it efficiently. That’s why I left Cabify for Maze, as I wanted to influence other profiles and change things from a different perspective. Unfortunately, Maze’s design system status initially forced me to spend considerable time in the weeds. However, I don’t regret it.
Design systems are often thankless, and it’s crucial to be there to explain their real value for companies, as I mentioned before when we talked about staying true to your vision.
Do you use any kind of automation or AI tools?
I use Grammarly Premium almost every day to correct the mistakes I make as a non-native speaker and to help me reformulate ideas and improve my communication. Words are incredibly powerful tools, and it helps me get more out of them.
Where do you see design systems heading in the next few years?
I don't want to predict but rather strive towards achieving it. I want to elevate design systems by including branding, content, accessibility, and inclusivity to create a universal experience language for all disciplines that can be seamlessly adapted to any channel, like product, marketing, or support.
What's one thing you wish more people understood about design systems?
That we’re here to help, and we can achieve greater things together.
In your opinion, what are the most overrated and underrated aspects of design systems?
Many overestimate the value of believing everything is done perfectly and build unthinkingly instead of striving for continuous improvement, finding the right time to question the status quo.
At the same time, they underestimate the transformative impact of contributing to making something good even better together. An open system that embraces change leads to positive growth and a stronger team. We achieved a lot more at Cabify thanks to this.
If you could have a coffee chat with any person from the design (system) space, who would it be and why?
A few years ago, I had the fantastic opportunity to chat with Diana Mounter about their work at GitHub. Our conversation gave me a glimpse into the future and left me wanting to learn more.
Jennie S Yip
What's one piece of advice that you would like people to remember from this interview?
Giving back to the community brings only good things. I should make more time for it.