How to embrace open source in design

Open source is growing exponentially in software development, but is it in design? The answer is not quite, at least not yet, but we are in the right direction for open source in design. Kind of.

Fidel Chaves
8 min read

“Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.”
C.E.M. Joad

Design is not only the result of a given process but the action itself. Anyone that tried it by themselves knows the difficulty of doing something simple. Exposing your design is already putting yourself in a vulnerable position, but showing how you did it? That might be even harder. Art has always had a veil of mystery, a magic way of working, creative path locked only for the naturals and gifted, but this concept is slowly crumbling since the 20th century.

The design vs. the process

The trickiest part of design is the same as in magic, not the show itself; the question is always: How did they do it? Open design embraces that question. Even if you can't exactly replicate the creative process—and the mind does actually work in strange ways—, you can document, share and collaborate with others easily.

 

The difference is showing the design itself, available to everyone, and the process of it. Writing is a weird example because written words are naturally overt, but the process of writing this article itself is quite different from the finished piece. My original documentation and planning, the research, the four cups of coffee I had, banging my face to the blank page, and finally coming up with the words in a rush as I enter a flow state is not exactly reflected in the article.

 

The same is true for every art piece and design element. The finished product can be hard to reverse-engineer, and in this case, copying is not the same as understanding. Opening the design process allows others to understand it, take the parts they need, and play around with them. In the same way as a collage or a remix, design can be a collaborative field too. We only need the tools and framework.

Everything is a remix

“To combine or edit existing materials to produce something new.”
Kirby Ferguson, Everything is a Remix

 

If you haven't seen the documentary I've just quoted, you can check it out on YouTube. Ferguson states that there are three core elements of creativity:

 

Copy

Transform

Combine

 

Sounds familiar? Just check the four freedoms of free software. Remix culture shares many similarities with open-source coding, and it faces the same challenges. In art, there is the need to apply these three when working: creation comes from inspiration. There is no art created in a vacuum, and design follows the same rule.
If art and design are naturally prone to remix, why aren't more people open to it?

VS Code, an inspiring example

In his talk at Config 2019, Open Source Design: Designing with the Community, Miguel Solorio shows his experience with design at Visual Studio Code. He was clear, informative, and inspiring, as he went public on sharing some ideas of his team, regardless if they were good or bad. They had invited the community of users into the design process and embraced open-source design. Not having a dedicated tool to share their design, they relied heavily on GitHub, the open-source paradise, and social media.

 

Taking an approach of zero distance to the customer, they could manage implementations of new design features according to user expectations and wishes, with some caveats. Sometimes it is hard to design with someone watching over your shoulder; I should know. When I’m writing, and someone pops by, I get a flash of preemptive embarrassment. Opening up to feedback is showing vulnerability but not weakness. It's a brave step to abandon a prideful position and accept ideas with humility.

 

Inviting the community to join the discussion is a great way to refine and enhance the feedback you require for a quality product. But where is such a community?

No community, yet...

You probably know GitHub, where the world builds software, where developers and companies build and maintain software… Where I enter and cry because I wish the same were true for the people who write. Designers actually don’t have that solid connection, that definitive app or website where they can post everything they’ve created, their process, and documentation, but we are getting there.

 

As we talked about before, Miguel Solorio and his team used GitHub for their sharing process, changing the paradigm of only code and documentation for a channel to open their design to the VS Code community. While this is a reasonable and creative solution to the problem, it’s not exactly ideal. Or is it?

 

On my research, I’ve stumbled upon Figma Resources. No wonder they also organize Config, an open design initiative.

Figma Resources, spearheading open-source design

Figma Resources allows for sharing of Figma Libraries enabling creators to use preexisting designs on their worktable. There you can find examples of user interfaces, icons, and more, allowing you to examine how the basis of the process is done, even if it is not exactly a tutorial. While this is a great collaboration tool, it still has some issues.

 

It is available only for Figma users. While you can try it for free, you are still bound to particular software. It is open, but not quite. You can make the case that it is already a significant step towards collaborative design—while new tools and design repositories are still needed to invoke what is happening today in software development and coding.

Copyright and corporations

“You are trying to kidnap what I have rightfully stolen, and I think it quite ungentlemanly.”
William Goldman, The Princess Bride

 

Copyright, one of those divisive fields that many question why it’s even here. It has been around since 1776 and originated from the reign of Queen Anne. The original text says something along these lines:

 

“To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts by securing for a limited time to authors the exclusive right to their respective writings.”

 

While this sure sounds like good author protection, copyright has some issues with the time and the promotion of Art and Science. As the first laws protected rights for 28 years, they then jumped to 42 years, then 56 years, then the authors lifetime + 50 years, and the more recent: lifetime + 70 years. While I can understand protecting the author's income during their life, it’s hard to imagine why, seventy years after their passing, they still want to collect royalties to their grave.

 

Let’s do the math. If I publish a book today (praise the muses), copyright law protects the work for my lifetime: 73 years expectancy where I live, minus my actual age, plus another whopping 70 years, if Disney doesn't keep pushing it forward. This allows a work published today to have 118-year protection, which means no one can do anything with it, no copy, no collage, no remix. Talk about promoting culture.

 

The thing is, these laws are not inspired by authors but by corporations, where profits will be maximized and thought to last forever and ever, even if the promoting progress of Science and Arts is lost in the way.

 

Last note on the subject. We might see a big surge of fanfic published in 2116, that’s when The Sorcerer's Stone is expected to become copyright-free. Except we are not actually going to be here to see.

Beyond design

Not wanting to finish on such a sad note, we can see a not-so-grim future. With the creation of new technologies every day, it is easier to create, combine, copy, and share existing material. As creators rely less and less on corporate support, we can see a remixing culture flourishing, which is especially true if you have been out on the internet for a while.

 

Meme culture relies so heavily on preexisting material that it is hard to see this trend going away any time soon. Platforms such as TikTok show how human creativity can soar when given a tool to copy, transform, combine, and share. This trend not only grows online but in the physical world too. Companies such as OpenDesk, and many 3D printing initiatives, put a strong emphasis on open blueprints and teaching others the necessary tools to become independent creators.

 

Companies are now embracing open source and open design ideas, as we’ve shown with VS Code initiative and Figma Resources. At Awkbit, we want to thread along those lines. As an open-source company we also wish to become a hub for creativity and collaboration. Do you have any questions concerning design, user experience, user interface, writing? Let us know! We will be glad to help!

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Sources & further reading