Can truly great design be done the open source way?

No readers like this yet.
Can government agencies be innovative?

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Apple and open innovation. The discussion in the comments about Apple's success, despite their non-openness, was pretty interesting. Greg DeKoenigsberg started things off with this salvo:

"No community could build something as gorgeous as the iPhone; it requires the singular vision of a beautiful fascist, and the resources of a gigantic company, and a world full of users who would happily trade simplicity and certainty for the ability to tinker."

I think few people would argue that one of Apple's greatest strengths is their amazingly consistent, and consistently beautiful, design work. And when I say design, I mean both "little d design" (their stuff looks awesome) and "big D Design" (their systems, processes, and experiences are expertly rendered).

From a design perspective, Apple has figured out how to make lightning strike in the same place over and over again.

Today, I want to ask a question that I've been thinking about for a long time:

Can truly great design be done the open source way?

Meaning, can a group of people designing collaboratively, out in the open, ever do the kind of consistently beautiful design work that Apple does? Or is Greg right, that "no community could build something as gorgeous as the iPhone"?

Both of my partners at New Kind, David Burney and Matt Muñoz, are designers by background. Both of them have significant open source experience (David spent almost 5 years as the VP of Communications at Red Hat, Matt worked on many Red Hat projects, including designing the Fedora logo), so the three of us have talked about this subject many times before.

Even on the Fedora logo project, which was one of our first experiments in open design (learn more about the project and process here), only the input and feedback part of the process was open. Ultimately the logo itself was designed by one person (Matt), with a lot of feedback along the way from a very engaged community.

I've spent time looking at "crowdsourced design" companies like 99designs and Crowdspring. Many folks have written about companies like this as the future of design (great post last week by Hutch Carpenter on crowdsourcing and the disruption of the design industry).

And old skool designers are scared to death that these companies will commoditize the design industry and put them out of work. Maybe. But I'm not so sure.

Spend a few minutes on one of these sites and you'll see almost all of the projects are simple "little d design" projects: websites, t-shirts, icons, logos, that sort of thing. I didn't see a big market for experience design or other more complex "big D Design" activities.

These sites don't seem very collaborative to me either. Sure, you can see the designs that other users have submitted. It is transparent. But you are not incented to collaborate with other designers, almost the opposite, since only one design wins the money.

So tell me. Will great design ever be a bazaar, or will it always be a cathedral? Do you know of examples where amazing design work—big D or little d—is being done the open source way? Do you think open, collaborative design will ever be as good as (or better than) design done the traditional way?

I'm not sure.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


User profile image.
Chris Grams is the Head of Marketing at Tidelift and author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Building Successful Brands in a Digital World. Twitter LinkedIn Email: chris(at)


Interesting question. In my personal experience design can be collaborative. Designers who work in a team who share their ideas and projects in an open forum usually make their work better by incorporating the feedback of their team. I think this can take place in the cathedral, we just haven't seen a lot of large-scale open source design projects because so many open-source companies are very small and probably only employ one, maybe two designers who are working their tails off. It will happen more and more.

"Open source" is not the same as "design by committee". Open source is about the rights that users have to examine, redistribute, modify and redistribute their modifications to the source code.

But to your underlying question -- I think this is a simple question of mathematics. If you execute on a solitary vision you will end up with a highly erratic result. It may be a work of genius, or it may be pure garbage. Presumably early market testing weeds out the junk from the more promising ideas. But even big companies will miss the mark on occasion. (Microsoft Bob, anyone?).

But when the work is done by committee, you will see a "regression to the mean", where the results are less erratic, and you seldom see huge visionary leaps, but also less often total failures.

But then look at the increased competition that open source can bring to some markets and you'll see cases where the "amateurs" are giving the "pros" a run for their money. A analogous example would be the excellent Creative Commons stock photo pool that is putting the pressure on the profit margins of the professional photographers and stock agencies. Sure, 99% of the free photos are junk. But remaining 1% is just as good, in terms of composition, lighting, processing, etc., as the professional works.

Interesting post.. not sure I have all the answers. But, as a mechanical engineer- I always wonder how there can be a synergy between the OS and the design community. Surely, can't be a one way street where design firms are able to reap the benefits of the community driven projects without "giving back".

I can't begin to even wrap my head around how Apple relates to OS? They are truly an anomaly. But, let's face it, the numbers are against them. The world is riding their wave and they are making tons and tons of $$$. How long can they last before they are "too big" or "lost their edge'. I suspect that it is still a ways off, but I'm pretty convinced its inevitable. The end result may be dozens/100s of spinoff companies that will attempt to be the next big thing.

I am very curious to see how some of these future looking companies can make community driven projects a part of their daily lives.

I also think that we need a balance - hybrid system- of OS and proprietary design working side by side. Maybe I am to pie in the sky, but I think its possible.


I believe the answer is no. True Open source (not crowdsourcing) as I understand it is a great collaborative tool to build community accessible design of broad foundational systems. Yet, at some point one vision must be applied to carry the final beautifully elegantly deliverable design that solves problems and fills needs. As you pointed out, even at Red Hat the job of great design was the result of one individual through the support of an open source community.

Brilliant creativity does not come from a group, it comes from an individual with support of a group. There can be a legacy element on which the individual builds great design, there can be collaboration where individuals in groups break out to contribute to a final design, or there can be creative direction given to individuals who sweat out the details, but there must be a vision that comes from one person; there must be one final decision maker for there to be great design.

Hasn't the healthcare mess taught us anything? It gets done but the design is less that stellar.

I agree with Rob open source != design by committee. The open source design idea is great in theory, but I think it takes a solid design concept already in market to really get the OS concept going. example, what if the Eames lounge chair was now made open source, or a popular drill from black and decker? How would the design be changed, mixed, modified?

Design by committee, as Rob put it is much more feasible for conceptual design. <a href="">Local motors</a> is a great example of this. Crowdspring is interesting although it's much like oDesk or simply bidding on a project. It's the crowdsource approach. It's only open in regard to showing what others are creating. A side not, be aware of the small print on some of those projects. particularly the LG contest. Anything designed is completely owned by LG... not very open is it.

Ultimately, doesn't one person or one small group of people, run the project? So long as there is one leader of a project, then there is the possibility for that person to pull together the resources into a solid vision.

Now this person, or groups of people, with the stamina, vision and inner strength to weed through the chaff, communicate effectively and not get caught up in the noisy din of the crowd, is not easily found and could make-or-break a project.

Something to keep in mind, though, is that this leader does not necessarily have to be the "official" leader. Many times a strong personality can be more influential and powerful than somebody's title.

Hi Chris - we met at the Fedora Mktg FAD last weekend when you came to talk about brand books with us (thanks for coming, btw - it really helped us clarify what we actually needed to be working towards).

In my experience - and clearly, I'm not a designer - most designers that I know don't like to think of doing something like, for example, just making a Pretty Logo. Those who dig deeper into it are looking into things like - what message do you want to convey with this? What is the story or vision you're presenting?

I'd say it's much akin to the process of even building a piece of open source software - you'll have a group of people coming together to discuss the overall architecture, and then many people each working on individual pieces that all come together. I would guess (in my non-designer head, mind you - I could be very ignorant here!) that in open design - ideally, you'd have a group of people coming to really solidify things like a vision or story, and then those individuals each going off and working on various pieces - the logo, the fonts used, color palettes, all each keeping in mind what the overall vision is and how each of those individual design elements come together to make that vision work.

Even with the iPhone example - it's not just that the phone is beautiful, but the whole experience is beautiful; the phone comes in a wonderfully designed package, sometimes you buy it in a beautiful, clean, elegantly simple store, all of which are in line with Apple's overall story. I'd also point out that there are certainly elements of the iPhone Vision - not just Product - that people find to be fairly unelegant; things like "i'm tied to one service provider - and my service in my big city sucks," or having to sign your life away in license when you develop an application.

All in all, though: I think for there to be a consistent, enduring story and vision for whatever is created - object or brand story - for it to work in open source. There has to be people consistently banging the "remember what we're here for" drum to keep people on path towards the end goal. A lot of times in open source, you'll find those visionaries who aren't necessarily handing down the entire sketch / vision - but know that there is a vague end goal in mind, and can rally people around whatever story winds up being developed by the group. Sometimes there are small contributors who aren't around forever, and sometimes there are larger contributors who are around from start to finish. And sometimes, getting that visionary leader just takes $... but sometimes it doesn't. But if he's getting paid, does that make it any less community or less "pure" of an open source project? I don't think so.

I guess, to put it in terms that I've heard you use, the "chorus, not a crowd" thing - there might be a conductor who says, "we're going to sing a song - but I'm not going to pick the song, you guys can decide the song, and what parts you want to sing. I'll be here to referee while you pick the song, and I'll direct it and keep everyone singing together when we're ready." As you told us last weekend - branding and stories don't happen overnight, and they need to be something that will last. The one design that a designer may do alone can certainly be not something that a bunch of people can work on (although, it's probably something that can be "patched" over time as needed - shading, edges rounded, whatever, or in a product - new materials may be substituted, etc.) - but the piece the designer is contributing can certainly be one small part over the overall Vision - or as you put it, big D design - that was architected in an open-source way.

As we (in the Fedora mktg group) move forward (inch by inch, slooowly) towards developing our branding vision / story - I think we'd certainly be an interesting "case study" for how / if it can actually work, or at that, come out with something that works well. If you're interested in kind of ... I guess the word is... lurking? from afar, or there are certain bits of the process that you'd be interested in seeing documented as far as how we come up with problems / solutions - I think I can safely say on behalf of the marketing group that we'd be more than welcome to documenting the "how it happened" angle, show how TOSW worked there. Drop me or the marketing list a line :)

Why, yes... I DO run on quite a bit. :D

Hi Robyn-- thanks for the note! I'd be very interested in doing a case study on how Fedora develops the brand vision/story using an open process. I'll shoot you an email and we can talk more about it!

I agree in principle and made that experience myself.

Sometimes you can not ask your customers or peers what they want, you need to give them what you think is good and only then will they realise that they absolutely need it.
Innovation is seldom consensus.

Saying that, this can happen with opensource as well. Maybe just not so much in a bazaar world.

Opensource does not mean I let everybody do what he wants with my project. Many developers would rather like to see a fork then their ideas compromised.

Conclusion, nothing to do with opensource all to do with project leaderhip.

In the end good design doesn't originate in committees. Someone who has good taste has to say, "this is what we will do." The reason Apple gets kudos on design is because they have a Guy Who Does Design who is in charge of what products look like and who is not afraid to chop out features if they look ugly and don't add to the user experience. He's their Design Nazi, the guy who says "This is what it will look like." Most companies, on the other hand, don't consider design at all. Marketing sends down a laundry list of features that customers have requested, and engineering sends back a product that has that laundry list of features, even if some of the features are incoherent or don't fit in with the philosophy of the product. Look at any HP laptop computer -- they're a design mess compared with any Apple laptop. They meet Marketing's checkboxes, but they're ugly and clunky, because marketing checkboxes, not a chief designer, decides what features they will have.

There is no reason why Open Source cannot have good design. And in fact some Open Source products have, at some point in their lifetime, had good design. I remember earlier versions of KDE, before the KDE guys went all nutso with the flashy features, that had a nice clean design that did an excellent job of integrating the desktop and Internet paradigms. The only real problem with Open Source is turnover -- as the original designers move on to other projects, the new designers often take the project in entirely different directions, resulting in a design that is a gloppy mess of old plus new. In a company like Apple that's a problem too, but one that doesn't happen as often -- it'll only happen after Steve Jobs retires, right now he drives the design philosophy and hires a design team that reflects his philosophy. Open Source simply runs into the problem sooner, because turnover in Open Source projects tends to be quicker.

I particularly like your second paragraph... perhaps what an open source project might need to get to great design is a "Benevolent (Design) Dictator for Life"

This person would have to stay involved in the project for a long period of time, would have to do things the open source way, but at the end of the day was a dictator... albeit a benevolent one:)

This is Apple's advantage, they have the long term vision and long term experience of Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive as benevolent co-dictators...

Anyone know of an examples of open source projects that have Benevolent Design Dictators?

Isn't Linus a Benevolent Design Dictator? Seriously?

Maybe he is... but a design dictator (like Steve Jobs) or a benevolent design dictator (like Linus might be) would need to always be thinking of design first, with all other things falling lower on the priority list in order to keep the design standards high enough to produce truly great design.

Like or hate Apple, one has to admit that they place a higher priority on design than most companies or communities do. Many other things are sacrificed to please the gods of design (how hard must we fight to keep our firewire port being one example!).

I don't have any personal experience with Linus to know whether he puts design, either Big D or little d, first... maybe others do and could comment?

In my experience in many FLOSS projects the Benevolent Design Dictator position is taken temporarily on a milestone basis, for example one person is "dictating" GIMP's move to gegl and another one is "dictating" the introduction of the singe-window mode. And this is fine, since those two require different area of expertise which couldn't be covered by a single person.

Open source is most useful in the initial, but imperative, stages of the design process: ideating, generating many ideas, and prototyping. This sets a tone of collaboration and openness. I've found curating, editing, and choosing from all those ideas is a different challenge requiring different interactions. Then it really comes down to project leadership and open communication.

"The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas." – Linus Pauling


Check out Quirky ( They have a highly structured collaborative design process (facilitated by their web site) for inventing, refining, and bringing to market actual physical consumer products. Not only that, contributions are tracked and individuals share in the profits of the resulting products proportionate to their contributions.


Thanks for the link, dff! this definitely looks like is making the move from contest/crowdsourcing to a more collaborative open source-like approach... anyone else take a look at this and want to give their read?

In my experience, good design has always come from a very small team (two is optimal) of quirky individuals who are unorthodox thinkers. Excellent examples include the original Unix and C, which derive their cleanliness and simplicity from the fact that they were developed (I believe) on a PDP-11 with 64KB of memory (yes, K as in "thousand"). Another excellent example is the original Macintosh, which had to fit a great deal of function into 64KB of ROM and 128KB of RAM. Another beautiful design, because they couldn't afford to throw in everything and the kitchen sink. It had to be clean, simple, and elegant because there was no other choice. All that changed with System 7, alas.

Here's one of my favorite recently-discovered quotes, from Dr. Hermann Hauser, one of ARM's founders: "When we decided to do a microprocesor on our own, I made two great decisions. I gave them two things National, Intel, and Motorola had never given their design teams: the first was no money, the second was no people. The only way they could do it was to keep it really simple." [D. Manners, "How ARM1 Got Built By Steve Furber",, 2007] ARM has since gone from a very clean, simple design, to something of a dog's breakfast, but not nearly as badly as x86.

I think Apple's products are successful because they look clean and simple, and when they work they are clean and simple. The underlying complexity is hidden from the user. However, when they bomb you are worse off than with Windows or Linux in trying to recover. Apple minimizes how often this happens by tightly controlling what people can do with Apple products: you don't have unexpected interference between pieces of software because they control what's been blessed. They also can control user interfaces, making sure all software behaves the same, adding to elegance. They also have higher prices and profit margins, so they can afford to do it better.

Beautiful design from open source? It's absolutely possible -- provided that it's built on an elegant foundation with an elegant structure. However, if the core team tries to please everybody, you'll most likely end up with something that pleases nobody.

open src is somewhat operating phenomena rather than procedure
if the project is run by enthusiasm, then those people OR committee are really into the stuff, then that could become some toy among some guys and eventually some other people are inflicted or affected or infected by this project. then they in turn, get into it as well

but if driven by funding, then could be a different story. could be running like normal companies while opening what they are doing and try to invite/infect someone. but somehow they imply some forces on decisions due to the fund.

More than a decade ago I had a problem. My graphic design firm— well recognized and respected— was simply not very good at logo design. Annual reports? Exhibit design? Collateral materials? Absolutely. National awards. Happy clients. Prosperous.

But I was desperate to improve our logo work. So desperate, in fact, that I tried an experiment.

I asked everyone in the office to gather when our next logo project came in. Everyone. Designers and receptionist. We spent a couple of hours debriefing on everything we knew about the new client— industry, business challenges and opportunities, competitive environment— then the first assignment:

+ /everyone/ had two hours to generate as many ideas as they could generate. Everyone.

Then we met again, immediately. And posted all of everyone's ideas. No one was allowed to self-edit. Although they were allowed to present the idea they felt had the most potential. Everyone else was then allowed to discuss the ideas created by someone else that they thought had potential. No criticism of any ideas.

Then the second assignment:

Everyone had two hours to take someone else's idea to the next step.

Immediately, our design solutions were greatly improved. And we became a stronger design team. By disorienting ourselves from conventional ideas of creative ownership, we all became better. Much better.

The fundamental problem in open sourcing design has less to do with whether beauty and design excellence can be created openly and collaboratively or, even in committee (ever read the Declaration of Independence?), and more to do with the hierarchical models that are so ingrained in most of us— those 'top-down' "Creative Director" to "Art Director" organizations are expensive, slow and painful compared to more open creative models. And they DO NOT create greater solutions. That's a myth.

Apple may have an issue when Jobs exits. But my guess it is less because the culture he's created needs him for the creativity leadership, and more because whoever replaces him is likely to try to control that culture as opposed to setting it free.

Hey, partner, thanks for the great thoughts! Seeing as how you are the person who taught me to run a creative project the way you've outlined above, i'm in totally digging where you are coming from.

Your comment made me start thinking through why this kind of collaborative process works within a creative organization, but doesn't work when someone tries to collaborate beyond their corporate walls.

It strikes me that it comes down to shared incentives... in your graphic design firm (or in New Kind, for that matter), the creatives were free to collaborate on a project in the way you outlined because they shared the same group incentive-- if everyone collectively created a great piece of work, everyone got paid!

The incentive model for a "crowdsourcing design" site like fundamentally breaks any possibility of Burney design-like collaboration. Only one person gets paid, even if 200 people are working on the design for the client. Which means if two people decide to collaborate, or work on each others ideas, one of them is going to get taken advantage of financially.

The site that dff pointed out ( starts us in this direction... I'd love to see more ideas that take it further... and no, I don't think money needs to be the only shared incentive (it's more than just money for many open source software contributors, after all).

How much did the Burney vision have to do with creative direction and the final product that left the door with your name on it? Alternatively, it sounds like you "team sourced" the first design then took over the initial design and finished it off. This seems only slightly different than agency design teams competing then having a new team take over the campaign to finish it off.

I'm trying to get an idea for where Open Source meets good old fashion management of collaboration within a company.

hi bruce-- this is where things get murky... the open source way in my mind is where collaboration, transparency, and meritocracy (plus some other stuff you'll see written about here: ) intersect.

By this definition, you are right, good collaborative design companies were doing this long before the term open source was even coined.

For me the rubber hits the road when you can do things the open source way *beyond the walls of your company*. So not just being transparent about your work internally, but working with others to create something larger than your company could create on its own.

So within the company, applying the open source way means doing many of the things that good collaborators have always done, but many not-so-good collaborators don't yet do (that's why the lessons are still important, and why the open source software metaphors help so much).

Outside the company walls (or even transcending company walls)... this is what the open source software world has done in such an innovative way... and I'm not sure how designers in non open source software projects can be incented to follow yet-- I'm not seeing much evidence in crowdsourcing practices, that's for sure... meritocracy maybe, transparency maybe, but not when it comes to collaboration.

My original thought was that open source was ... well, open. That is, outside the protection of a brand. There is something about collaboration that - in my opinion - benefits from the vision of an individual or maybe even a company leader - i.e. Steve Jobs

Yet, I see the major benefits of the open source way when lead effectively with a single vision. So ... is the previous sentence an oxymoron?

BTW, crowd sourcing has been around for centuries... we call them contests. The only thing crowd sourcing has in common with open sourcing is they both have sources.

unlike Crowdsourcing which is little more than shifting profits from designers to buyers. As far as I can tell Crowdsourcing is more or less Design Spec Sourcing.

Speaking of open source design....

Saw this today:

He says in the article that, "The bike is to be seen as a first test version of a open source project. Please build your own, if you want drawings of the bike for an initial help just mail me at... <address snipped>"...

The article has some stuff relating to it being exhibited in the 2008 time frame; might be interesting to see if he ever had anyone use his design as an open-source springboard of sorts, contribute back about the design / operation, etc. over the past 2 years.

Actually, now that I'm thinking of it - Maker Faire would probably be a good place to either (a) locate open-source industrial-design type projects, or (b) talk to people about the subject.

As I said, I would say Gentoo is a good example of a "yes" answer to your big "D" design question, certainly from a user experience standpoint. Yes, many of the original ideas came from the primary founder of Gentoo (Daniel Robbins), but many other people made significant contributions, in a truly globally-distributed and collaborative way, both at the beginning and to keep it going (with many, many little "d"s along the way). And no, it's not at all "just another Linux distribution" since one of the fundamental ideas was to create a new Linux user experience. So I say the answer to your question is yes, and Gentoo is a pretty damn good example...

Does gentoo have a benevolent design dictator then? Is it Daniel Robbins? Or are there others in the community who also care about design as passionately?

I believe quite strongly in open source design's possibility, having done a lot of stupid things in defense of it. Perhaps my definition of 'open source' and 'design' is different.

The question isn't really open vs not-open though, it's how open - isn't it? As Chris and Burney have indicated, even within the walls of a design firm there is a spectrum of openness. Maybe to count as 'open source' for the purposes of discussion here, if there is a dichotomy, is 'open as most open source code projects are' (so just within an organization doesn't count.)

Do you mean 'open source' in terms of the process followed, or the literal license of the assets produced? (You can even go crazy like me and consider the availability of the toolchain involved, e.g. are free open source tools used? But I'm crazy :) ) Anyway, both process and license are important. For example, Sita Sings the Blues is the work of a single artist, but it's openly-licensed. But wait a minute. Nina Paley didn't write or sing those Annette Hanshaw songs (and actually is in a tight spot right now because of some copyright nonsense) - nor did she write the the Ramayana - so does that really qualify as a solo project? It's more towards the 'solo' end of the spectrum too, but... (Did Walt Disney write Snow White or any of the Brothers Grim Tales he borrowed? But now I'm stealing a classic Lessig argument...) As far as I know she didn't follow an open process, either, since she worked alone. (I could be wrong though.)

Is a piece of software not a design? There are some pretty great experiences in open source software, some heavily corporately sponsored some not, where the design/implementation took place in the open. Firefox is probably a good example, I think Inkscape is another; I'm sure you can think of others. But this is the obvious answer to your question.

If not software, what about a 3D movie? Do these count:

The Durian project is not yet complete yet. Yet if you check out their site, you can see them blogging about their design process and having open calls for participation. Yes, open calls for participation. My friend Chris Webber actually suggested the team have an open 'modeling' sprint, where the Durian team posted a list of models they needed created and scheduled a time and 'place' (online) for folks to come and help out. As you can see, it was a success:

"Holy smokes, you guys. I came in Saturday afternoon surprised to find that nearly every single item on the wiki with a name next to it and nearly 200 people logged into IRC!"

What an opportunity. A chance to work with seasoned professionals. What I wouldn't give to have had that opportunity - to even have had Blender at my disposal - when I was a high schooler with lots of time and passion! Think about a kid who couldn't (either affordability or other reasons I'm sure you well know) get to art school - what a great way to learn from professionals. Using professional-grade tools that wouldn't cost your family anything...

In contrast to Sita, which was a (mostly) one-woman show with an open license using closed-source tools, the Durian project is a multiple-person core team working collaboratively and physically co-located, using open source tools and releasing their source files and final work under an open license, and occasionally inviting community members to share in the work. And documenting all work via a publicly-accessible blog on a regular basis. So I would consider the Durian project to be towards the opposite end of the 'open design' spectrum from Sita - lots of people, lots of communication, external community involvement, on top of an open license.

I don't have an example to give you for the other possibility here - an open / transparent design process for something that is licensed under a closed / proprietary license. I'm not sure how that really compares in openness to Sita, but I kind of tend to think it's more open.

Don't like movies / don't like these examples? How about ? They've got folks designing physical objects, sharing the CAD files under open licenses (CC is popular there), and printing them out on open-source 3D printers. Check it out, they have a pingback system where if someone takes another design and improves upon it, it's noted (check this one for example,

This is a similar model to and but Thingiverse is physical things! :) Have they created an iPod or iPhone on Thingiverse? No. So maybe not design with a 'D.' Although honestly, i would consider the MakerBot itself to be design with a D, in terms of the cultural movement it's spawned and the fact that it works really well....

Is the iPhone or iPod really so great? I don't have either but even so I still feel secondary effects of its design and existence, so maybe it is great. I know this is an unfair question, but what happened to all the phones people had before they got their iPhones? Landfill? Poisoning some childrens' water in a third-world country? What if all those phone manufacturers actually shared information about the design of their phones and learned from each others mistakes rather than pumping out less-than-useful phone designs (hardware and software) for the past decade or so? I'm sure there were Designers involved in the meanwhile, so why did so many phones 'fail' before the iPhone? There's something about the business of things where good enough is good enough for a long time (not necessarily the individuals' feeling, but the business/company's feeling/actions as a whole), until someone else cares enough to make it better than good enough. Then competition gears up to another level because suddenly there's a reason to (eg Apple).

I think maybe a difference though, if you're not in the business of making money, if you're in it for the Love of it, good enough is not enough either. I think a lot of free / open source software folks are in it for the Love - they just typically aren't Designers. Can that change? Will it make a difference if it does? What happens when open source projects 'compete'? (Chromium?) If you really love something, do you want to design it openly? (I do, I think it increases the chances of awesome ideas making it into the mix. Maybe some people don't agree though and they want to protect it from the outside world.)

Sometimes the hard work of design is making a call on the things that really don't matter in the end. I think open source design's weakness is the amount of hand-wringing that typically happens over these kinds of decisions - suddenly folks' attention gets sucked away from the things that matter into tit-for-tat for whether or not the logo should be blue or green. (Something that Seth Nickell mentioned recently at the GNOME UX Hackfest, see the last paragraph here, although I think the rest of the post is a bit extreme: So the iUniverse has an advantage in that (I am assuming) those calls can be made and folks moved to more interesting/important decision, perhaps by the organization of the chain of command, or some other mechanism not posisble in open source communities.

How does design work in an open source community? You can't just defend a design call with 'because I said so' or 'because I am a Designer.' That won't fly. 'Because together we agreed I'd be accountable for this part of the project and we gotta move on to work on cooler stuff' is okay, (though paired with a well-reasoned, if not universally-agreed-upon rationale it's even better, eg choice A gives us this pro) and it does fly in an open source community. I think being able to say, 'I'm accountable, let's move on' is necessary both for the open source design to come to fruition and for the community to be healthy. (the 'because i said so' attitude is not healthy, I think: open source community or not!)

I think maybe open source design thrives where there's a solid structure for participation. Like the Durian call for participation for modeling. Or the calls for participation we've had on the Fedora design team. If someone takes some initiative to be a project organizer, to hold the hackfest or to hold the event or to document what needs doing and how it needs to be done (e.g. the Durian needed-models wiki), they build a framework within which it's much easier to get involved. With code maybe it's easier - hey, it compiles, it runs, it does the thing I wanted it to do. But with design, people get afraid that they aren't Designers and they aren't good enough and what they have to say doesn't matter... it's easier to get over that I think if there's some format or structure for them to understand what's should happen. Is the framework itself the design? I don't always think so. Sometimes the framework makes big design assumptions that are definitely a key part of the design, but design being the organic process it is (right?) sometimes the design assumptions of the framework get flipped upside down, and the end result is better for it, and the framework enabled the design just the same.

One of the things I've been thinking about lately is how the way we communicate in open source projects does NOT create a healthy framework for design. Funnily enough, there's a few projects going on, one which may become a Google Summer of Code project this summer, to try to remedy the situation, that are being designed openly. :)

Maybe an odd question, but - was anything in the pre-industrial world designed? Were those things designed in closed manner? Didn't folks share information and work together on things? I mean, the question sounds quite naive I'm sure, but didn't folks build towns and churches and schools together in cooperation back in the day? The designing and selling of designed things I'm sure goes way back, but was it the design or the materials and cost of production being sold all this time? It was industrialization and mass-production that sort of gave designs substantially more value, wasn't it? I keep thinking of things like particular knitting patterns and quilting patterns handed down over the years and improved upon... heck, even recipes and ways of preparing food... does that count as open source design?

An odd example, but are Mountain bikes an open source design (have you ever read about how they came to be)?

One more thing - paid or unpaid came up in some of the comments and I don't think it matters. If someone is paid, they are just as capable of producing a design the open source way as someone unpaid. Actually, they are probably even more capable as they have the time required to do it right.

In the end, we need more designers in open source. It seems we may need more open source in designers too?

Hope this rambling is useful.

thanks for weighing in, Máirín!

side note:
There are probably few people on the planet who have more open source design experience than Máirín (maybe I can even convince her to write a followup article on the subject... hmmm...).

Here's her blog if you want to see more of what she is thinking:

Thanks for the specific examples and pointers... there are some great models in there for people trying to design the open source way both inside software and outside software.

Your last point is an interesting one, that we need more designers in open source... and we may need more open source in designers too.

On the first piece, I think this may come down to one common characteristic of *most* (not all) open source software projects-- they are engineering-driven first, design-driven second (or later). In some cases engineering and design are not in conflict, in some amazing cases, they may even both be driven by the same person. But in most cases, I wonder if the engineering mindset doesn't trump the design mindset.

Open source DOES need more designers... which begs the question... why are there not more designers in open source? Lack of opportunity? Tools? Awareness? Opportunities?

When I see 200 people vying to do some dumb logo design on a crowdsourcing site for a chance to make $500, it strikes me that there are a lot of resources out there that open source hasn't figured out how to tap into that might be amazing contributors. advertises they have a community of 177,000 designers... most of whom are currently working for free:)

Hi Chris!

Just one quick counter-point - I do see folks talking about the design perspective vs the engineering perspective and which one trumps which. But I think in a lot of cases it's not design or engineering that trumps - it's business. E.g., avoiding the risk of launching a failed product because it's so different.

I think in a lot of cases engineers too put out stuff they'd rather not as well for the sake of business needs/decisions...


you're totally right. I used to say when I was at Red Hat that I felt I had more in common with engineers than I did with marketing folks most of the time. I think I probably unintentionally set up a false engineer vs. designer choice there, often they share a lot of the same passions...

maybe a better way of looking at it would be engineer-businesspeople vs. designer-businesspeople... Or maybe engineer-designers vs. businesspeople? I'm not sure:)

Yeh, absolutely! I get the feeling a lot of the business folks driving Apple are business people with a design heritage...

I think this discussion is really fascinating . . . it strikes me that maybe the key benefit of the open source movement is that nothing has to be "driven" one way or another. I write, manage web development projects, edit, project manage . . . but if I come into a project not as the Marketing Manager but just as a team member contributing from my strengths, and I see the engineers in the same light, maybe collaboration is easier and "design" can be more holistic. Otherwise it's the classic five blind men with an elephant scenario, isn't it?

I strongly disagree and I think you start with a bad premise, that of great design coming out of Apple, I won't use an iPhone even if someone would give it me for free... instead I would sell it and buy a Nokia or Android in the next second, without even opening the box (I had the opportunity to play with iPhones when setting them for coworkers). Apple products are niche products made for someone else than me, I don't like them and don't care about them.

Take Inkscape as an example, it was openly designed by a team and it is, in my opinion, a better designed product than "cathedral" products as Illustrator or Corel Draw.

It may be "little d design", but the artwork in Fedora, started with F8 is completely open and I don't think we do a bad work with it - sure, we have our own share of problems, troubles and in-fightings, but the results have, in any measurable way, a better quality than in the era where the distro artwork was made in the cathedral style (RHL, FC1-F7).

Creative people tend to fight organizational hierarchies and question rules from every direction. I agree with Mr. Burney. CD to AD to designer hierarchies don't produce better work. That system was probably put in place because there wasn't a better one at the time. Or maybe to present a design firm with a sense of order that could be understood by the businesses they served. Maybe open source is an attempt at coming back to a sense of freedom that creativity NEEDS to breath its ideas. If every individual feels free than the collective team feels free by default.

I've just read this article recently. The only thought appears in my mind is "yes". You know, the idea comes from open source community is so amazing. They can make it better, even though they are free.

<a href="">advokat oslo</a>
Meaning, can a group of people designing collaboratively, out in the open, ever do the kind of consistently beautiful design work that Apple does? Or is Greg right, that “no community could build something as gorgeous as the iPhone”?

Sorry, I haven't kept up with this stream for a while. But to answer Bruce's question way back, it was fundamentally the rejection of the traditional 'Creative Director' top-down hierarchy that freed Burney Design to become a stronger and, I believe, more meaningful design firm all those years ago. I absolutely reject the idea that a talented, collaborative design team can't design, however you define the term, just as beautifully or more so than the vast majority of very talented, creative individuals working on their own.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.