What does a design systems program manager do?
Angelie Herreria-Tagle talks about Spectrum 2, cross-team collaboration, and the importance of over-communicating
Illustration by Gracia Lam
What do you do at Adobe?
I’m a group program manager for Spectrum, Adobe’s design system. While the requirements and the vision and the direction of Adobe’s products (including Spectrum) come from product managers, program managers help to define priority, manage the planning and define roadmaps for the development and the future of products.
Design Systems program managers ensure that the development and evolution of the system are closely aligned with the design organization's strategic goals. Being hyper-focused on alignment helps our team prioritize the most critical aspects of the design system. For Spectrum, my team and I ensure that development, implementation, and maintenance of the design system is successful, and that its integration flows smoothly through Adobe Design into Adobe products.
Spectrum is uniquely positioned within Adobe Design. It’s a tight knit collaborative team that combines the best of design and engineering to create stunning, practical, and beautifully engineered components that any product team can use. We get into the details of color, branding, content, and even iconography—basically determining the overall look and feel of our products—so that every product and service segment has the components (buttons, field labels, and cards) to create consistent user experiences. My team ensures that communication is clear between the Spectrum design team, our implementation teams, and the designers who use Spectrum’s components and patterns.
What’s unique about program management on the Spectrum team is that we collaborate across Adobe to increase adoption of the design system. Although we give teams the freedom to adopt as much of the Spectrum system as they see fit to use, it’s through collaboration that we demonstrate the value of investing in the design system—and create consistency for Adobe’s brand and the experience in our products.
What’s your team working on?
We’re working on a few high priority initiatives right now: The biggest of those is Spectrum 2, a comprehensive overhaul of Adobe’s design system coming to our products in 2024. It's a new visual approach that’s more modern, more flexible, and more appealing to a broad user base for a more diverse range of products.
We're also working on creating component libraries for our organization’s new design tool. That means migrating both Spectrum and Spectrum 2 components from our old tool to the new one. This is a multi-pronged project because when it began, we weren’t familiar enough with this new tool to understand how to create those libraries so they would be easy to access, easy to understand, and easy for folks to use the components in their designs. We concurrently learned how to use this new design system while also trying to predict how the rest of Adobe Design will want to use it and migrating and recreating all our components in it.
We’re also refactoring our token system, which is updating and clarifying the core design elements and components that we use across our products. This includes things like our colors, typography choices, spacing guidelines, and design assets. We’re also redesigning Spectrum’s internal and external websites, and creating new documentation, resources, and guidelines for Spectrum 2.
What essential tool, product, or platform helps you do your best work?
Program managers don’t, and really can’t, work in a single master tool. We use multiple applications so we can create optimal workflows, ensure that we’re communicating well, and that teams are aligned and understand the work:
- Project management: JIRA and Airtable help us organize and track the progress of our projects and initiatives.
- Communication and collaboration: To minimize the amount of calendar invites, we use Slack for questions, asynchronous communications, and team standups, and to solve complex problems, we use Miro.
- Documentation: We use Dropbox Paper, for guidelines and any other information that requires easy access for people outside of our team, wikis to store and organize it, and Directus, a content management system, to move content from Dropbox Paper and wikis onto the Spectrum website.
What skill do you consider a superpower?
It’s difficult to pinpoint a specific skill that equates to a design systems program management superpower but if I had to choose one, I’d say it’s communication.
Design systems are relatively new to the industry and with one like ours, that supports over 100 products and services across multiple platforms, communication is key for making sure that everyone is on board with goals, benefits, and implementation strategies. We're doing our best to make our system as diverse and scalable as we can, but since it would also be impossible to create one system that wholly supports every product and every team, we must understand as many perspectives, constraints, and challenges as we can so we can make informed decisions and compromises. We’re also working on offering training and education for teams that want a better understanding of how to effectively utilize the system.
Program managing a design system requires so much cross collaboration, cross communication, bridge building, and alignment, and being able to facilitate productive conversations is important.
What's on your heads-down, time-to-focus playlist?
I listen to so much music. Deep down in my soul I'm an R&B girl. I grew up on it and listen to a lot of R&B playlists on YouTube (they have great 24-hour playlists), but I recently discovered this new genre of R&B called Trap Soul. It’s a mixture of R&B and Soul, and it keeps me focused because it's upbeat, but there are no lyrics—so it’s soft and lo-fi enough that I can continue to do my work. But I really love anything, R&B and whether I’m working on roadmaps, planning, working through an agenda, or creating a presentation it’s the music that I'm playing. When I’m super busy it’s just at a lower volume.
What's the best professional advice you've ever received?
I’ve received a lot of advice over the years but the piece that resonates the most with the work I do is, “No project has ever failed by over communicating.” It was given by one of my mentors and it’s a constant reminder that when communicating a plan, it's better to supply too much information, too many updates, and to over clarify than to not communicate enough and risk the project failing. Because what we do is so collaborative, with product teams across Adobe, we need to make sure that everyone understands the mission, the goals, and the outcomes for everything we’re doing (whether it’s defining a process, establishing a specific framework, or presenting complex strategy) so that everybody is on the same page. It’s difficult to find fault with the advice to over-communicate.
What excites you most about the work you're doing?
It’s been exciting to be part of modernizing our design system with Spectrum 2, but what’s been most exciting is collaborating and aligning with teams across the company to adopt it. It feels like Adobe Design, and Spectrum, are stewarding alliances throughout Adobe with this work and it’s extremely exciting because in the few years I’ve been here, I’ve never seen teams unify, collaborate, and partner in this way. That alignment of design and software development is happening because of the design system!
What's a dream project you're currently involved with or want to take on?
What really sets the Spectrum apart from most other design systems is scale. We accommodate over 100 products and services across multiple platforms and because the design organization is so heavily invested in it, there's so much more room for it to grow. Part of collaborating with product teams is working on responsive scale and how we can accommodate it within the design system.
To do that, I plan and host cross-functional workshops to unearth challenges that product teams and business units have with the design system. (Spectrum 2 came out of a three-month long workshop I hosted a few years ago to better understand product team concerns about the design system.) As I mentioned, it’s impossible for a design system to accommodate every single Adobe product and service, but we can use workshops to pinpoint specific problems, to try to find solutions for them, or to learn what most needs to become part of Spectrum’s designs. But workshops aren’t just communication powerhouses... they’re also a way for us to continue to build Spectrum with our community.
A more personal project is working on home improvements around my new house. I bought a small fixer upper this year, and my husband and I are constantly working on making improvements to it.