A short(ish) history of the NHS design system, Part 1: 2016 — a website, a brand, and a handful of services

A close-up of of a smartphone being held in someone’s hands. There is content from the NHS website on the smartphone’s screen.

No design system (well, no good one, anyway) has a simple beginning, with a team being assigned to ‘make a design system’. They form when multiple strands of work are eventually understood and codified, in order to achieve a wider desired outcome of efficiency and consistency. I’m going to try and tell the story of how the NHS design system came to be, and why it’s so important to the NHS’ future plans.

Let’s start with two, seemingly opposing things. Circa 2016, there existed the NHS Choices website, which was launched in 2007. You can read a press story on its launch here.

By 2016, it was a huge, and well-used resource of clinically-approved health content, and signposts to various services.

Elsewhere, there was activity going on under the label of NHS alpha, and NHS beta. A series of interventions, investigating how emerging ways of working pioneered at the Government Digital Service, could be adapted to health and care. Small, multidisciplinary teams were experimenting with agile methods to design new services. As part of this work, they adapted the GOV.UK design system, and made some discrete changes to make it more appropriate to the NHS, developing a small pattern library as they went. This was by no means definitive work, but just enough to explore possibilities.

Content transformation was also happening at this time — establishing a different approach to health content, making it less ‘health encyclopaedia’ and more action-oriented. Researching and redesigning the content in a way that users have just enough information to decide what to do next.

At the same time, NHS England had commissioned a brand rationalisation programme. With NHS trusts across the country commissioning their own products and services, the NHS brand was becoming fragmented by sub-brands, and the health and care system was becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. So a refreshed resource of identity guidelines was published. Whilst digital is mentioned in those guidelines, it is mainly about correct implementation of NHS logos on website headers, rather than how best to execute a digital product as a reflection of the NHS brand as a whole.

To summarise, we had:

  • A monolithic, popular health content website, undergoing gradual content transformation
  • New, post-GDS experiments in service and content design
  • Refreshed, clear brand guidelines

…all the ingredients for some significant change in 2017.

The following five blog posts cover the activities surrounding the development of what became the NHS design system, how it was used before, during and after the COVID pandemic, and my hopes for it in the future. Read on!

Part 2: 2017 — a website redesign and an app

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Design leadership and human-centred stuff in general. Previously lead designer @NHSDigital and lots of other things. He/Him. http://www.deanvipond.com

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Dean Vipond

Design leadership and human-centred stuff in general. Previously lead designer @NHSDigital and lots of other things. He/Him. http://www.deanvipond.com