How designers can contribute to open source

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We all know that open source software isn't always pretty. Una Kravets, a front end developer at IBM, will be speaking at OSCON this year about getting more designers involved in our projects. While it's easy for developers to see that working together produces better software, it's not always that way for designers who are trained to work alone. I had the chance to interview Una about open source, design, and her upcoming talk.

Tell us about yourself and your background.

Currently, I'm a front-end developer working within the IBM Design studio. I've always sort of been interested in the intersection of design and development and graduated with a degree in graphic design and a minor in computer science. I recently moved to Austin, Texas to work at IBM, but before that, I lived in Washington DC for a few years, where I spent time at a few different agencies and startups.

How did you first get involved in open source? What is your favorite open source project? What is the "prettiest" open source project you've worked on?

I made my first pull request to a "real" open source project in October, and since then, I've continued to participate pretty regularly. I was inspired at SassConf to participate, and once I started making simple pull requests, I realized I had a lot to contribute. Since then I've made it a goal to get as many people as possible involved in the open source community, particularly designers who wouldn't otherwise think they have something to contribute.

It's hard to choose a favorite open source project—we use so many! I'm definitely a huge fan of Sass, node, and gulp because they are tools I use daily. That being said, those are the three that first come to mind, and certainly not the only important open source projects I love.

I just read through your blog post on open design (and found at least four tools I didn't know about). Can you give us a sneak peek into a tool (or two) that you'll be talking about at OSCON that you don't mention in the post?

A great tool that I've used on a few projects is called It essentially turns a GitHub repo issue cue into a Trello board. It's free, integrates seamlessly, and gives a visual interface to help manage projects by.

The second thing isn't a tool per se, but it is something I keep going back to and referencing in open source projects. This is a contribution guideline. Contribution guidelines serve multiple purposes: to make projects as open and accessible as possible, to avoid conflict, and to provide framework in which to discuss issues and code in pull requests.

You talk about designers valuing themselves based on money. This is a very common phrase we hear with open source ("How can it be good if it's free?"). How do you tackle that question when it comes specifically to recruiting great designers?

The most visionary work is done on one's own time out of passion, and not for a client out of money. With open source (particularly unpaid) design, there is no client holding you to a contract—you are free to play and experiment and design thing you may not otherwise have the excuse or ability to.

The beauty of open source is "two heads are better than one" or "given enough eyeballs all bugs are shallow." How can we get creative people to work better in teams? Is there a risk that meshing multiple design styles will result in a less cohesive GUI?

When it comes to open source software, we know that more eyes on a piece of software reduces bugs and speeds up the time it takes to build. With design, this can also apply, though it is more difficult since it is still considered a relatively subjective medium. Setting deadlines for MVP decisions can help with that. A technique we recently used on the open source design branding was to allow a time period (one week) to design, defend your designs, comment on other designs, and then vote in favor of a direction. This direction would then be woven into the thread of the design for the rest of the product and built upon.

Speaker Interview

This article is part of the Speaker Interview Series for OSCON 2015. OSCON is everything open source—the full stack, with all of the languages, tools, frameworks, and best practices that you use in your work every day. OSCON 2015 will be held July 20-24 in Portland, Oregon..

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Nicole C. Baratta (Engard) is a Senior Content Strategist at Red Hat. She received her MLIS from Drexel University and her BA from Juniata College. Nicole volunteers as the Director of ChickTech Austin. Nicole is known for many different publications including her books “Library Mashups", "More Library Mashups", and "Practical Open Source Software for Libraries".

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