Insights / Business

The Precarious Position of In-House Design Systems Teams Amidst Corporate Cutbacks

Recent layoffs in the tech world, including design systems teams, reflect broader dilemmas about integrating and valuing specialized roles amid economic challenges.
4 min read

In recent years, the tech industry has faced a disturbing trend: a significant rise in layoffs, with a notable impact on in-house design systems teams at larger, enterprise-level organizations. This phenomenon, not unique to 2024, mirrors a similar pattern observed in 2023, leading to a deeper investigation into how companies value and integrate these specialized teams during economic downturns. While my primary involvement is within the design systems community, it’s clear that the issue is not confined to this area alone, affecting various roles across the tech sector. This perspective, shaped by my close connection to design systems, highlights a broader concern that resonates across the industry.

The Genesis and Evolution of Design Systems Teams

At the outset, the creation of a design system is both a monumental and critical task. It involves a comprehensive discovery phase, identifying the myriad elements and components essential to supporting the product’s architecture. This stage is resource-intensive, requiring significant manpower, hours, and investment to scaffold and construct the core systems that underpin the main design system.

The bulk of the effort in developing a design system is front-loaded, focusing on its initial creation. As these systems mature and their components begin to be utilized in products, what started as an intensive development phase naturally progresses into a period dedicated to maintenance, iteration, and incremental enhancements. This transition underscores a move from the groundwork of development towards a focus on keeping the design system relevant and adaptable over time.

The Multifaceted Purpose of Design Systems

The primary aim of a design system is to optimize the product development process, ensuring uniformity in aesthetics, functionality, and user experience. In doing so, design systems play a critical role in enhancing the efficiency of product development, thereby supporting the continuous evolution and improvement of products, which in turn requires an ongoing, though differently focused, allocation of resources.

Yet, as the foundational build phase gives way to an era of maintenance and incremental improvement, the demand for resources tends to decrease. This evolution brings us to a pivotal question: do in-house design systems teams face redundancy once the initial setup of the system is complete?

The Layoff Trend: A Symptom of Short-term Thinking?

The recent spate of layoffs, particularly targeting design systems and design roles, suggests a concerning trend toward viewing these teams as expendable once the major groundwork is done. This perspective is shortsighted, overlooking the ongoing need for evolution, adaptation, and enhancement that design systems require to support new features and maintain relevance.

Strategic Alternatives to Layoffs

Before leaping to layoffs as a cost-saving measure, companies should consider strategic alternatives. These might include:

  • Cross-functional integration: Repurposing design systems team members to support broader product development efforts, leveraging their deep understanding of the system for cross-disciplinary innovation.
  • Continuous evolution: Investing in the design system as a living entity that evolves with the market and technology trends, requiring dedicated personnel to drive forward-looking enhancements.
  • Project-based contracting: Engaging contractors for the intensive initial build phase, transitioning to a smaller in-house team for ongoing maintenance and iteration.

Drafting a New Blueprint for Design Systems Teams

The industry must reevaluate the structural and strategic positioning of design systems teams within the corporate hierarchy. Rather than viewing these teams as temporary or auxiliary, recognizing them as integral to the sustained innovation and competitiveness of product offerings is essential.

A Call for Strategic Resilience

The pattern of layoffs among design systems teams is not just a reflection of economic pressures but of a broader undervaluation of their long-term strategic contribution. As we move forward, companies must adopt a more nuanced, forward-thinking approach that recognizes the enduring value of these teams.

By fostering a culture that values continuous improvement, adaptability, and cross-functional collaboration, organizations can better navigate economic uncertainties without sacrificing the innovative edge that design systems teams bring to the table.