A Design Language’s Continued Growth & Adaptation — An Introduction 

This is the first installment of a series on the New School Design Language System and UI Pattern Libraries. In this post, we reflect on the learning experiences of growing and evolving our DLS and components while simultaneously building products. Subsequently, we will feature various efforts around iterating a DLS to support the Blackboard organization.

In the early days of the New School design language, the Blackboard Design team developed a set of foundational design principles — abstract anchors that drive all of our design work. We knew that, fundamentally, New School and this new era of redefined product experiences should be intuitive, delightful, and approachably simple. Along with these guiding principles, we defined some lightweight visual design standards. Alongside our counterparts on the development team, we set out to create some of the first Ultra Experience based applications in Blackboard’s portfolio.

While these initial principles remain sound, abstract principles alone can be subjective, ambiguous, and open to interpretation when they take form as user interfaces. As a result, the number of styles, components, and patterns that make up our design language ballooned and we incurred an overabundance of design debt.

In hindsight, one could argue that we could have mitigated the amount of design debt we were incurring had we defined more rigid guidelines at the outset. However, there is a chicken-or-the-egg conundrum at play: how could we know what elements and rules to establish without the process of experimentation that taught us which elements would be the most naturally scalable?

As our team grew, it became clear that we needed to audit, cull, and standardize our UI components in order to reduce complexity, drive consistency, better collaborate with our development partners, and most importantly provide a simpler and reliable experience for our users. In late 2016, we established a set of reusable UI component tear sheets for web and native mobile interfaces. While it was a significant win for our design team to be able to design at repeatable scale with the assistance of these tear sheets, we still lacked written logic, usage standards, and the general “why” of these elements. Even without formalizing these standards in writing, our small team maintained a collective understanding of these components—for a time. As our team and our products continue to grow and change shape we are once again asking ourselves how we can better support designers, developers, and our partners who live outside of the walls of our Austin Design studio.

I’m excited to introduce the newest phase of the New School Design Language system—a single library that documents our foundational UI standards, our visual assets and guidelines, as well as reusable web and native mobile components to quickly visualize product workflows. In this phase, we are focusing significant efforts towards articulating guidelines that address the needs of Blackboard’s international markets, improving accessibility and inclusion, and maintaining a quality experience in all breakpoints with an appropriate responsive strategy. We’ll be sharing our progress in the coming months!

A preview of what’s to come!