Build, Ship, & Maintain Design Systems with Backlight

Css IT Development

(This is a sponsored post.)

Design systems are an entire job these days. Agencies are hired to create them. In-house teams are formed to handle them, shipping them so that other teams can use them and helping ensure they do. Design systems aren’t a fad, they are a positive evolution of how digital design is done. Backlight is the ultimate all-in-one development tool for design systems.

I think it’s interesting to start thinking about this at the end. What’s the best-case scenario for a design system for websites? I think it’s when you’ve published a versioned design system to npm. That way teams can pull it in as a dependency on the project and use it. How do you do that? Your design system is on GitHub and you publish from there. How do you do that? You work on your design system through a development environment that pushes to GitHub. What is Backlight? It’s that development environment.

Spin up a complete design system in seconds

Wanna watch me do it?

You don’t have to pick a starter template, but it’s enlightening to see all the possibilities. Backlight isn’t particularly opinionated about what technology you want to use for the system. Lit and Web Components? Great. React and Emotion? Cool. Just Vue? All good. Nunjucks and Sass? That works.

Having a starter design system really gives you a leg up here. If you’re cool with using something off-the-shelf and then customizing it, you’ll be off and running incredibly quickly. Something that you might assume would take a few weeks to figure out and settle into is done in an instant. And if you want to be 100% custom about everything, that’s still completely on the table.

Kick it up to GitHub

Even if you’re still just testing, I think it’s amazingly easy and impressive how you can just create a GitHub (or GitLab) repo and push to it in a few clicks.

To me, this is the moment it really becomes real. This isn’t some third-party tool where everyone is 100% forced to use it and you’re locked into it forever and it’s only really useful when people buy into the third-party tool. Backlight just takes very industry-standard practices and makes them easier and more convenient to work with.

Then, kick it to a registry.

Like I said at the top, this is the big moment for any design system. When you send it to a package registry like npm or GitHub packages, that means that anyone hoping to use your design system can now install it and use it like any other dependency.

In Backlight, this is just a matter of clicking a few buttons.

With a PRO membership, you can change the scope to your own organization. Soon you’ll be handling all your design system releases right from here, including major, minor, and patch versions.

Make a Component

I’d never used Backlight before, nobody helped me, and I didn’t read any of the (robust) documentation. I just clicked around and created a new Component easily. In my case here, I made a new Nunjucks macro, made some SCSS styles, then created a demo of it as a Storybook “story”. All I did was reference an existing component to see how it all worked.

As one of the creators of CodePen, of course, I highly appreciated the in-browser IDE qualities to all this. It runs re-builds your code changes (looks like a Vite process) super quickly, alerting you helpfully to any errors.

Now because this is a Very Real Serious Design System, I wouldn’t push this new component directly to master in our repository, first it becomes a branch, and then I commit to that. I wouldn’t have to know anything at all about Git to pull this off, look how easy it is:

Howdy, Stakeholders!

Design systems are as much of a people concern as they are a technological concern. Design systems need to get talked about. I really appreciate how I can share Backlight with anyone, even if they aren’t logged in. Just copy a sharing link (that nobody could ever guess) and away you go.

There is a lot here.

You can manage an entire design system in here. You’re managing things from the atomic token level all the way up to building example pages and piecing together the system. You’re literally writing the code to build all this stuff, including the templates, stories, and tests, right there in Backlight.

What about those people on your team who really just can’t be persuaded to leave their local development environment. Backlight understands this, and it doesn’t force them to! Backlight has a CLI which enables local development, including spinning up a server to preview active work.

But it doesn’t stop there. You can build documentation for everything right in Backlight. Design systems are often best explained in words! And design systems might actually start life (or live a parallel life) in entirely design-focused software like Figma, Sketch, or Adobe XD. It’s possible to link design documents right in Backlight, making them easy to find and much more organized.

I’m highly impressed! I wasn’t sure at first what to make of a tool that wants to be a complete tool for design systems, knowing how complex that whole world is, but Backlight really delivers in a way that I find highly satisfying, especially coming at it from the role of a front-end developer, designer, and manager.

Build, Ship, & Maintain Design Systems with Backlight originally published on CSS-Tricks. You should get the newsletter and become a supporter.