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Designing Open Source

Jon Gold
Jon Gold
Apr 14, 2013 · 3 min read

It’s great to see more designers recently embrace programming as an extension of our process rather than as an afterthought for someone else to execute. Today’s cutting edge products need to be designed by people who know what’s going on under the hood; and as curious designers it’s great to have more things to learn — it stretches the brain. But there’s something missing.

The Post-Adobe era

We’re learning all these new things (and—yeah I went there—earning more money) through the generosity of others. The generosity of the engineers who create tools like Ember.js, Ruby on Rails and CoffeeScript, the people who spend hours writing documentation and accessible tutorials, and the people who answer our naïve questions on Stack Overflow.

I don’t know about you, but I’m guilty of forgetting about this. The only reason I’m not stuck in Photoshop all day is the open source community. We should be giving back to this community.

But I’m just-a-designer…

I’m quickly progressing from the stage where my Ruby kills kittens to it actually being somewhat decent. Yours might be too. But looking at the issues lists for my favourite open source projects I get scared off. I profit from using these technologies but I don’t know where to start with fixing any of their bugs on GitHub. First World Problem but it’s really frustrating. I want to give back.

Assuming you fit the demographic I’m describing: a thankful, empathetic designer; a student & user of open source software; just not ready to write code for meaty projects you probably still have valuable skills you can contribute.

What we can do

The homepage with the Web 1.0 aesthetic. The awkward logo. The docs that would be way more awesome if they were responsive. We should be making contributions there, whilst we benefit in other areas.

As designers we’ve been put off of ‘work we don’t get paid for’ by clients-from-hell, 99designs & eLance; those that don’t pay much and those that don’t have any intention of paying at all.

But that’s not this. This is giving back to an ecosystem that is making our industry more exciting and our jobs richer & more fulfilling. We should strive to give something back every time we take.

How do we get involved?

Do we wait until people ask us for help, or proactively go on the IRC channels of projects we like and ask if they want help? Do we trawl GitHub for ‘Docs should have a better vertical rhythm’ issues? Do we just go for the passive-aggressive redesign & submit a big Pull Request?

I really don’t know. Probably a ‘polite, reserved, British’ thing. But I’d love to look at lists like this in the future and see them full of names of designers that I recognise.

Designers: if you feel the same way, tweet me. We can make this happen.

Developers: 1) thanks for all the cool things you’ve made; sorry for leeching. 2) If you need designers to contribute on an open source project, hit me up at I’m going to set aside a few hours every week to give something back, and if I can’t help I’ll hook you up with a designer who can. Promise.

Discuss on Branch and Hacker News

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