There’s a concept that I’ve come to refer to as “design syntropy.” It’s related to the creation and use of design artifacts—all those things we create as designers and product managers and engineers as we shape a product or concept.
Most design artifacts are temporary sources of truth. They help guide our thinking, collaboration, and decisions while a project is underway. But their “truthfulness” has a short shelf life.
I’ve often wondered and have been asked which design artifact is the “source of truth” for something in a product, and honestly, I don’t think that’s a realistic or even desirable goal.
I think design has a quality of syntropy, an antonym to entropy. Unlike entropy, which suggests a natural decline into chaos and disorder, syntropy represents the idea of order, evolution, and the ability to bring together ever-increasing complexity to create something new.
In product design, our work creates ripple effects, influencing areas of the product that we might not have directly touched. This is design syntropy. A design artifact left untouched doesn’t descend into chaos, but it may slowly drift out of alignment with the reality of the product, while the thing it represents evolves on its own, indirectly influenced by changes elsewhere in the product.
Design artifacts represent a source of truth only in a moment of time.
This isn’t a problem to solve, nor a flaw to correct—it’s just the nature of design work. Design artifacts are a record of a project’s journey, showing us the thought processes, tradeoffs, and context of decisions. Great design artifacts multiply collaborative impact across a team and help to build momentum. Ultimately, they’re a form of documentation—and in that capacity, that’s why even simple sketches and breadboards convey immense value.
In the long run, the real source of truth is the design system. A good design system is enduring even as different projects come and go. The design system needs to stay aligned with the product, and it needs active maintenance, documentation, and champions.
I don’t like the idea of design artifacts automatically updating to mirror changes in the design system. This might sound appealing on paper, but in practice, it tends to break the value of the artifact as a record of the project’s context and history.
Design syntropy as a concept embraces the evolving nature of design work and the unique roles of design artifacts and design systems.