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Archived entry | Matt Wilcox .net

Why designers don't contribute to Open Source

There’s a post over at Warpspire about why designers don’t contribute to Open Source. The conclusion was that designers treat their designs like children, the project leader thinks like a client, and that the two views are incompatible when there’s no money involved to draw natural boundaries. I don’t think that’s actually the problem, I think it’s a symptom of the problem.

The real problem is that people don’t agree on what ‘design’ actually is. Too many think that ‘design’ is about how a project looks - it isn’t. Or rather, it isn’t just about that.

In my opinion you have to start with design, and then build around it. A lot of design is about deciding how things are going to work from a client or user perspective. Sure, coders know their stuff, and they can make a project do everything it needs to do - but it will invariably do it in a way that the programmer thinks is logical - which can have no resemblance on how end users would like the project to work or be laid out. It’s a designers job to know what that is, to design the project accordingly - and then to make it look pretty. Open Source works the wrong way around - someone has an idea, they start building, people get recruited, and after a load of work has been done they call on a designer. That designer is invariably going to look at the project and compile a rather long list of things it ought to do but doesn’t, thinks it does that it doesn’t need to, and then want to re-arrange how it does the things that it does. It’s a frustrating experience even before it gets to the making things pretty stage. By the time that’s been through the ‘approval’ mill, your average designer is going to be so dispirited as to just give up and abandon the project.

The solution is to have an idea and then get a designer on board, before any coding gets done.


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  1. Chris Murphy posted 93 days, 22hrs, 25mins after the entry and said:

    I think either view is actually correct. It all depends on which side of the fence you are on.

    I have worked with developers who are quite willing to let design take the lead on projects and in other cases, it has always been the development aspect that takes the lead. Open source projects tend to be largely developer-driven so there is always that "It's our idea, just make it look pretty…" misconception.

    The truth is, if designers were given creative freedom on a given project - more so with open source where there are no real restrictions imposed - the core idea would be completely lost under layers of aesthetic decisions and executions that quite invariably lead the project astray.

    I feel that since there is a need for good designers to contribute to the open source community, both designers and developers have to approach the projects realistically; certain goals need to be kept in mind and contributors find a way to execute the idea that meets both a certain aesthetic and development standards.

    It would be nice to see better cooperation between designers and developers. The interscrape would be a beautiful place smiley icon: laugh

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