Laying the foundations for the University of St Andrews Design System

Teodora Udrea
Thursday 2 May 2024

How the insights from Andrew Couldwell’s Laying the Foundations have helped the University to create its own design system.

Creating a robust and future-proof design system for the University of St Andrews requires leveraging existing strengths, fostering team alignment, and embracing an agile and user-centric approach, as outlined in the insights from Andrew Couldwell’s book Laying the Foundations.

Construction team laying the foundations of a large building.

The importance of transparency and honesty

In his book Laying the Foundations, Andrew Couldwell provides invaluable insights into the process of building a robust and effective design system.

As the University of St Andrews embarks on the journey of creating its own design system, we can draw upon the wisdom shared in this book to ensure a successful and sustainable outcome.

Building on existing foundations

Couldwell’s construction analogy of ‘laying the foundations’ and then building upon them is particularly relevant to our situation.

The University’s strong brand identity, established house style guide, and existing design components can be seen as the foundations upon which we can build our design system.

Rather than discarding these valuable assets, we can leverage them to create a future-proof solution that allows the design of the University website to grow and adapt to changing technologies and user needs.

Fostering team alignment and shared understanding

Additionally, Couldwell emphasises the importance of team alignment and shared understanding.

At the University of St Andrews, we are fortunate to have a dedicated Digital Communications team that can serve as a resource for training and onboarding colleagues who wish to utilise the design system in their projects.

By ensuring that everyone involved understands the principles, standards, and vision behind the design system, we can foster a cohesive and collaborative approach.

Establishing terminology and hierarchy

Another key aspect highlighted in the book is the importance of terminology and the distinction between components, patterns, templates and pages.

By clearly defining these concepts and how they build on one another, we can establish a shared language and a logical hierarchy within the design system.

This will not only facilitate team collaboration but also ensure that the design system is intuitive and user-friendly for everyone who interacts with it.

Designing for content, not the other way around

Couldwell also advises against trying to fit content to the design, but rather designing for the content.

This aligns with the University’s commitment to user-centric design, where we prioritise the needs and experiences of our diverse stakeholders, from prospective students to alumni and faculty.

Embracing an iterative approach

Lastly, Couldwell’s message of not striving for perfection, but rather focusing on getting to a minimum viable product (MVP) or beta launch phase as soon as possible, resonates with our approach.

We understand that design is an iterative process, and by embracing a mindset of continuous improvement we can launch a design system that meets the immediate needs of the University, while remaining adaptable and open to refinement over time.


In conclusion, the insights and principles shared in Andrew Couldwell’s Laying the Foundations provide a valuable roadmap for the University as we embark on the creation of our own design system.

By leveraging our existing strengths, fostering team alignment, and embracing an agile and user-centric approach, we can build a design system that not only meets the current needs of the University but also sets the stage for future growth and innovation.

Related topics