Designing in the open: thoughts on open source design

What is the Design equivalent to Open Source Software? How can we bridge these communities so they form a healthy contribution cycle?

I attended the Open Design track at FOSDEM ’17 to find out more.

Open (Source) Design?

I am fortunate to work in a company that is passionate about open source contribution, where employees are encouraged to give back to the community. The term “open source” however is often associated with software only. Yet there are many examples of open design, where methods, assets and more are freely available on the web. Material design, Hyper Island’s toolbox, fonts, icons, UI kits and other templates.

Some might say that open design is the natural extension of practices like open source or open research. The past tells us otherwise.

The world has a rich history of artists, activists, scientists that have collaborated and shared their knowledge and work to get us where we stand now. Back in the 18th century, The Age of Enlightenment, we saw extensive knowledge sharing, a freeflow of ideas. Maybe patenting, obsession over IP, and other factors brought these ideals to an end.

Collaboration, openness, and sharing have always been key elements for progress and must remain so. We should look up to this history and strive to learn from it.

In the Art and Design world, we have the Creative Commons Licenses. They are pretty much the equivalent to free and open source software licenses. It’s a well established licensing structure too, but just not associated with the word “open source”.

And thus to me, **Open Design** refers to any Design that is licensed to be free to use, copy, modify, or distribute, with a Creative Common License or just no licenses, in order to foster Open Collaboration. The same way we treat Free and Open Source Software (FOSS).

Searching for the missing pieces

Through attending FOSDEM (Free and Open Source Software Developers’ European Meeting) earlier this year, I came to know more about the Open Source Design Collective, the stories behind Mozilla’s Open Design and culture clashes in the Free and Open Source community.

What strikes me the most when looking at Open Design is the lack of a centralised platform and the attached feeling of a community. I used to be part of DeviantArt, which gather all sort of artistic disciplines but not anything related to interface design. They help artists choose creative common licenses for their work, enabling file uploads, sharing of resources for contributions in a way. Should there be something for designers working in the software world, the same way that GitHub is a central platform for developers? Something open, free, that encourages feedback and collaboration. Something beyond the Dribbble showcases, and the Behance portfolios. Maybe it exists, and if it does, why haven’t I found it yet?

The FOSDEM track focused mostly about open design within the context of open source software — design as the complimentary partner to software, and how to make it happen. Perhaps the key question of the day was “Why don’t we see more designers contributing to open source software projects?”

In her talk, Victoria Bondarchuk shared some academic research about gatekeeping usability contributions face in the open source community: non-response, false acceptance (where after accepting and implementing a suggested usability change, the core development team reverts the changes to ignore them), and social exclusion (where the usability team is never considered part of the project team).

What was most interesting to me is her suggestion that maybe we need to rethink the organisation of open source projects, to consider a design layer that is the mirror of the core development team. It is interesting to me, because it acknowledges the difference in process and speed that design activities implies but still segregates while trying to integrate. I think in open source, it’s even more important to have cross-discipline teams, and to have developers learning about design, just like we should encourage designers to get closer to technology in a way that works for everyone rather than keeping the silos. Regardless, experimenting with different structures of project team for open collaboration should be done to foster a spirit of integration, better workflow, and collaboration.

Creating an inclusive OSS community

Victoria and other speakers at FOSDEM also touched on the OSS culture, different process, and the fact that user-related issues may not be important in the mind in developers. Much open source software is by developers for developers after all.

As a designer attending FOSDEM for the first time, I couldn’t help but notice this strange camaraderie that seemed friendly and at the same time sort of hostile to those who don’t share the exact same views. (I have to admit I really wanted to ask about creating assets in software like Adobe Illustrator or Sketch rather that free solution like Inkscape). Deb Nicholson and Molly de Blanc also discussed the need for a community that is open not only to multiple disciplines, but to different cultures, genders, ethnicities, and all kinds of people.

Maybe this is what also plays a big part in designers not contributing to open source projects: the lack of understanding of how and what to contribute, and the feeling that non-code contribution is valued (documentation of course, but any other less measurable improvements). Design activities, beyond visual design may not be understood by developers, and software (including documentation) and the problems they solve aren’t necessarily understood by designers. I think the barriers to entry are sometimes real. When documentation is just too difficult for beginners to get started, when just language excludes user groups. Not to mention the label of a “designer” amongst a community of developers feels a bit stigmatising (ever heard the disappointed “Oh..” when you tell you’re a not a developer in a tech gathering? Maybe a stereotype, but definitely has happened).

Design is about collaboration, especially cross-disciplinary collaboration. Design is also an enabler. We just cannot do our work if we cannot talk to the people who will help shape it and make it happen. It doesn’t mean that the ones delivering are at the bottom of the chain, on the contrary. Let’s also remember that when one can make something themselves it’s easy to forget about other’s opinions… especially when they are different or coming from a different user group.

So what can we do?

Like anything related to ways of working, there isn’t a magic recipe (sadly). As designers, I believe that if we want to contribute to open-source projects, or give back to the community, maybe we need to be more persistent. Be the enabler that helps the team, so it can succeed. Be the coach that encourages and shows opportunities and diversity. Be willing to try things — nothing works the first time, perfection doesn’t exist. And just be a nice human, no matter what. We can’t pretend to try to create a better community if we don’t keep ourselves or each other in check — to allow ourselves to gatekeep our turf, to ignore and segregate disciplines.

This article was originally posted on my personal blog.

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