Design and Open Source: A Potentially Powerful Combination

We are very excited about open source software. Open source is a powerful distribution mechanism to get software and people’s hands early and easily. In an era where SaaS customer acquisition cost increases monotonically, open source can be a powerful antidote.

The other area that we are spending time in is open source at the application tier. Mattermost is our latest investment there, and we continue to look for others. They tend to be very capital efficient, fast growing businesses that can be quite disruptive.

User experience has never been something that open source projects are known for. If you’ve used GIMP or OpenOffice or other tools, you know that the user interfaces are probably designed by the engineers who built the tools, which are great initial iterations. But the polish doesn’t compare to close source alternatives.

One of the questions I’ve been curious about is why designers don’t participate as actively within the open source ecosystem as engineers.

Googling, I found lots of different reasons. But this answer on StackExchange summarizes all them well. The quick synopsis:

  1. Open source projects parallelize tasks across lots of people and decisions are made by committee. Designers tend to work in much smaller teams. [Parallelization] becomes design by committee and the final product can easily become an inconsistent mess that no individual who contributed to it will want in their portfolio
  2. The best design teams establish design standards for products. Many innovative companies now have design operations teams that do this is a full-time job. No open-source project to my knowledge has a similar idea.
  3. Open source projects revolve around Github. Most designers have little to no knowledge/experience using this workflow.

I’ve found other arguments too:

Developer culture praises open source. Designer culture seems to be vehemently opposed to free spec work. link

and, that designers contribute but in a different way:

The analogous [open source contributions] for graphics design would be something like textures & Photoshop filters. Or icon packs. Or fonts. Which you can find lots of for free (sometimes even with useful licensing attached). link

Bridging the gap between design and engineering in open source software is a huge opportunity. There are lots of obstacles to overcome: workflow, structure, appropriate recognition, and perhaps some cultural change.

But if we are able to overcome it, the amount of creativity we could unlock could be enormous. It could catalyze a wave of increasingly beautiful open-source software. If you have interest or are passionate about this topic, please let me know. I’d love to get in touch with you