Design System vs Component Library: Key Differences

Learn about design system vs component library in UI/UX design. What are the major differences between these two terms and why is it important?

Written by RamotionSep 24, 202211 min read

UI/UX professionals have a number of tools and techniques to improve the quality of their designs. What is unique about the field of design is that these practices keep evolving over time, making the design and development process more efficient and effective. Whether it is a web development project or the creation of mobile apps, designers need to think through the entire process and work on the building blocks of the process to ensure that the final product is useful and usable. Successful organizations create design systems to streamline the process and improve the quality of user interface design. A good design system is built using various elements, or building blocks. One such element is called the UI component library.

It is important to understand what a component library is and what value it adds to the design system. More often than not component libraries are confused with design systems. A component library alone cannot define the entire design system. As a part of a design system engineer team, UI/UX professionals come across component libraries, pattern libraries, and design systems on a regular basis. Therefore, these terms must be clarified and used with care, as the entire process can be jeopardized if the designers are not clear about the terminologies.

UI Elements for Design Systems (Justinmind)

In this article, we define a component library and discuss how it is different from a design system. We also refer to the significance of a component library in the design process.

  1. Component library definition
  2. What is the difference between a component library and a design system?
  3. The role of a component library in the design system process

Read along as we introduce these interesting concepts, along with the major differences between them, so you may never confuse a component library with the design system.

Component Library Definition

A component library — also referred to as a UI kit, UI library, or UI component library — is one of the building blocks of a design system. A component library is a collection of UI elements, such as the design of buttons, the selection of fonts, and other typography and visual elements. The purpose of such a library is to keep reusable user interface components in a single place that can then be used for different projects.

Creating a component library can significantly improve the design process. When designers have a single resource like this, there is no need to redesign elements whenever they start working on a new project. Therefore, component libraries come in handy when design teams are dealing with multiple projects with the aim to keep things consistent. This is particularly useful when it comes to the atomic design framework where small building blocks, atoms, are used to create complex designs.

What is Component Library (Freepik)

A UI component library can consist of a single file or a folder that can be shared with all the members of the design team. The number of elements and design details included in a library depend on the organization and the nature of the projects. For example, if a UX design agency specializes in the creation of websites, its design team may create a component library with templates of entire web pages that can be modified and used for different projects. Similarly, if a design team works on creating internal designs for an organization, they may include brand-specific components in the library.

Difference Between a Component Library and a Design System

In the last few years, a number of new terms and techniques have been introduced in the field of UI/UX design. From design thinking and participatory design to agile UX and lean UX, there has been a lot going on. Keeping track of the developments can be overwhelming for designers, irrespective of their expertise and level of experience in the field. One complication because of these advancements is that terms often get mixed up. For example, design thinking might be confused with participatory design, leading to an approach that is not as effective.

Another such confusion is between component libraries and design systems.

Although both UI component libraries and design systems follow the basic design principles and add great value to the design process, it is critical to clarify their scope and differences. Having a good understanding of these terms can help in creating effective design systems, leading to comprehensive design systems that can, in turn, add value to the end products.

Component Libraries vs Design Systems

Component libraries are a part of design systems

A component library is one part of the design system. It can be thought of as a subset of the entire system that includes other building blocks. A component library alone cannot make up the design system. It requires other elements such as a pattern library, branding guidelines, and specific policies and documentation. Therefore, the first important thing to consider is that a component library cannot function alone in a design process. It requires a structure that is dictated by the design system.

Component libraries only contain UI elements

A UI component library, as the name indicates, includes user interface elements and design tokens. These include the design of buttons, pop-up menus, icons, a selection of fonts, and other elements. A shared component library serves as a digital space where these design elements are stored, to be used as needed. There is, however, no information on their usage in a project. A design system, on the other hand, may consist of a comprehensive style guide detailing the policies and usage guidelines associated with the design elements.

Component Libraries Contain UI Elements (Freepik)

Design systems contain policies and procedures

Design systems have a lot more structure than component libraries. One of the most important functions of a design system is to streamline the design process. This is achieved by including policies, procedures, and design guidelines in the design system. A design system is a comprehensive internal resource for any organization. It includes the values and principles that the design teams adhere to, along with branding standards and guidelines. Such information is extremely important to ensure consistency and uniformity in design projects.

Component libraries do not have standard documentation

A component library, as mentioned above, does not include any standard documentation for designers. The absence of documentation and policies in component libraries is, in fact, deliberate and useful. A UI kit or library is supposed to be a flexible and reusable resource, something that the designers can modify based on the needs of a specific project. Therefore, if a component library consists of style guides, it might restrict its usefulness. Design systems, on the other hand, contain detailed documentation and guidelines, as the aim here is to provide a standard for the design team — a comprehensive mechanism for all projects.

Design systems dictate the entire design processes

Design systems govern the entire design process in any organization. A component library is a significant part of the system, but in order for such a library to be useful, it requires a structure and a series of guidelines. These guidelines, along with the best practices learned over time, come from the design system. A design system, built using specific tools and strategies, can be thought of as a comprehensive infrastructure that includes all the building blocks and design patterns to create successful products and services.

Design Systems are Bigger than Component Libraries (Ramotion on Dribble)

The Role of a Component Library in The Design System Process

A component library is critical to the creation of a comprehensive design system solution. In order to improve the efficacy of design operations and processes in any organization, it is important that all the required UI elements are readily available. This is one of the most valuable advantages of having a shared library.

A component library helps in keeping the entire design team on the same page and adds consistency to the products and services created by the organization. Along with this, the availability of design elements significantly reduces the time and effort required to create end products.

The Importance of Component Libraries

Bringing consistency in designs

One of the most important benefits of component libraries is that they bring consistency to the design of products and services. When the design teams have all the basic UI elements readily available, their task becomes easier. They can simply pick the design components and modify them as needed. This can save from creating entirely new components that may or may not be consistent with the already existing design system. Choices as simple as fonts and colors can sometimes lead to a lack of consistency, thus impacting the overall usability of interfaces. A component library can resolve this issue by serving as a single useful resource.

Providing shareable UI elements

The existence of a component library can streamline the design and development process by ensuring that the UI components are always available to those working on the design projects. One of the most useful aspects of a component library is that it can be shared across platforms with all the designers in the organization. This is particularly important in large corporations and agencies with big design teams. The designers can refer to the component library whenever they need, pick the required components, modify them, and add it to their projects. They can even use the same components for multiple projects, thus making their task easier.

Component Libraries can be Shared (TechRepublic)

Saving time and effort on projects

As mentioned above, component libraries bring different UI elements to a single shared space, giving designers the ability to pick and choose the components they need for their projects. The availability of reusable components helps in saving time and effort in the design of products and services. For example, when the design team is working on a mobile application prototype, they can go to the component library and select appropriate elements, such as buttons and icons, and add it to the new design. Instead of creating new buttons and icons, they can simply modify the existing elements, thus saving a lot of time in the process.

Developing a rich resource

A UI component library is a rich resource for any design system. When it comes to big organizations, working on enterprise applications, component libraries are extremely helpful, as these provide flexibility of use with added efficiency. Additionally, when building a design system, the same component library can be used as an inspiration. The availability of existing UI elements can help in drafting rules and guidelines for their usage in a project. Together with pattern libraries and style guides, component libraries create an effective system that can greatly improve the design and development process in any organization.

Component Libraries are a Growing Resource (eLearning Industry)

Improving collaboration

Another important benefit of a component library, which may not be as visible as others, is that it can improve collaboration within the design system team of an organization. As designers keep working on new projects, they learn new skills and create new components along the way. The best and most generic components out of these can then be added to the UI library, serving as a reusable resource. Additionally, if the component library allows designers to give feedback, it can be used as a great platform to share new ideas and improve designs in a highly collaborative environment.

Conclusion

With the field of UI/UX design advancing at a rapid pace, there is always a lot to learn and new practices to adopt in order to create efficient, useful, and usable products. The complexity of the knowledge network can, however, sometimes be overwhelming, leading to confusion between different aspects, terms, and techniques. Component library vs design system is one such aspect that needs attention. It must be noted that a component library is extremely important for the success of a design system but it can never replace the entire system. When working on the creation of your own design system, you need to be careful in defining the scope of your library, so that it serves the right purpose.

A component library can, quite literally, revolutionize design efforts and processes by bringing all the UI elements together and making them readily available to everyone on the team. This improves the consistency of products and services, along with a significant reduction in the time and effort required to finish projects, particularly those with strict deadlines.

If your design team does not have a component library at this point, now is a good time to start working on it. There are several resources and open source component libraries, such as Material UI, that can help you get started with the creation of a comprehensive and flexible library of your own. Component libraries are an essential part of successful design teams, ones that can lead to effective products and services.