What Are Design Tokens?

I’ve been hearing a lot about design tokens lately, and although I’ve never had to work on a project that’s needed them, I think they’re super interesting and worth jotting down a few notes about. As I understand it, the general idea is this: design tokens are an agnostic way to store variables such as typography, color, and spacing so that your design system can be shared across platforms like iOS, Android, and regular ol’ websites.

Design tokens are starting to gain a bit of momentum in the design systems community, but they’re not an entirely new concept. There’s a great talk with Jina Anne and Jon Levine from 2016 where they talk about how design tokens are used in the Lightning Design System at Salesforce. They describe the complexity of the world we’re living in where a single organization that is building multiple web apps and native applications need to feel and look the same whilst not slowing down the development team. Jina also has made an in-depth video course about design tokens and in the preview for that she writes:

With design tokens, you can capture low-level values and then use them to create the styles for your product or app. You can maintain a scalable and consistent visual system for UI development.

Let’s take just one example: you probably have a typographic scale that you want to be identical across a bunch of platforms. Instead of storing the values for that scale in a CSS file and replicating them in every app or website, they can be stored in a JSON file that will then be transformed into the code needed for all those other platforms. Something like this:

{ "global": { "type": "token", "category": "typography" }, "aliases": { "TYPE_SIZE_SM": { "value": "14px" }, "TYPE_SIZE_MD": { "value": "25px" }, "TYPE_SIZE_LG": { "value": "44px" } },

You could write your own code to take this JSON file and convert it into all the variables you might need, for example, a Sass file would depend upon these tokens and might consume them as variables to be used elsewhere in a web app. One example of a tool that can do a lot of the hard work for us is Amazon’s Style Dictionary and here’s an example of how that works in practice:

I think this is ridiculously neat stuff. And I can see how it saves a ton of duplicate code and confusion across multiple teams since it serves as a single source of truth as opposed to having several codebases that have the same design requirements and their own stylesheets to maintain. Cristiano Rastelli also wrote about managing design tokens with Style Dictionary a little while ago and goes into a lot more depth on how to get started.

Your source of truth doesn’t even have to be a JSON file! In a post from earlier this year, Pavel Laptev shows us how to make these design tokens in Figma and, by using their API, abstract those values out of design mockups and use them in a codebase.

Pavel broke up his Figma doc into separate pages for his grid, spacers, palette and typography like this:

Right now, it seems like this requires a ton of effort to set up, but I reckon that tools like Sketch and Figma are only going to make stuff like this way easier for us in the near future – they probably want the source of truth to be in their specific design tool instead of some other tool.

The last thing I want to mention is this post by Brent Jackson where he wrote up some thoughts about interoperability when it comes to design systems. Specifically, he argues that there should be a specification for design tokens so that any CSS-in-JS library could consume that code in any format or style:

Design system tokens are meant to be flexible and work cross-platform, which means different teams, different implementations, and different libraries will name things differently. This is where this specification would fit in. A lot of interoperability could be realized, if we all, for example, named our color palette colors and named the font sizes we use fontSizes. What you do beyond that and what data format you use to store these values, is up to you. It’s trivial to convert JSON to ES modules to YAML or even TOML, if that’s your thing. It’s also just a data structure, so transforming between other data structures (e.g. design tools or a GraphQL API) should also be possible. This standard also wouldn’t try to solve the extremely complex problems of how to name the colors themselves.

Brent then went ahead and created a theme specification to solve this very problem. It looks like having a single standard for writing all our variables and settings would help us if we wanted to switch from one CSS-in-JS library to another, or if we wanted to switch to some other system that we haven’t imagined yet.

Anyway, I believe that design tokens are only starting to become mainstream and their popularity is about to increase as these tools, workflows, and standards become better with time — it’s all thoroughly exciting stuff!

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