Meet the Open Source Design Collective

We love to spend time with collectives to learn why they do what they do, what their goals are and what they need to achieve them. We…

We love to spend time with collectives to learn why they do what they do, what their goals are and what they need to achieve them. We wanted to share one of these stories today: Open Source Design.

First of all, why do you do what you do?

Free and open source software (FOSS) preserves privacy of its users and ensures they — rather than web oligopolies — are in control of their data. For free and open source software to be successful and reach adoption levels of proprietary apps, we believe good design and a seamless UX is essential.

So, we bring together people currently working on design in open source projects as well as encourage new designers to join the movement and find projects which need their help.

Members of our collective include people working on Mozilla, Wikimedia, Nextcloud, GNOME, OpenFarm, XWiki, Drupal, Transparency Toolkit, OpenStreetMap, Trustroots and more!

How did all of you come together to form Open Source Design?

The Open Source Design organization on Github was created in late-2013, when Jan-Christoph Borchardt was a mentor at Merz Akademy Stuttgart to get design students involved in open source projects. He created a repository for openly licensed fonts, icons and further reading and a list of open source projects with good design as part of the curriculum.

He was already attending several open source conferences like DrupalCon, FOSDEM, GUADEC, Open Source Bridge where he met the designers of projects like Gnome, Mozilla, Wikimedia, etc. and noticed they all have similar issues. He thought we should all connect and share, so he started adding them one by one to the Open Source Design on Github. And eventually some folks which had more interest in working on an umbrella organization came along, like Belén when we started planning the first Open Source Design devroom at FOSDEM 2015 and Brennan Novak when we finally built the website

Meanwhile, a bunch of other organizations formed to merge design and open source. All of them had the same structure — they were led by one or two people and seemed very exclusive. None of them got enough momentum to get past building an initial landing page. That’s why from the beginning Open Source Design was meant as a collective (an open collective!). An umbrella organization as welcoming as possible, where everyone interested in design in open source can join and contribute.

An umbrella organization as welcoming as possible, where everyone interested in design in open source can join and contribute.

In 2015, we had our first Open Design Devroom at FOSDEM, organized by Belen, Jan, Roy Scholten and Bernard Tyers. There were ~10 people involved one way or another that year. Some helped write the submission or the CFP, others reviewed proposals etc. It showed us that there was demand for a community among the designers already involved in FOSS.

That year (2015) we had 11 talks of 45 mins. Following year (2016), we had 16 talks, since we switched to 20 min talks. Both years we had to hang the “FULL” sign outside the door!

For FOSDEM 2017, we had 26 submissions and just finished our schedule.

What is Open Source Design’s way of working? Do you meet regularly? Skype? How do you figure out where to focus your collective energy?

The majority of discussions are held in GitHub issues, since they are asynchronous. We discuss regularly on #opensourcedesign IRC channel and twitter. We meet yearly at the FOSDEM event. As of November, we also have a monthly call.

Getting people to take their own initiative without asking for “core contributor” feedback has been one of the hardest aspects of having this collective get anything done. Early on, we decided that the best way to operate was to make it clear that “if you want something to happen, take the lead”. Don’t wait for everyone in the community to give you a thumbs up.

If you want something to happen, take the lead. Don’t wait for everyone in the community to give you a thumbs up.

We try to maintain a flat structure, and that seems to go against the way that a lot of people operate. People still look to certain figures to make decisions but we’ve found that going ahead without permission works best. Most people will be excited about anything that you do, and some might even contribute! We also realized that you don’t need a 100% unanimous decision. Waiting for those can be a real blocker.

It’s not always easy to run a distributed group. Have you had any disagreements?

We’ve had a bunch of interesting conversations running the gamut of issues with open source design. There was a big “discussion” where blood ran in the streets over which real-time communication tool to use: Slack or IRC! Finally we decided to continue using IRC as it was closer to our open source software project members . We thought it would be more difficult, and ultimately unhelpful to try and get FOSS people to “come to where the designers are”. Instead we went to them. As designers we need to meet our users where they are, and where the FOSS community is.

What made you decide to get on Open Collective? What were you doing for funding before?

We didn’t have any funding before Open Collective — at best we were considering paying people back for their contributions or purchases in the name of Open Source design, but a continuous funding issue has been an ask for some time. Discovering Open Collective was an obvious choice for us.

At some point we thought it would be nice to have some small budget for information materials and stickers to spread our idea and allow people to show their support. Check out our issue requesting stickers.

We also have domain costs and need to pay for HTTPS support.

If you got $50k in your collective tomorrow, what would you use it for?

In the spirit of OSD we would probably need to have a conversation about it as a group. We’ve had many ideas in the past:

  • Host an Open Source Design conference
  • Fund designers to work on some important but overlooked open source projects (Project Gutenberg, OpenStreetMap, etc.). This kind of conversation has been happening for a while — we even have a repository for it:
  • Fund some open source design tools like usability testing software, wireframing software, etc.
  • Maybe fund some research? Academic research into design and FOSS
  • Be able to pay people for advocating open source design — lobby for open source design in government systems for the public. Unlike in the US, many government financed projects are not published under a free license in the EU.
  • Transform a closed source project to open source, so we can design it
  • As you can see, we will need a poll to figure out where to spend the money!

What advice would you tell someone starting a new collective?

Try to find people like you. FOSDEM was useful as an excuse to get all of us together in one place.

Be patient: people come and go, they have more or less time to contribute, but if your objective is pure/clean/desirable/etc., people will want to participate and help.

People come and go, they may not always have time to contribute, but if your objective is pure, people will want to participate and help.

Be aggressively welcoming and inviting! See people who do similar things as collaborators, not as competitors.

Get stickers! By opening an Open Collective profile. ;)

Also, realize that technology organizations like OSD or open source groups aren’t the first people to work as collectives! There’s a very rich history of activist and collectivist work that stretches back centuries. Look to that history for inspiration. There’s some fantastic resources written by the civil rights movement, the feminist movement, environmental activists. You’re not the first to do this.

Check out Open Source Design and contribute your time or money and help them build better UX for Free and Open Source Software.