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January 14, 2022

Do designers belong in open source?

Do designers belong in open source?

In his essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar, Eric S. Raymond expresses how it came as a shock to him to witness the coherency and stability in the projects that a system such as open source could produce. He likens open source to a chaotic and busy bazaar, compared to the cathedral-building-like conventional approach to software development where everything is done in secret and is planned.

🔓The Open Source Movement

Today, open source is everywhere. It is embedded in our modern everyday life camouflaged under so many layers of familiar surfaces that it is difficult to take notice. Want to participate in a little experiment? I’d want you to google the tech-stack used to deploy any one of your favourite applications(utility or social media) and check for the licenses on them. There’s a very high chance you’ll find not one, but many open source licenses there.

One of the ingredients of the secret sauce at play here is diversity of mental models and perspectives that community participation brings in to the open source projects. Being able to look at a problem through a myriad of frames is a superpower. It allows us to look at a complex problem in different ways and thus improves the odds of arriving at better conclusions.

“given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”
— Linus Torvalds

This statement later came to be known as Linus’s Law. It plainly suggests that when there’s a lot of people looking at a problem, the chances of getting to a [high quality] solution is higher.

👩🏻‍💻 Software development — a short story

Around 1966, Alan Kay, a computer-science pioneer, coined the term “object-oriented programming”. His idea here was that computers could be made to create a bunch of mini computers(virtually), each handling an object, that communicated with each other using messages rather than data sharing. Kay later insisted that the big idea here is “messaging” and not object. Having a background in Biology, his inspiration came from the biological cells that performed their own functions and operated at an independent level.

This was a big breakthrough in computer programming as this left behind the “procedural” method — that used step-by-step command for the computer to execute with inputs provided from the user, and provided code flexibility and reusability.

Another breakthrough in tech that changed the course of software development was Git. Around 2005, while working on making improvements to Linux, Linus Torvalds(main developer of Linux kernel)felt a void in the area of a source code management tools for one that was freely accessible and easy to use. This observation led him to later invent Git — a distributed development tool. This new tool, which in itself is a free and open source software, gave an immense boost to the entire open source revolution.

If you’re still confused about what Git is, perhaps you’ve heard of GitLab or GitHub, which are products built around Git, adding additional features to it.

🧩 Why do people contribute to open source?

In 2009, giving in to the success of Wikipedia, a free online encyclopaedia that is edited by volunteers from around the world, Microsoft had to shut down their project MSN Encarta. This is a defeat that Microsoft or anyone else certainly didn’t see coming. Since many years now, scientists and researchers have been baffled by this odd dynamism in the open source communities to understand why is it that people take out time from their busy days to make these contributions that wouldn’t be paid for? They certainly don’t hate money!

In his book Drive, Daniel H. Pink writes about the findings of Lakhani and Wolf from an experiment they conducted, where they found that — “…enjoyment based intrinsic motivation, namely how creative a person feels when they are working on a project is the strongest and the most pervasive driver.” In contrary to what the business world has been repeatedly echoing, Daniel mentions that — “we[as humans] are intrinsically motivated purpose maximizers, not only extrinsically motivated profit maximizers”.

But there’s also a range of overt benefits of this participation. The open communities often recognise their members based on their contributions and this recognition most often translates into future opportunities. Besides that, flexing the creative muscles on the open projects gives participants the drive to perform better in their day jobs as well.

🎨 Design and Open Source

Although, today it may seem obvious, the importance of the role of designers in the software development world has not always been so. Organisation, for a long time, failed to recognise the need to involve a design in the process of software development.

In 1996, Mitchell Kapor, the founder of the Lotus Development Corporation(later acquired by IBM), wrote a software design manifesto. This was the first time someone openly advocated for the importance of human purpose and usability in relation to software and technology. He channelled everybody’s attention to the growing complexity of the software applications and the need to push away from that. Needless to say, from that point on there was no going back.

The most important social evolution within the computing professions would be to create a role for the software designer as a champion of the user experience…. What is design? … It’s where you stand with a foot in two worlds — the world of technology and the world of people and human purposes — and you try to bring the two together.

This is 2021, almost two and a half decades from 1996. User experience has grown as one of the most in-demand fields and making softwares usable is a now serious business. There are a good number of designers in the industry compared to before and they work in collaboration with the developers towards a common goal, but using different approaches. Yet, the presence of designers in the open source world happens to be a rare sight.

Design has now been accepted as a crucial part of software development and the know-hows are now common knowledge[to much extent]. Still we see a considerably less number of design contributions happening in open source as well as other open projects. Let us look at busting a couple of myths that have been stopping designers from crossing this line:

  • Open source is for developers — Unlike engineering schools, open source is not widely discussed in design schools assuming it to be something the developers should care about. Open source model is a decentralised software development model, and this process includes design and technical writing just as much as it does writing code.
  • The tools used in open source are too technical— the most commonly used tool for making open source contribution is Git. Despite of the complex outlook, git is a very simple and easy to learn technology. Read an introduction to Git for designers here.
  • A real open source contribution includes coding — This is not a requirement. A contribution could come in many forms — a discussion, a proposal, a text change suggestion, a feedback, a mapping, etc.. In short, any format of deliverable that adds value to a feature or proposal is an acceptable contribution.
  • There is no open source design tools — Designers have long been under an impression that there’s no way to dogfood an open source product and contribute to it. However, there are plenty! Inkscape, Penpot, Blender and font-forge are only some of the widely used open source applications by designers with a repository of their own where you can open an issue, or participate in an existing issue to start contributing.

🏁 Where to start?

  • Many organisations that have embraced open source model for software development, also have an open and community led design systems Sadly, these repositories still see more contributions from developers and not designer. This is a very good and specialised space for designers to create an impact on the larger open source world since these design systems are also used by people outside those organisation, because of their open licensing. To name a few:
    a. Pajamas by GitLab 🌏 Website | 🗂 Repository
    b. Patternfly by Red Hat 🌏 Website | 🗂 Repository
    c. Carbon Design System 🌏 Website | 🗂 Repository
    d. Mozilla Open Design 🌏 Website | 🗂 Repository
  • You could also start using open source alternative tools for your side projects. When using the application, you would be able to think of many ways in which you could contribute to bettering the experience for those tools. Go to their git repositories and open an issue!
  • Look for projects on https://opensourcedesign.net and also check out their forum. This place has some very interesting open design related discussions happening all the time.

Most designers really want to work on projects that have a purpose and add value. The open source projects are purposeful by nature. The kind of collaboration that happens on these projects provide designers with intellectual simulation and feeling of accomplishment, that helps them perform better at their day jobs. Here, designers get a chance to build something amidst the presence of real users, interacting with them at every step. This is rare in certain organizations, although it is imperative to good design practices.

Chiming in on this topic, Christie Lenneville, the VP of UX at GitLab adds –– “I’ve seen new designers — who are either just finishing school or making a career transition — struggle when figuring out how to build their portfolios. Open source projects offer great opportunities to improve tools that users value, while also gaining real-world experience.”

Designers thrive on inspirations, and with open source licenses(along with creative commons) they could share and borrow ideas openly and ethically without fearing a license breach. The open discussions also teaches designers to take criticism well, something very critical to the very core of their profession.

Importance of open practices in design is a tragically understated compared to the impact it would have on the ongoing challenges in the world. In her book Design Justice, Sasha writes — “Designers, developers and technologists occupy privileged position in the global economy. Without them, the infrastructure utilised by the larger systems of oppression can’t be built or maintained.”

This shift in power is only possible when designer claim their voice and space in the open world and work towards defining open and ethical design and behavioural science application standards.

To sum it up, yes! Designers do belong in Open Source 🙂

I hope you enjoy this read. If you have any suggestion for improvements, please do share. Want to have a conversation? Please reach our over Twitter.

Originally published on Prototypr.io

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