Brief History: Design Tokens

Design decisions, translated into data—design tokens are the source of truth to unify and maintain design at scale.
Brief History

As a senior product designer, I’ve navigated through numerous shifts in the digital design terrain. Among them, design tokens have undoubtedly been a game-changer. Having witnessed their evolution and utility firsthand, I’d like to delve into some of their most powerful use cases, the concept of semantic tokens, and the brands that have been trailblazers in this domain.

Bridging design and development

With their detailed guidelines, design systems offered us a blueprint for maintaining visual consistency. But translating these design elements into code was still an intricate task. Design tokens emerged as a solution, showing abstracted variables that captured design values. Instead of wrestling with hardcoded values, designers and developers could now work with tokens like --button-background-color, ensuring fluidity and flexibility.

Powerful use cases

Over the years, I’ve observed several powerful use cases of design tokens:

  1. Multi-platform consistency: Maintaining a unified design language can be daunting with the proliferation of devices and platforms. Design tokens allow a single change to propagate across different platforms, ensuring an app looks consistent on the web, mobile, and wearables.
  2. Theme switching: Think of light mode and dark mode in apps. We can easily transition between different themes by merely switching design token values without refactoring the entire application.
  3. Branding and white-labeling: For platforms offering white-labelled solutions, design tokens can quickly adapt an application to different brand colours, fonts, and more, making customisation a breeze.

Semantic tokens: a layer deeper

While basic design tokens might represent raw values (like specific colour codes), semantic tokens add another abstraction layer. They are more about the meaning and purpose behind a design choice. Instead of --primary-color, a semantic token might be --error-color or --success-color. This approach means when the underlying design values change (say, a brand decides to change its primary colour), the intent or purpose (error, success) remains consistent.

Semantic tokens make design decisions more transparent and ensure that when there are updates or tweaks, the design’s integrity and intention remain intact.

Leading by example

Several major brands have been at the forefront of integrating design tokens effectively:

  1. Salesforce: With their design system, Lightning Design System, Salesforce introduced ‘Theo’, a tool for transforming and formatting design tokens. It’s a testament to how deeply they’ve integrated tokens into their design philosophy.
  2. Adobe: Through Adobe Spectrum, they’ve effectively used design tokens to ensure a consistent user experience across their myriad creative tools.
  3. Shopify: Polaris, Shopify’s design system, leverages design tokens to maintain visual consistency across their merchant and partner interfaces.

Charting the path ahead

Reflecting on the progression from mere design interfaces to systematic tools like design tokens, it’s evident that our goal remains unchanged: crafting impactful user experiences. With the added capabilities of semantic tokens and the examples set by industry giants, we’re poised to make our designs more coherent, scalable, and meaningful.

If you're interested in sitting at the forefront of design tokens, consider joining the Design Tokens Community Group working to “provide standards upon which products and design tools can rely for sharing stylistic pieces of a design system at scale”.

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