As we build communities, we should work to make sure that we’re not building in just a one-off instance, but rather creating a system as a whole.

All too quickly, we are quick to think about what events we're going to do, how we're going to connect people, what tools or platforms we're using, and not how does this all work together in the larger system that we're creating?

By defining a community design system you create a structured outline of how your initiatives, efforts, and whatnot will have a larger impact within the community, and potentially the organization as a whole a well.

In a community design system, you work to outline the goals, theories, and systems that you are working to build and create, but also — how they are getting built and the impact that they are having. This system is meant to be a single source of truth for the entire community team to stay consistent and reduce duplicative work.

Building a community design system allows for community builders to communicate efficiently and effectively about the work that they're doing and how it accomplishes long-term objectives.

Let's explore how we can pull from the world of design, user experience, sociology, and community building to create a community design system that empowers everyone.

What is a design system?

In order to best understand how to build a community design system, we need to first understand what a Design System is first.

Design systems largely come out of the world of human-centered interaction, or HCI. HCI focuses on how we as individuals interact with computers and use them to build more effective ways of working with them.

In a world where we're constantly chasing notification after notification, we rely on systems of cues to help us identify what's important and what's not. These systems are comprised of visual elements, audio elements, the use of patterns, language, or some combination of the previous to signal to the individual what is about to go on or what is about to happen.

Looking for a particularly great reference on what should be in a great design system? — I dig this guide from Invision

In a design system — you can expect to find:

  • Colors — What do different colors mean? When are they used?
  • Typography — What fonts are used and why? What does this mean? When are they used?
  • Imagery and Iconography — What images or icons are used? Why? How? What do different icons and images stand for or mean?
  • Voice and Tone — What is the voice and tone that you convey? Who are you trying to communicate with? How do they want to be communicated to?
  • Values — What values do you have? How are they communicated? What does this mean for the long run?

While many are familiar with a design system for brands and brand designers — we've still got some work to do as far as carrying out this train of thought to the world of social science and community building as well.

Sure we can define what fonts we use, or what colors we use in our own community and the events that we host — but these alone don't build out a complete community design system.

In order to build an accurate community design system  — we need to look into the social world of design and how we're approaching it.

Design’s role in community building

To understand what's important in one's own community design system, we must understand the social fabric that lies underneath. We need to look at the different social cues or micro-interactions that are happening within your community.

A microinteraction is a behavior or social cue that is happening within two or more members of a group or community that don't require a heavy amount of buy-in or trust among two different members. As far as social currency and capital goes — this isn't a major top-tier item to be worried about at the current moment.

Microinteractions are the atomic units of a community design system

To understand where I'm headed with this, we need to have an understanding of both systems from a sociology perspective, and atomic units from a design perspective.  Combined, this creates a full design system that can later be applied to the community as a whole.

Let's start with the social side of things.  Systems theory can help us explain how the smaller individual parts come to impact the whole.

"Systems theory is an interdisciplinary study of systems  as they relate to one another within a larger, more complex system. The key concept of systems theory, regardless of which discipline it’s being applied to, is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."

In order to build a successful community design system, we need to take a moment and understand how these individual units  (aka atomic units) come together to build a healthy, sustainable community.

When we break down the different parts of a community — the atomic units if you will — we will see a few different areas:

  • Members that make up the community
  • Intention, or purpose for gathering
  • Action that takes place within the community
  • Habits that take place in a series of actions
  • Facilitators that host or facilitate gathering
  • Place or Platforms in which you gather
  • Signposts that signal where one might be on their own journey.
  • Boundaries of what doesn't happen or isn't passable within a community

These different atomic units will look differently depending on the type of community that you're working with and how you foster growth, (or stifle it).

If we're to think about community as a system, and each of these little atomic units as a LEGO brick, we can start to visualize how having the wrong type of brick might lead towards the wrong sort of system.

A toxic member, or a broken and busted brick — your entire building might fall. Have a strong base and shared values and vision? You're going to be building the best structure.

Clear signposts and an active practice of building sustainably, well, you. may as well be a LEGO master builder.

We've only continued to increase our understanding of these small interactions in the world of community. With the rise of user experience roles and a better understanding of the impact that these platforms have on our day-to-day, we can approach these systems with more intention.

If we approach community design with intention we can increase trust and the support the community has not only from the community team but the cross-functional needs that the community might have as well. ✌🏻


Have you tried building a community design system? How do you approach systems within your community? Where might this come in handy?

Let me know by dropping a comment on this article!


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