Can truly great design be done the open source way? |

Can truly great design be done the open source way?

Lightning in a bottle
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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.


About the author

Chris Grams - 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....