Reinventing Design as Open Source

By Calvin Hutcheon

You might not know it exists, but open source design is changing the way we make things. By nature collaborative, planar, and recursive, open source design offers a model that overcomes many of the colonial tendencies of social design while proposing an agenda that stands adjacent to consumer capitalist practices. Yet its signature is invisible. There’s no open source style or set of visual guidelines. Rather, OSD represents an emerging form of infrastructure that, at its heart, enables non-hierarchical, community-sourced collaboration.

Open source design is rooted in vernacular techniques which have existed since the dawn of human creativity. Sharing, iterating, and copying whatever worked best was what allowed communities to develop effective tools, clothing, and shelter. The success of this technique can be seen in indigenous and regional buildings, from adobe dwellings in the Southwest to the Cape Cod cottages in the Northeast. In each case, a successful technique was discovered to address local environmental conditions in an economic, reliable, and easily duplicatable manner. Regional variations developed through imitation, iteration, and experimentation resulting in forking pathways and further microclimate and site-specific specialization.  

For a time, this style of making largely disappeared. The dawn of the industrial revolution enabled mass production, while increasingly restrictive copyright laws further discouraged iterative and derivative making. However, an interest in this vernacular approach began to surface within communities of computer scientists, called variously free software, libre, and open source.  

From the start, open source thinking centered around enabling a community of sharing, innovation, and iteration. Richard Stallman's GNU Manifesto, the precursor to the open source movement, insisted on keeping software free for this reason. Stallman argues that software must allow every user access to the source code, allow for modification, and enable redistribution. Yet the power of this idea was not harnessed until the advent of the internet.

Inspired by Stallman’s beliefs, Linus Torvalds developed the Linux operating system using the community development strategy we now call open source. The creation of Linux was revolutionary. Thousands of designers from around the globe worked together to build a free, reliable and open operating system. This community of user–makers had advantages that no traditional team of software engineers could duplicate. For one, the products were rapidly pushed and widely used, subjecting the system to unparalleled scrutiny while allowing updated versions to be released as often as multiple times per day. As a result, Linux is one of the most secure and reliable operating systems available.

At its heart, open source philosophy is motivated by need. “To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you,” writes Eric Raymond in his pivotal open source essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” This is one reason for the success of open source software: The solutions are sourced from people who are interested, invested, and often in need of solutions. This was true of Stallman, who began developing what would become the GNU operating system after he found he was unable to access the source code to modify a Xerox 9700 printer. For Eric Raymond—and most participants in open source software—pragmatism is at the heart of the practice.

Coming from a history of scientific collaboration and a prehistory of necessity, this model values openness, innovation, and viability over profit. Premised upon the practices of sharing and increasing knowledge, its goals remain grounded. The focus is not on the development of commodity, but on addressing the needs of community members through continuous user-sourced feedback and iteration.

Furthermore, open source projects propose an alternative reward system. The people contributing to open source projects are not doing so for monetary reward—they are doing it out of passion, need, curiosity, and pride. Recognition, reputation, and innovation are the reward. Motivation comes from the community.

Open source design adopts the same attitude. This becomes apparent when examining the construction of Photon Design, a set of style tools and guidelines for web developers created by the Mozilla Foundation. This repository of grid tools, color pallets, icons, motion principals, and typography has been built by contributors from across the globe. Not only has the Photon Design community created a cohesive set of tools for Firefox developers to use, but they have simultaneously established a robust visual identity across the platform. More importantly, this approach has enabled maximum accessibility. Firefox is operational in over eighty languages. Front-end developers used the diversity of the contributor community to maximize the versatility of their tools. This approach helped to ensure that disabled users were included in development decisions. With special attention to screen readers, Firefox worked to promote a high standard for the integration of tools for the visually impaired.

As an open source project, Photon is ongoing, with updates being pushed regularly. Those who are interested can join the Photon IRC—an instant messaging network—and start up a conversation about accessibility and open source principals with community members.

Yet open source design can take place on a much smaller scale. Commercial designers can integrate open source principles into their practice by simply sharing data, assets, and process. By making generosity a key component of practice, designers can build a rich ecosystem of collaboration and inspiration. Baring mistakes, demonstrating process, and revealing technique all contribute to the collective knowledge of the design community. Designers can seek client permission to post unused assets, sharing what would otherwise go to waste. In this way, libraries of icons, logos pallets, layouts, and systems can be built with little extra effort.

Additionally, designers can choose to use open source tools like Scribus or Fontforge. Free to modify their tools, open source designers have the power to change the aesthetic mode of production. This is particularly important because, as Fredric Jameson writes in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, “[a]esthetic production has become integrated into commodity production.” By using open source tools, designers can reclaim autonomy and authorship.

Still, the boundaries that define open source design are difficult to articulate. For some designers, the OSD approach may entail the use of open source programs such as Sketch or Scribus. For others, it may mean designing a custom GitHub page for a worthy piece of open source software. Still for others it may mean sharing resources, process, and knowledge. However, most examples of open source design, such as Mozilla’s Photon Design, remain directly connected to the world of open source software. While the infrastructure of open source software has been intentionally developed, OSD is a practice still in its infancy, and lacks an effective platform to leverage the power of the community.

Garth Braithwaite, founder of the website Design Open (, seeks to rectify this. Design Open intends to build momentum by pushing resources and promoting the growth of the dedicated user-contributor base needed for sustainable open source practice. Braithwaite wrote a short manifesto that nicely sums up the goals of this emerging practice.

“I will:

  • find opportunities to design in the open
  • share my design experiences; both the good and the bad
  • find time for meaningful projects
  • openly participate in design discussions
  • work with other designers by choice
  • improve my toolbox.”

Though open source design offers a relational model that stands against consumerism, it remains a privileged practice. Not only does participation require access to a computer and a base level of technical competence, it requires free time, energy, and the willingness to share both.

Despite these critiques, open source design offers a model that overcomes both the worst consumerist tendencies and the subtle colonialism inherent in even the best intentioned social design practices. By providing a planar model for collaboration, open source design eliminates the need for designers to act as outside facilitators, arbiters, or organizers of a community. With open source, the power to highlight problems and to propose solutions is held by the community. Furthermore, feedback comes from the user base, meaning change is constant and proportional to need. This stands in sharp contrast to the social design model which often fails to assess the results of projects, or to implement changes that better serve the community. In the end, an outside design team is hardly ever needed. Communities are not lacking in creativity; solutions have often already been described. What's missing is time, resources, and access to vital infrastructure. OSD seeks to rectify this in part by establishing platforms of communications and organization that enable collaboration, conversation, and iteration.  

Participation in the open source community can cause radical shifts in design thinking, forcing dialogue into practice and problematizing tools often taken for granted. In the end, this may be the most significant advantage of open source design. As Enzo Mari writes in Autoprogettazione, building your own tools is the "best way to avoid being designed yourself." If everyone is given the opportunity to shape these tools, perhaps it is possible to design in a way which is responsive to the needs of the many, filling vital roles through user engagement. This not only guarantees greater inclusivity and accessibility, but represents a fundamental shift away from the capitalist mindset.

Calvin Hutcheon is a designer and writer based in Baltimore. He’s interested in how data, words, graphics, and interface come together to tell stories. Exploring design as a form of social interface, his practice is grounded in generosity and action.