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Atomic Design System in UX: A Comprehensive Checklist

What does an atomic design system mean for UX designers? Learn about this unique approach to UI/UX design and how to create a robust system.

14 min read

As the field of UI/UX design progresses, new techniques and solutions are being developed. On the one hand, the needs of the target audience must be prioritized and the users should be made an active part of the design process. On the other hand, the process itself must be made efficient and effective, by using minimum resources and providing quick solutions, so the businesses can grow and get a better return on their investment. One of the most important needs of today’s designers is to find the right balance between these two factors. Several UX design systems have been proposed to come up with the best strategy. From design thinking to agile UX, there are multiple methodologies for solving modern design problems.

One fairly modern and effective approach is called the atomic design system. Based on the idea of atoms as the basic building blocks of matter, this approach aims to identify and develop a design starting from atomic elements in UX design. This approach has numerous advantages for designers, particularly those working in big organizations where collaboration is a key element of the design process. Building such a system enables a design system agency, and any other organization, in creating a guide for all projects, thus setting a standard that can be followed without any hassle.

Atoms Creating Molecules (icons-icons)

In this article, we introduce the concept of the atomic design system along with its components. We also explore the benefits of such a system and why modern organizations may feel a need to adopt this practice.

  1. Definition of atomic design.
  2. Components of atomic design.
  3. The benefits of atomic design.
  4. Atomic design checklist to create your system.

Read along as we introduce this interesting approach to user experience design and learn how to create an efficient design system based on the principles of atomic design.

Definition of Atomic Design

The idea of atomic design is inspired by the very basics of chemistry. Atoms joining together in various ways to create molecules and compounds, having a set of properties of their own, lies at the heart of atomic design. A design system, based on this strategy, gives equal attention to the individual design elements as well as the system on the whole. This means that the holistic approach of UI/UX design remains intact but the importance of small, otherwise overlooked, aspects such as content, the use of colors, placement of objects, buttons, etc. is also elevated.

This UX design framework was presented by Brad Frost in his book titled “Atomic Design”. According to this methodology, when we create design systems, we should think of them as a set of design elements, serving the same function as atoms in a complex compound. These design elements of UI elements join together to create molecules, which then go on to build organisms. UI/UX designers can then use these organisms to create templates for a design system, serving as a standard for all the pages that can be built on these templates.

The Meaning of Atomic Design (Dev)

The overall concept here is to break the whole design system into generic elements. The terminologies used in this system, such as templates and pages, may seem specific to website design. However, there is a lot of flexibility, since these terms are loosely defined. A page, for example, can also mean the screen of a mobile application. An atomic design system puts a lot of focus on the building blocks in any UI/UX project, making sure that the choices made at any point in the design process are thought through.

Components of atomic design

Similar to the atomic structure in chemical compounds, atomic design is a combination of various small but significant components. It all starts with the smallest atoms where UI elements are designed to function as a part of the whole. These atoms are the building blocks of the system, joining together to create sophisticated designs.

A discussion on all these components can help in understanding their purpose and role in the design system. UI/UX designers, especially those working in a team, need to understand the significance of each component and how to go about designing them, to add value to their projects. In the following discussion, we introduce these components with the help of a hypothetical atomic design system example.

Components of Atomic Design Methodology (Brad Frost)

1. Atoms

Atoms lie at the heart of the design system. These are the simplest yet highly important design components that can join together in various ways to be a part of big structures. The design of any robust and efficient system begins with these basic atoms. The best example of an atom is a simple UI design element, such as a button. When standing alone, a button may not be able to serve any purpose, but put it in context with other design elements and a simple button can add great value to the user experience.

Atoms are Individual Elements

For example, when designing the header of a website, a number of atoms come together. These include the shopping cart, navigation bar or icon, search bar, user profile avatar, etc. These atoms are designed first and then the designers can start putting them together to form molecules, leading to the next step in the design of an atomic system.

2. Molecules

Small atoms join together to create molecules. This rule of chemistry is followed in the exact manner when it comes to the atomic design system. The nature or properties of these molecules depends on the atoms but the holistic purpose makes a lot more sense and is more stable than that of individual atoms. Several UI elements, such as a button, a text box, an image, or an icon can be a part of the same molecule, collectively serving a singular purpose.

Molecules are a Combination of Atoms

In the website header example, the logo, navigation bar, shopping cart, and search bar come together in a specific order and alignment to create the home navigation molecule. This molecule gives a collective appearance and is able to perform a specific function on its own.

3. Organisms

At this point, the atomic design system moves a little away from chemistry, and a little close to the biological world. Molecules, in this design system, combine to create organisms that can perform a complete function, having all the necessary elements. Different molecules join together to create an organism. A navigation molecule may join the user profile molecule to create the header of a dashboard. It must be noted that an organism is not the final design. In fact, it is just one part or section of it that needs to be linked to other organisms.

Organisms are More Complicated

Going back to the website header example, the home navigation molecule can combine with the featured image molecule to create the header organism. This is just the top of the web page and there is still a lot that needs to be done to make it a fully functional webpage. However, the header organism is complete in and of itself.

4. Templates

At this point, the atomic design system moves away from both the chemical and biological worlds. Now, we’re truly in the realm of UI/UX design. Now is the time to create templates for different pages and screens that can be used to create the final designs. The organisms created thus far are functional blocks of UI elements. These blocks can be used in a variety of ways across different pages to meet the needs of the design. Creating a template is like working on a style guide, where designers provide the standards that need to be followed.

Page Templates are Made Out of Organisms

For example, the website header needs more molecules and organisms to create a proper website layout. If it is an eCommerce website, there can be products with their images and an “Add to Cart” button, allowing the users to shop with ease. Designers can use these elements to create page templates.

5. Pages

The task of templates is to serve as a guide and lead the design of all pages and screens that follow. Once the UI/UX designers have created the required templates, the next task is to give life to these templates by populating them with the actual design elements. This is what leads to the final product that the target audience can interact with.

Pages Adhere to the Template

If we go back to the website example, the template created for the home page of an eCommerce website now needs to have the final design elements in the appropriate places. All the atoms, molecules, and organisms combine together to perform one function, i.e. to create a useful and usable experience for the users.

The Benefits of Atomic Design

The atomic design system is a unique framework to create reusable designs and ensure robustness in systems. Many organizations have developed smart modular systems that are more responsive to change using the concepts of atomic design. When it comes to the design of modern websites or mobile applications, a framework like this can add immense value to the design process. The atomic design system not only ensures increased collaboration but also gives the designers a chance to focus on the small details that might otherwise be overlooked.

With the help of an atomic design library, the system gets more responsive to change and the designs become reusable. In this way, the atomic design system is of great value to UI/UX designers, who are almost always working on challenging problems.

Benefits of Atomic Design

Structured process

The atomic design methodology is one of the most structured processes in UI/UX design. The steps outlined in this framework are clearly defined with a specific purpose for each. From the creation of atoms to the final design in the form of pages, designers know the value of each component. The overall design process, therefore, is more streamlined. This is extremely important for organizations with big design teams working on multiple projects at the same time. If a structured process is created at the beginning, it helps the designers understand their roles and apply their skills accordingly.

Attention to detail

One of the best features of the atomic design is that it helps in creating user interfaces where the design of every single element gets attention. Following the basic design principles, this approach ensures that all the UI elements are created with a single objective in mind. The choice of text on a button, colors in the header, or the creation of a navigation bar, all complement each other. This helps in focusing on the needs of the audience in a much better manner, as the process starts at the very basic building blocks. The overall philosophy helps in bringing clarity to the design system.

Increased collaboration

As design teams keep growing, it is getting harder to ensure effective collaboration. There are several challenges. For instance, designers having different philosophies may not work well in a team. Similarly, when collaborating with other teams, such as content creation, marketing, and engineering, it can be challenging to make them understand the needs of the users and the role of UI/UX designers. This is where the atomic design system proves to be one of the best approaches. Given that the process workflow is standard with the end goal of each phase being well-defined, designers and other professionals can work together to achieve the final design.

Atomic Design Systems Ensure Collaboration (Creatopy)

Reusable design

UI/UX designers are getting loads of projects these days. It can sometimes be overwhelming for design teams to start from scratch, even when working on the design of the same organization, using the same branding. This is where an atomic design system can be of great value. The idea that a system can be built using reusable components helps in building off the successes and learning from the failures of existing designs. When UI/UX designers craft design systems using the atomic framework, they ensure that the elements can be adapted for future designs following the same pattern.

Atomic design checklist to create your system

Now that we’ve discussed the components and advantages of an atomic design system, it is a good time to talk about the ways in which you can create such a system for your own projects. Designing systems for effective and efficient UI/UX practices can be challenging. Therefore, it is always helpful to have some sort of guidelines to aid in the process. This section presents a generic atomic design system checklist that you can mold according to your needs.

Whether you’re working on the development of a website, web application, mobile application, or any other digital service, this checklist can serve as a great resource. This will help you make the most of the atomic design framework.

Atomic Design System Checklist (Mavenlink)

Necessary design elements

The most important aspect of the atomic design is its starting point, i.e. gathering the tiny atoms that can serve as the building blocks of the entire system. Color palettes, icons, logos, buttons, and other elements must be gathered with care. These UI/UX components help in building a pattern library that is both reusable and flexible for the next stages and projects. It is important to keep the end goal in mind, that is to create a library that meets the branding needs and is also a little generic in nature. This will help you use these elements effectively in different molecules and organisms.

Visual design and layout

The presentation of atoms and molecules, alone or in combination, is essential for creating good templates and pages. This means that designers need to keep the UX principles of visual hierarchy and aesthetics in mind when working with the atomic methodology. When bringing atoms and molecules together, the focus should be on the individual efficacy of the elements as well as the collective impact on the user experience. This will help in improving the design of a website or mobile application, making it pleasing and helpful at the same time.

Interactive UI components

When it comes to the design of digital products and services, the interactive nature of the final design is extremely important for the user experience. A modern design is always composed of complex UI components that need to be presented in a way that does not overwhelm the target audience. This is equally important to the success of the atomic design framework. When creating atoms and molecules, the ease of use must always be kept in mind. The user interfaces thus created should be interactive and also help the users accomplish their tasks with ease.

Comprehensive content strategy

One important aspect of atomic design is that it separates the visual design from content in a clear manner. This means that now the content can be generated independently, still having a significant role in the entire framework. This is where a comprehensive content strategy becomes crucial to the success of the final product. Therefore, UI/UX designers need to work closely with content creators throughout the design process so the overall goals can be aligned and achieved effectively. A comprehensive content strategy would include all the details, from the text of a button to the introductory paragraphs on a web page, to ensure that there is consistency all around.

Comprehensive Content Strategy (Aria Digital)

Collaboration and project management

One of the key points on the atomic design principles checklist is the collaborative approach to design. A framework like this requires increased collaboration and back and forth among the members of the design team, and between the design team and other departments in an organization, to ensure successful implementation of the overall design process. Therefore, it is important to develop a culture of collaboration in the organization. This also requires good project management skills so that everyone knows what is expected of them and when to deliver the results.

Conclusion

Atomic design is a modern technique that UI/UX designers can adopt to add immense value to their projects. This framework can be used to design responsive websites, user-friendly mobile applications, and all sorts of digital and physical products with slight modifications. The overall idea is to give specific attention to the basic building blocks of any design system, i.e. the small UI components that combine together to create complex designs.

Atomic design holds the promise of making the design process efficient and effective at the same time. If, on the one hand, it ensures increased collaboration in the design team, then, on the other, it also enables the designers to make quick decisions in a structured manner. It must be noted that this system is not free of the basic principles of UI/UX design. This means that the adoption of an atomic design does not mean the needs of users become secondary. The fundamental principles of design, such as a user-centered approach, familiarity, simplicity, and accessibility, take precedence, no matter which design framework is being followed.

Aspiring UI/UX designers and students of design can greatly benefit by learning more about atomic design as this approach clearly has a strong future in the field.