Atomic design is a methodology for designing systems. As your business grows and evolves, your digital platforms and apps must evolve to support this growth. Using a method like atomic design helps simplify the challenge of designing and updating your digital assets by providing a structure to work in.
This structure helps your developers, designers, and tech team coordinate efforts, and ultimately create the best outcome to drive your business forward. Let’s take a closer look at atomic design, where it came from, and how you can start leveraging it on your team.
Origins of atomic design
The idea for atomic design came from web designer and chemistry student, Brad Frost. He proposed that there was a simpler way to approach designing systems, and felt the method could be used for any platform, device, or design problem.
Inspired by chemistry, his idea is that the entire design process should be treated as a holistic system — one that can be broken down into smaller components. Frost broke these components into five levels: atoms, molecules, organisms, templates, and pages. In short, the method provides design teams a set of principles to design better UI experiences using these structural elements, where each ‘atom’ builds on the next.
The logic is that no matter how complex your problem is, your designs can be reduced to standard, building block elements. As a result, design teams can use this framework to reduce common friction points experienced in the midst of development.
How atomic design works
Atomic design includes five distinct stages. Working through the method is not a linear process, but it’s helpful to understand each individual component and how they can work together.
Atoms. You can think of these as the most fundamental building blocks in the system. These are things like HTML tags, color palettes, or buttons. Often abstract, they form the most basic structural ingredients of the system that you’re building. When connected together, they set the stage as your pattern library.
Molecules. You can think of molecules as groups of atoms clustered together. For example, by combining a handful of atoms like a color palette, submission form, or a button, you could create a ‘molecule’ component for a call to action form on a website. With atoms tied together in this way, molecules serve an operational function.
Organisms. Following the logic, organisms are groups of molecules combined together to perform even more complex functions. For example, a calendar scheduling interface that uses multiple molecules like a contact search bar or new appointment button is now an organism.
Templates. At this point, we’re starting to think at the ‘page’ level. Here, groups of organisms are grouped together to form the entirety of a page layout and function. In the design process, templates typically showcase all the desired features for the page, allowing for better accuracy in the project estimation build and launch timelines.
Pages. Finally, pages are the result of the successful interaction between atoms, molecules, organisms, and templates. All these elements work together to create the design in real time, serving a specific instance.
This approach provides a clear methodology for how to design in a way that is iterative, agile, and fosters team alignment. The methodology also proposes that sites and digital experiences should no longer be based on a rigid code structure. Rather, content should be designed to operate in free form.
4 advantages of atomic design
As Brad and his colleagues demonstrated, this method gives organizations a playbook on how to design any system. For teams seeking to increase platform sophistication and functionality, the process provides a set of principles to help teams tackle even the most complex projects.
When compared to other design methods, atomic design offers some distinct advantages:
Faster build and launch times. Approaching the project with an overall roadmap in the early stages of the project enables teams to speed up development phases. Having libraries of atoms and molecules pre-built means they are ready to add into a new page or product at any time.
Atomic efficiency. Operating with an atom base means you are building groups of elements that look good and perform well individually. The benefit here is that you can easily combine and reuse these elements across various designs and phases. This reduces redundancy in the process, and increases efficiency as you progress towards a production environment.
Agile testing and deployment. Opting for a modularized content approach makes it easy to explore new ideas and quickly roll them out. For evolving standards like web accessibility, embracing this building block approach ensures everything from the smallest ‘molecules’ on the page, to your large-scale ‘organisms’ and interface designs remain fully accessible.
Improved UX experience. Since you’re creating each building block to work in concert, your designs ultimately provide a cohesive user experience. Elements are designed to look like they belong to the same ecosystem, giving a streamlined feel as people navigate your digital channels.
Enhancing brand identity through design hierarchy
Atomic design offers a framework for affirming and enhancing your brand identity through the hierarchy of design elements in the system. Your brand philosophy and values should guide how your atoms, molecules, and organisms are created to look and feel.
A typical brand book or style guide includes benchmarks around brand voice, color choice, and brand personality. With atomic design, these brand choices get reflected in your building blocks. This helps you affirm your brand decisions and demonstrate them with each new build.
Let’s take an eCommerce store for example. On the website, you’ll need to be able to add or edit product pages easily. You’ll also need a search system to help your customers to find the products they’re looking for. For each of these functions, you’ll use atomic building blocks to form the molecules that enable the functionality. One atom will be the input field, another atom will be the button, and another the search text box. Putting these atoms together, you get a functioning molecule that adheres to your standard brand characteristics.
Putting atomic design and composable infrastructure together
The beauty of atomic design is that it perfectly complements a ‘composable’ approach to building your digital experiences — a philosophy we lead with during each client engagement at Apply Digital.
Using headless technologies also lets you build from a foundation of flexible tooling. At Apply Digital, we often use Contentful as our platform of choice since it is very compatible with atomic design principles. Teams can centralize all their content elements, data, and design choices, delivering a streamlined customer experience.
Feel like atomic design and a ‘composable’ platform approach is the right fit for your business, and want to learn more? Get in contact with someone from our team, and we’d be happy to discuss how we can help.