Expressive Design Systems and the Genius of 90’s Nickelodeon

Two things made an impact on me this week.

The first was Expressive Design Systems by Yesenia Perez-Cruz. It was my fourth Book Apart and the 31st in the series, and like all of its siblings, it's on point. I opt to read ABA titles that are indirectly related to my focus (UI design)—like content, research, and cognitive bias—because I want to get a primer on topics that I can fold into my design work to make it better. EDS is closer to my wheelhouse than any of the others I've read, but I picked it up because I realized I don't actually know much about how to build, maintain, and develop a proper design system.

In seven years of agency work, I've created dozens of pattern libraries and style guides, but you can't swing a dead cat on Design Twitter without hitting someone who's in the middle of telling you that a static artifact doesn't constitute a design system. I've never truly lived with a design system for long enough for it to reach maturity, never used or contributed to one as part of a dedicated team. And if my goal is to one day join a digital product team as an in-house designer, I need to know more than just what a design system isn't.

EDS demystified two things for me: the process for building a new design system, and the idea that they have to be restrictive by nature. Like all ABA titles, it's concise and to-the-point, with an eye towards practicality. In particular, the concepts that I bookmarked as especially meaningful were:

  • The idea of describing components by their function, rather than their content or design.
  • The idea of designing tokens like spacer units, text styles, and even meaning in relative rather than absolute terms for better flexibility and scalability.
  • The concept of levers and dials, where levers are foundational aspects of the design system, and dials are the fine details.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who does—or wants to do—design system work.

The other thing was a documentary called The Orange Years: The Nickelodeon Story. It's a fun nostalgia trip for those like me who grew up on Rugrats, Double Dare, and Clarissa Explains It All. But it also gave some insight into the creative genius behind Nickelodeon's epic hot streak in the 90’s. They had an insane collection of creative talent, whom they trusted to explore and experiment. They valued authenticity. They talked to kids, not down to them.

Even their logo had lax usage guidelines: “Don't mess with the wordmark, and use orange”—that's it. Everything else was fair game.

Maybe EDS was just fresh on my mind, but what I see is a great example of an expressive design system. Not just the logo, but all the creative work done at Nickelodeon was governed by a system that left room for divergence and creativity, and it was a big reason why they thrived in the 90’s and 2000’s.