Emerson Process Management products

5 Truths About Your Product Design Language

Strong design language won’t solve every product development challenge you face. Discover how to make your design language work for you, not against you.

Sam Moon

August 24 th 2022 | 6 minute read

Many organizations think developing a design language will solve all their future product development challenges. In fact, some R&D leaders treat their design language as if it were a magic formula — just stretch the dimensions, add or remove features, and voila: the new product is designed exactly as it should be. No additional thought or experimentation required.

That’s not how design language works.

Your products will always need creative effort from design-minded people in order to achieve a superior end result. That’s because your design language is a framework from which to build outward. It’s not a strict boundary to stay inside of.

Here are 5 truths you need to understand in order to make your design language work for you.

1. Strict Adherence to Design Language Holds Future Products Hostage

Creating a design language for your products is a smart, strategic way to set your company apart from your competition. After all, you want your products to have a cohesive look and feel so you can consistently and predictably deliver your brand promise to your audience.

But don’t get so caught up in achieving literal design consistency that you forget what a design language is actually for. It’s a tool to communicate your brand values and further your business objectives. And if you blindly follow a set of aesthetic ideas without considering the goals you’re trying to reach, your future products will fall short of their full potential.

For example, we recently worked with a client to develop a life sciences product. As part of the engagement, we created a design language to help guide their future development efforts. About a year later, they worked on a new product internally and used the exact same casing we created for their previous product. But the new product performed a completely different type of testing for a different end user. The identical housings would have created significant confusion during purchasing – or if the two devices ever occupied the same lab space. Their literal interpretation of the design language held them back from developing the right product for the right use case.

It comes down to discernment. You can strike the right balance between loose and rigid interpretation by allowing your organization’s overarching business objectives to guide you.

2. Your Design Language Should be a Springboard for Innovation

Your design language should inspire innovation, not hinder it. You’ve likely invested significant time, energy, and financial resources into creating your design language. Even so, you can’t think of it as being set in stone. Your company, your audience, and the world around you are always changing and evolving. And to stay competitive, you must approach product development with a spirit of continual innovation.

The good news is your design language can support and even unleash your team’s creative power. How? Your team doesn’t have to approach the process of designing every single product from scratch. When done well, your design language can provide guidance (or solutions) to the most common challenges faced during the product development process. That means your team can focus on higher-level creative tasks or difficult, critical-to-function mechanical problems.

Case in point: The design language for one of our industrial manufacturing clients includes guidance for how to execute different types of sealed lids. During the development of the design language, we identified and defined three to four different styles of lids. Grip features, use of standard tools, brand application, and other functional elements were all considered for each of the different types. Including these solutions in the design language frees the team to consider other elements of the design without having to spend time designing a lid from scratch for each new product.

Now, does this guideline mean they have to design the lid exactly as prescribed? No. There may be scenarios when they’ll need to adapt the design language to the needs of a new product. But by having a flexible framework to work from, the team can stay true to the spirit of the design language even when they need to push beyond its original boundaries.

3. User Needs Must Come First

Your company develops products in order to reach and serve your audience, so you can’t afford to let your design language automatically dictate the decisions you make about your product.

Again, your design language exists to serve your organization, not the other way around. And the only way to drive your business forward and achieve the ROI you’re after is to create products your audience wants to use.

Usability and a positive experience are paramount. Don’t force a product into an existing template or shoehorn a solution into a preconceived set of guidelines at the expense of your users.

4. You Still Need a Product Development Firm

Creating a product design language may allow your internal team to independently develop many of your future products. That’s especially true if you’re iterating on an existing design or simply adding additional features to an already successful product.

But just because a product development firm delivers a robust and useful design language doesn’t mean you’ll never need their services again. Your company’s leadership may want to move in a new direction with your product roadmap. You might rebrand or otherwise re-imagine your brand identity. Or you might simply discover that you need a product development firm to solve problems that your design language didn’t anticipate.

This is healthy. Your company can’t afford to stagnate and stop growing. And that means you’ll need the expertise of an external partner to help drive your business forward in ways you can’t accomplish on your own.

5. Your Design Language Won’t Be Relevant Forever (and That’s OK)

No matter how well your design language is currently serving your brand, it’s important to realize that it has a limited lifespan and will eventually become outdated. That’s not a bad thing. Design trends are always shifting, and what was once fresh and new will someday start to look tired and old. The key is to be cognizant of your market so you can stay ahead of the curve and update your design language before your products begin to suffer.

Of course, design languages can also be functionally irrelevant simply because they’re not thoroughly developed. We’ve worked with clients whose guidelines are so vague that they can be interpreted in a host of different ways. That’s really not a design language at all.

If you find yourself in this scenario, you may need a product development firm to help you flesh out and define a comprehensive yet flexible design language to guide your efforts.

Make Your Design Language Work for You

When used wisely, your design language can increase your brand equity, speed up your time to market, and boost your ROI. It can save your internal designers and engineers valuable time and provide helpful guidance as they make design decisions.

But creating a design language is not a once-and-done endeavor. Your business objectives will change over time. User needs will evolve. And there will always be a new design trend to consider. So, at the end of the day, think of your design language as a helpful tool in your toolkit. Make it work for you, but don’t sacrifice innovation and creativity trying to fit your product into a box. Your design language exists to propel your business forward, not hold you back.

About the Author

Sam Moon – Design

“Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”