Petra
Sell

UI/UX Designer, Design Systems

Petra is a freelance UX/UI designer for design systems. She grew up in Munich, Germany, and after living in London and Amsterdam, settled in Antwerp, Belgium. She worked at several digital agencies as a design director and is now freelancing. She is currently open to a new challenge!

Can you walk us through the current state of the design system you're involved with?

Currently, I am working on two very different projects: 

The Flemish Government has been a client for 10 years. We began with building blocks that evolved into a component library. This grew into a robust design system. The system has reached a certain level of maturity. It developed naturally from an original website. As more teams use it, their diverse needs clash sometimes. It conflicts with the initial components' strict structure. Like many companies, there isn't a set budget for major changes. It's a side project done with a lot of passion from the team involved. We have incorporated some brand theming in the past couple of years and developed a mobile native library. Currently, I am focusing on establishing a comprehensive token set, starting with Figma only (using variables). This assignment requires one day a week.

Vlaamse Overheid (Flemish Government)

Vlaamse Overheid
(Flemish Government)

30K+

30K+

30K+

4

4

4

8

8

8

Employees

Employees

Design Teams

Design Teams

DS Team Size

DS Team Size

The second is for Katoen Natie, an international logistics company. It seems this sector still has to discover the added value of design. A lot of our applications didn't change since 2000. There was a clear opportunity for improvement! When I started, there was a first component library of one major product team. Recognizing the need for change, the company invested in a platform-agnostic design system. Working together in a small team of 3, we established a token structure and rebuilt all existing components from scratch. This time, we prioritized growth and flexibility. The second project adapting our design system, was a unique challenge. It was an automotive application for truck drivers, optimized for easy touch usage. Previous applications focused on high information density for large screens in offices. With the token structure, we launched a large-scale theme inspired by Spectrum's platform scale.

Katoen Natie

10K+

10K+

10K+

4

4

4

4

4

4

24+

24+

24+

Employees

Employees

Design Teams

Design Teams

DS Team Size

DS Team Size

Projects using DS

Projects using DS

What tools do you use to build and maintain your design system?

Flemish government

Figma

Vue Framework

Custom documentation site

Flemish government

Figma

Vue Framework

Custom documentation site

Katoen Natie

Figma

Tokens Studio

Web Components

Backlight

Our code and designs are as much as possible in sync. The design tokens are maintained in code and imported into Figma via the Token Studio plugin. I also experiment with offering variables to the designers and keep those in sync via Tokens Studio. As variables in Figma are still beta, this is not a stable service, though…

Katoen Natie

Figma

Tokens Studio

Web Components

Backlight

Our code and designs are as much as possible in sync. The design tokens are maintained in code and imported into Figma via the Token Studio plugin. I also experiment with offering variables to the designers and keep those in sync via Tokens Studio. As variables in Figma are still beta, this is not a stable service, though…

How do you balance the need for consistency with the desire for creative freedom among your designers?

The UX designers I work with understand component limitations. They appreciate the ease of use they bring. As a DS designer, I feel so lucky! I did face this challenge in other companies, though. It takes a fair amount of time to educate. Explaining why global consistency benefits more than this specific case.

I also believe there should be room for individual customization for certain use cases. I admire Spotify's approach to what they call "Multiple layers of abstraction". They advocate for strict adherence to components while providing options/extensions for customization. Tokens can also serve as a minimum viable DS integration where creative freedom is essential.

How do you stay true to your vision for the design system, even when faced with external pressures or trends?

I guess you need to have a thick skin to start with. Talents in politics do help, too. :) Luckily, I am rather strong-willed and used to this kind of criticism. When people get frustrated, they blame the design system's rigidity. Every aspect of life/work has pros and cons, and the design system is no exception. We are not perfect. 

Quite often, all it needs is listening. Read between the lines. Don't get offended; seek alternative solutions, collaborations, and compromises.

↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️↘️

Quite often, all it needs is listening. Read between the lines. Don't get offended; seek alternative solutions, collaborations, and compromises.

Quite often, all it needs is listening. Read between the lines. Don't get offended; seek alternative solutions, collaborations, and compromises.

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?

With Katoen Natie, I'm pushing hard to start tracking component usage in code. I also want to start conducting user surveys and interviews. In this early stage, we need to improve customer satisfaction and loyalty. This will help us get management's support. That's the metric I'm aiming for currently.

If you could go back and change one decision you made in your design system journey, what would it be and why?

For both projects, starting with a clear strategic plan would have been beneficial. Initially, we thought doing it all step-by-step would work just fine, and that we could add more details along the way about how we envision the future of the design system. We see now that management believed releasing an initial set of components meant completion. At this stage, getting a budget for expansion and optimization is challenging. Even the simple fact that the design system needs maintenance has become hard to sell.

Do you use any kind of automation or AI tools?

I use a couple of Figma plugins for automatization. For example, a script from Jan Six for Automator to easily document all tokens in Figma.

The marvelous EightShapes plugin automates the production of page and component design specifications, which is an enormous time saver.

AI tooling helps me improve my writing skills in UX documentation. I use Notion's AI assistant and am currently testing Hemmingway's AI assistant to compare the two.

Where do you see design systems heading in the next few years?

In the last couple of years a lot of design systems got off the ground. Tokens are introduced to quite a few of them. In the next few years, we will see the systems mature. It'll be an intriguing yet challenging phase: design systems' adolescence.

The role of a design system designer will be more strategic than technical. It will be less about Figma knowledge and more about soft skills like communicating, influencing, managing, nurturing, …

I don't need to mention the obvious rise of AI.

What's one thing you wish more people understood about design systems?

Apart from having to explain to every recruiter the difference between a regular UX designer and my profile? ;-)

I wish people to see the DesignSystem more as an accelerator and collaborator within the company. It's not about working against product teams but working with them.

In your opinion, what are the most overrated and underrated aspects of design systems?

Technical knowledge is overrated, as it is fairly easy to gain. What can make the difference are people skills: strategic thinking, communication, empathy.

If you could have a coffee chat with any person from the design (system) space, who would it be and why?

Right now, I'd love to chat with Nate Baldwin. His upcoming talk on IntoDesignSystems triggered my interest: He will discuss adaptive size and spatial systems for scale theming. I struggled with this in the past and would love to get fresh new ideas.

And a coffee with Nathan Curtis would be awesome, too!

Coffee with Nate Baldwin

What's one piece of advice that you would like people to remember from this interview?

If you want to grow, train your soft skills!

What's your favorite thing to do when you are not in design systems?

Strolling and observing. I love spotting colors and patterns everywhere!
It's been a while since I participated in the #100dayproject; I should do it again next year!

I also cherish friendships and get inspired by my teenage daughter's fresh and open perspective on the world.

Petra Sell

Petra Sell

Petra Sell

Newsletter

Writing on topics such as design systems,

design process, design strategy. ✨

© 2022 - 2024 The Design System Guide by Romina Kavcic

Newsletter

Writing on topics such as design systems,

design process, design strategy. ✨

© 2022 - 2024 The Design System Guide by Romina Kavcic

Newsletter

Writing on topics such as design systems,

design process, design strategy. ✨

© 2022 - 2024 The Design System Guide by Romina Kavcic