A design system is your brand in action. It has the power to keep a complex digital ecosystem on brand and provide the underlying technical infrastructure to ensure accessibility compliance and performance at scale.

We’ve been building large-scale design systems at Upstatement for over a decade. Much of this work has been for large publishers or media organizations like The Boston Globe or ESPN. Our approach to design systems is based in editorial design, where the system is the foundation of a publication’s voice. Designers work within the system to tell individual stories.

But modern digital design systems do much more. They provide an underlying technical infrastructure that scales across websites and apps and a visual system that reinforces the brand and provides vital wayfinding for users. Design systems are all the rage with product-focused companies like Spotify, Google, Salesforce and others. But are they right for universities?

After building and deploying design systems for universities like Harvard and MIT, the answer is an emphatic yes. In fact, it may make even more sense in a university setting than anywhere else. Here’s why:

Reinforce the brand

Higher education brands are complicated. They’re multi-tiered hierarchies of relationships between schools, colleges, programs, facilities, events, and more. They’re huge, gnarly brands. In every higher ed rebranding project, a lot of thought goes into how these relationships are organized, and how they all ladder up to a consistent experience.

A design system is your brand in action. But even better, it’s a tool, not just a guideline. It helps everyone who needs to build something or communicate something do it on brand, and shapes a consistent verbal and visual voice across campus. Cohesive brand guidelines are a great start, but you can’t expect everyone on campus to read the manual. Especially student groups or others loosely connected to the hierarchy.

Ensure compliance

Universities have more incentive than ever to invest in making their web content accessible to everyone, and to ensure that their digital interfaces are compliant with regulations that govern digital accessibility. If every digital project on campus starts from scratch, chances are accessibility will be compromised. This can mean major headaches for users that need access to your content, not to mention legal jeopardy.

Compliance can be baked in to the design system and scaled across campus. From web accessibility guidelines around code structure to visual accessibility like contrast, a design system can provide tools that make compliance the default: saving money, supporting users, and limiting legal risk.

But accessibility is just the start. Considerations like better support across devices or site speed can also be included at a systems level, making the entire digital experience across campus better.

Support the community and encourage creativity

By providing a set of tools that can be used by all, a design system that’s maintained by the university encourages those within the community to express themselves and build the tools they need, without fear that they’re building the “wrong thing” or building it in the wrong way.

In our work with large systems like MIT, we viewed the community’s engagement as both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it’s great that everyone is contributing to the digital experience: building sites for classes, clubs, hobbies, events, and everything else. But by default many of these sites will not be built with longevity in mind, and just add to the pile of maintenance for the small staff in Central IT.

A collection of digital tools that can be centrally maintained and supported but distributed widely will help maintain standards and mitigate the risks mentioned above, while clearing the tech bottleneck that plagues so many schools. Think of it as building a trellis in the garden. You provide the path, and the community grows in the direction you intend.

Raise quality

Overall, the goal should be a high quality experience for users, administrators and developers. Systems-thinking is a great way to organize a complex ecosystem like a large university, and pays dividends beyond the immediate effects of looking nicer or being faster. It’s an investment in critical digital infrastructure at a time when the primary campus experience may be online.

If you’re interested in a demo of some of the design systems we’ve built, or to talk with our team about your problem, drop us a line. We’d love to chat.