Nolan Phillips
Nolan Phillips's Blog

Nolan Phillips's Blog

Can we make a grammar for our design system?

Design tokens are not enough to ensure visual consistency. Could a grammar help us with that goal?

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Nolan Phillips
·Jun 22, 2022·

2 min read

As the only person building HeartPayroll I find myself needing to wear two hats: developer and designer. This is fun, but it means I don't have a lot of time to really think about the visual design of the application. Instead, I've spent a little time building out a design system that takes care of most of these thoughts for me.

Much of what I've read and built around design systems has been about the individual components. These rules of thumb have helped make components that are easily reused in a variety of context. While this has been massive benefit, I still find myself struggling to consistently answer questions at the page level:

  • How much padding should be on the page?
  • How much big should the gap be between the Heading and Headline?
  • Should those Cards be grouped together?
  • Does the submit button float left or right in the Card?

I have been struggling with these questions because what I have is a language without a grammar. A bunch of words with definitions, but with no syntax to bind them together.

This question has really interested me, so I've started to define a Formal grammar for my design system.

# ======
# Legend
# ======
# Anything: .
# Optional: ?
# Any number of: *
# At least 1: +
# Or: ||

Page –> 
  Title 
  Layout

Layout –> 
  Navigation? 
  Main 
  Footer?

Main –> 
  Header
  Content

Header –> 
  Backlink? 
  Heading 
  Headline?

Content –> 
  Card*

Card –> 
  Heading 
  .*

Form –> 
  Fieldset+  
  FormResponse

Fieldset –> 
  Legend? 
  Field+

FormActions –> 
  Submit 
  Cancel?

FormResponse –> 
  SuccessResponse || FailureResponse

So with this grammar I have a couple follow up questions:

How can I express it in code so that it is easy to adhere to?

Can I ensure that any valid "sentences" provide a visually consistent UI?

I'll find out

 
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