August 23, 2020

Design Feast’s Makers Series—107th Interview: Freelance Web/Product Designer and Developer Andrew Couldwell is Laying the Foundations for Practicing and Sustaining Good Design Systems

Andrew and his wife, Meagan, with the twins, exploring a trail in Los Angeles

I’m game for the appreciation of systems thinking—particularly applied to the medium of the Web with regards to designing web-based products and software. Delighted to have discovered a book about this convergence: “Laying the Foundations” (2019). Researched, written and produced by Andrew Couldwell who focused on realizing a guide to define, illustrate and ultimately demystify the practice of design systems—its creation, documentation and maintenance. Here, Andrew goes through the intensive process of making his book about a valuable discipline for designers who work on all things digital.

1. How did you become interested in design systems to the point of writing, designing, and publishing a book about this topic?

I was essentially living in the design system space for a few years between two full-time jobs in New York City. I had designed brand, marketing and product design systems at Behance for the launch of a new product called Adobe Portfolio, before moving onto WeWork where I established their digital brand guidelines and two design systems to serve their various digital products.

About a year after returning to the greener pastures of freelance, my wife (also a designer) and I were invited to run a design workshop in Ohio. The organizers were particularly interested in design systems, so I prepared what was meant to be a segment of the day, which quickly escalated into hours of material! I had been taking a break from design systems since returning to freelance, but this workshop made the amount of experience I had in the field—and a desire to share that knowledge—too obvious to ignore. And so the idea for a book emerged.

Editing a website with the Adobe Portfolio editor

2. When and how did you first encounter a design system?

I’ve been working on design systems for the best part of a decade—long before the industry gave it a name. I never really gave much thought to it as a practice, since, as a designer and a developer, it just made sense to design and build systematically. The first time I came across the term “design system” was in 2016 when my manager, Bobby Ghoshal at WeWork challenged me to find ways to standardise the work a few different product design teams were working on—giving me the new title of “System Design Lead.” I had to “Google it”! Haha. Back then, there wasn’t much information on “design systems,” which is hard to believe now—you’d struggle to find a product designer who hasn’t written an article about it! It was very fortunate and opportune timing for me to be one of the first few to be writing about and exploring how design systems can help in-house design teams work more efficiently.

Digital brand guidelines created for WeWork

3. Your book-making process: What was the timeline for the design systems-centric project “Laying the Foundations”?

I started writing in November 2018. It took me about 2 months to finish the first draft. The editing process took a few months. The book was designed and ready to go in Summer 2019, but the process of finding a printer dragged on for a few long, frustrating months. The self-publishing space is frustrating, to put it mildly. I wrote about my experience—if you’re interested in self-publishing, it’s worth a read, it’ll save you a lot of time and money! “Laying the Foundations” finally went on sale on October 16, 2019.

My book “Laying the Foundations”

4. Your book-making process continued: What was the writing experience like for making “Laying the Foundations”?

I really enjoyed the writing process. As I’m self-employed, I stopped taking on any client work for a few months and essentially locked myself away and got it done! I started with a document outline. I wrote down the chapter titles and a rough, bulleted list of what to cover in each chapter. The outline and order changed throughout the writing process, but it was a great start to map out what I needed to write—aiding how the chapters worked together to build on the lessons learned from chapter to chapter.

I then just took it a chapter at a time. I didn’t write the book in any particular order—I tackled the chapter I was feeling the most inspired to write about at the time. I’d say each chapter took a few intense days of writing, reading, re-writing, reading, and repeat until I was happy I’d covered the topic. I didn’t overthink it, I just let the words flow out of me, raw and unedited for as long as I had the energy to write, then I’d read what I wrote and edited it down into something that made sense! I probably deleted more than half of what I wrote!

The process didn’t always involve writing, I spent a good amount of time breaking from writing to research the subject—looking to extract quotes, insights and best-case examples to illustrate the points I was making.

Arriving at a first draft was a crazy milestone, but only really the beginning. The editing process was where the book really came into its own.

5. Your book-making process continued: Did you have a writing schedule? How many rounds of drafts? Did you work with an editor? Et al. Do tell.

There was no writing schedule, at least not in a formal sense. The only time restriction was: the more time I spent on the book, the less time I spent doing paid client work! I wanted to give “Laying the Foundations” my full attention, but those pesky bills keep coming every month and unfortunately, you can’t spend all your time working on personal projects.

I think maybe we went through 3 full drafts. I’m not really sure. My editor was my wife, Meagan Fisher. We self-published the book under our studio name, Owl Studios. Meagan is a designer-developer too, as well as an English Literature graduate, so her insight was invaluable across the board, from content to structure to grammar!

6. Your book-making process continued: What are your writing tools? Do you use notebooks? Any brands you’d recommend?

Google Docs! That’s it. I’m actually a huge fan of sketchbook work in my design process, but a digital tool like Google Docs is perfect for writing a book as it’s so easy to write, any time any place—be it on your phone or at a computer. And it’s a brilliant tool for collaboration, which was critical to the editing process with Meagan and I iterating and commenting on the same document.

Editing process of “Laying the Foundations” in Google Docs

Beyond the writing process, I used…

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