Three stacked purple building blocks

Tue, 02 Jul 2019 // by: Allison Pillar

Getting It Right: Design Thinking + Atomic Design

Do it right, or you’ll end up doing it again.

We think we don’t have time to do things the way we know we should, but always manage to find the time to do them again when things didn’t work out as planned the first time around. Some semblance of this phrase came up in conversation recently and it resonated so deeply that I jotted it down, adding a note to the collection of Post-Its that adorn my monitor.

Too often we are quick to self-diagnose what we think our challenges are and dive right in to find the quickest and cheapest way to solve them. This is certainly true when it comes to design solutions. One need only look to the countless website redesigns, disjointedly branded materials of so many of today’s organizations, and the plethora of services offering “design” for as little as $5 (I’m looking at you Fiverr) to see it. 

While this short-term thinking may seem like a good use of resources in the moment (enter the phrase “I just need a logo”), the cost of half-baked design with no underlying process will cost far more in the long-term. Imagine applying this logic to any other industry and you’ll see how conscientious strategy and planning are, not surprisingly, a sound investment when it comes to design.

Rather than have blueprints drawn up by an architect, hire a landscape architect to look at my future home’s interaction with light, earth, and space, and hire a contractor to keep the project on track—I think I’ll just grab my hammer and some wood and see what happens. Fingers crossed I’ll end up with a house!

What do we expect to happen when we build as we go, with no consideration about future integration, scalability, longevity, and maintenance? Do we think this is cheaper? Faster? Are those the defining qualities we want to define our organizations and the work that we do.

Enter the Design Thinking process and atomic design...more than just buzzwords, I promise.

When creating impactful and effective solutions, making time to determine what questions need to be asked and then doing the asking is key. Learning all you can about yourself, your organization, and your users allows for more intentional and informed brainstorming and idea generation and gives your design process focus. In order to discover the real challenge at hand and not waste time and energy on perceived pain points, Design Thinking, as a systematic process, can be incredibly powerful. Diving deep into the discovery phase to consider all parties involved, and the ways in which your action or inaction could affect them, results in a solution that centers the user.

In addition to making space in your process for discovery, another aspect of designing with the intention of doing things right, rather than repeatedly, is the practice of atomic design. Coined by Brad Frost around 2013, atomic design is a methodology for creating design systems based on creating small components that allow for consistency and scalability. Through atomic design, a set of basic elements—“atoms”—are created and can grow into “molecules,” further expanding into larger components as needed. Thinking about your organization on a grand scale and then designing at an atomic level results in a design system you can use for the long-term because of its flexibility and depth. Not only will you have a logo, you’ll have values, messaging, colors, typography, grids, visual elements, and more that guide your organization as it grows and evolves.