Open-source... design?

I dream of something better than multiplayer Photoshop

This one is for product and digital design friends. Put on your nerd glasses 🤓

If you’re minimally familiar with GitHub, you know it as the de facto epicenter of open-source projects, especially on the web.

And if you think of open-source software (OSS), you probably think of development. In fact, you probably think almost only of software development. Coding.

The step before coding an idea would be, of course, design. In my industry, “design” is sometimes a shortcut when we mean “visual mockups”, but let’s keep it large: Design is when you go from an intent, to a documented way of how to accomplish it. It can be mockups, a product spec – anything you can pick up and use as the blueprint to develop a working piece of software.

Right now, OSS is heavily centered around development. GitHub, as a platform that propels OSS, is pretty mature and established at this point. It has this circular effect of listening and catering to developers, cultivating their majority at the same time. The way GitHub is shaped guides and influences global collaboration practices in open-source software.

Stranded design

On the design side, the situation is different. For an individual who wants to present an ongoing or a fleshed out “open” design project that lives online, either they post their design documents alone as an exercise on Dribbble/Behance, and consider them "done", or they build up a whole website to present a fleshed-out idea to the Internet, but not within a platform that facilitates the upcoming work. There’s no default structure for collaborating with fellow designers, nor with developers if they are interested in making the idea come to life.

If developers are interested, and GitHub is (likely) picked to provide the larger work structure, then all the interactions become owned by the development side by default. Design discussions become issues, big releases might become development milestones, and such.

I hope to see a better way soon. There should be a platform similar to GitHub, that fosters interacting and learning between designers on open projects. It would help build a better shared language of work between designers, as well as establish baseline standards of design-development collaboration (at community-scale, instead of team- or project-scale). Maybe that platform will be a future form of GitHub. It would make a lot of sense!

So what does an open design platform look like?

My litmus test for such a platform would be if it successfully encourages budding designers to jump into existing projects and start delivering concepts and incremental changes, with reviews and support from the mature team and community that's already there.

I think there are lots of products juggling with parts of the solution currently. Abstract (and previously, Layervault and others) is the answer to “What if design had git-like versioning?”. Figma answers “What if design collaboration means working on visuals together, real-time?”. Abstract’s Notebooks tackle the question of a design workflow that’s first about documenting intent – which is really fantastic, but since they sell it to internal, corporate teams, nothing changes at the community level. Honestly, I think Basecamp gets a lot of the design workflow right by focusing on working in public and exposing intent, especially combined with their Shape up methodology.

There’s also the question of what incentives exist within the tools. In an area that’s already dominated by developers, to ask designers to insert their work in a code-centric tools like GitHub, is to ask for design to be subservient to the development workflow. I think neither discipline exists under the other, and the right tools need to foster the right relationship there.

I wholeheartedly believe that there’s a design revolution waiting to happen when the discipline integrates an OSS scene.

A big part of it is to recognize that with design, “open source” means having access to the intent and the reasoning, not just the mockups.


Also, I don’t want to end this without mentioning that there are existing efforts, such as Open Source Design, who have already started building the bridges that lead us into this better future.


♥️ Loved lately

I should have loved biology– I think we all need a periodic reminder that even the most rigorous of disciplines don’t really exist – or thrive – without wonder.

Don’t go down the rabbit hole, a great essay by Charlie Warzel about the traps that misinformation lays, and how we should avoid burning mental energy on it.

I’ve been enjoying the sweeping explorations in the Generative Arts Weekly newsletter, by Chris Ried.