The case for open source design

Open source design is taking off. Fired by the success of the open source collaboration model in software design, creative communities are applying open source approaches to other realms of design, including computer hardware, electronics, humanitarian design, and prosthetics. There are, however, significant challenges presented to these projects. Opening design processes to sharing and multiple input quickly leads to chaos without an interface that facilitates versioning and targeted collaboration. As Mushon Zer-Aviv argues in ‘The Case for Open Source Design: Can Design By Committee Work?’, the challenge for open source design is to create user interfaces that facilitate open-source design work without falling into the trap of ‘design by committee’.

Open source design projects, Zer-Aviv argues, are faced with a problem of granularity. Software is made of granular building blocks, namely typographical characters. This enables software designers to accurately identify the locus and strata of co-construction. It allows them to easily compare changes, enabling transparency, accountability, moderation and versioning.

This is not the case with other open design projects. Zer-Aviv describes it as a coding-decoding problem. In the case of any act of information exchange, ideas are transformed, or ‘coded’, into a message using a specific language. The recipient of the information must ‘decode’ the language in order to digest the ideas. Software designers have a clear language and set of protocols for coding and decoding messages. But this is not the case for other design communities. How, for instance, is a Belgian architect to code her design ideas such that they can be easily construed by a Kenyan builder, and vice versa? The challenge is not simply to identify a common language in which to exchange ideas. The challenge is to design an interface that enables all involved parties to identify and distinguish the components, or ‘grains’, of the project, thus enabling the transparency, accountability, and versioning required for successful open design.

Zer-Aviv offers the following suggestions:

1. We need to implement versioning of both code and image files. Since code lends itself to precise and accurate exchanges, it is the preferable medium for open source projects. But image files play a vital role in design projects. We need new collaborative paradigms for versioning and collaborating on such files. This is a task for open interface design.

2. We need to find better ways of encoding and decoding communicated messages. Zer-Aviv breaks this down to two things. First, we need to formalize processes of collaborative encoding. Second, we need to identify design patterns that are rational or standardized. These patterns establish a basis for consensus and shared expectations of how a message will be interpreted.

3. The ultimate challenge for open source design has no technological fix. It concerns the way that we interact with others on collaborative projects, and how we perceive our role as stewards of these projects. As Zer-Aviv claims, ‘the substantial parts of design that still cannot be easily quantified or assessed on shared rational ground should be managed through trust and leadership’. Ultimately, we need to approach open design projects with a view to helping evolve the culture of open design. This is a culture that all of us have an investment in developing.