Open Source Design

Democracies provide us with a very workable model for shared intellectual property. The concept of We, the people — a messy, chaotic process owned by all — is at the heart of the open source software movement. Much like the framers’ original intent for our constitution, open source software provides a framework to solve problems together that are hard to solve as individuals.

It’s not to say that Apple is wrong for making iTunes a closed piece of software, or Adobe is wrong for making Photoshop the way that they do. It’s simply that there are many things we can successfully do together more efficiently. The technology underpinning this blog post, from HTML that delivers content and structure to the browser, CSS that provides the design, to the servers that deliver the whole package, are all the result of open source collaboration — all strengthened by people coming up with improvements and new ideas everyday.

Federal, state and local governments are realizing open source software development is a way to avoid getting stuck with proprietary code that can’t be reused, repurposed, or easily maintained long term. Moreover, since taxpayers collectively own what they pay for, contributing government technology as open source makes economic sense.

For the most part, software developers have been having all the fun. For designers, the process becomes a quite a bit harder. The version control tools that enable such easy collaboration in the coding world have not been extended to the design community. There’s no GitHub plugin for Creative Suite for example, no easy way to merge design changes piece by piece. Make no mistake, I fully realize these are difficult problems to solve. Tracking the changes made to lines of code is a far simpler problem to solve than tracking the changes made to a visual design. But, I do think it’s a solvable problem. Tools like layervault provide a great first step, but there’s more to be done. What if individual versions could be assigned to layers? What if designers could the same ease as developers? What if the design process became more transparent as a result?

The bigger challenge is cultural. Designers typically work behind the magic curtain, only to reveal the finished product when absolutely ready. The process of designing is usually shrouded in a bit of mystery, seldom talked about with the client, or even with other coworkers. I’ll admit, the idea of someone else getting their hands on my best design work gives me pause. Do I really want to commit to someone else changing my work? What if their ideas are better? To lose a little bit of control over the process and the finished product — this is a far bigger challenge for designers to overcome.

Dribbble has been perhaps the strongest example of how this process can work effectively. Focused, smart sharing of work in progress — combined with a fun social environment — have made for an extremely vibrant online community. But, it doesn’t go the last mile, the part where we have tools to enable us to directly collaborate.

Here are a few small ways I’ve seen open source design work firsthand:

alpha.data.gov

I was fortunate enough to collaborate on alpha.data.gov with fellow #PIF Ryan Panchadsaram last year, with the collaborative process out in the open for all to see on GitHub. So far, seven people have contributed to the site design and content.

next.data.gov

A sneak peak of what data.gov will eventually become, next.data.gov’s design is also open source.

Presidential Innovation Fellows Logo

I’ve added version 2 of this logo to GitHub, and already added some great improvements made by Andrew Liebchen.

It doesn’t have to be limited to UI design either, as this great work from UX designer Ed Mullen clearly shows.

These are very small steps compared with the great deal of progress that’s been made by coders making government better. Clearly, we have some catching up to do, but the results could have no less impact. Given how much good design can change our relationship with government, opening the process to more people to make that process better only makes sense. While we’re at it, if someone wants to make a GitHub plugin for Creative Suite, I’d be your biggest fan.

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