Opening Up Design

One of the most fascinating aspects of open source is how its key ideas are being applied elsewhere. Obvious examples include open content - things like Wikipedia - open data, open access and open science, but there are also moves to apply them...


One of the most fascinating aspects of open source is how its key ideas are being applied elsewhere. Obvious examples include open content – things like Wikipedia – open data, open access and open science, but there are also moves to apply them to more specialised business disciplines like design.

Recently, a book called "Open Design Now: Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive" was published, which provided the first in-depth look at this world. As you might hope given its subject-matter, the essays that go to make it up are also being made available online under a Creative Commons licence – but with a twist:

Until 12-12-12, each 25 days one case, one article and one of the visual index pages will be published on this website. After that you'll have the whole book to read for free here. To keep yourself updated on newly opened content, please like us on Facebook, or follow @waag and @premsela on Twitter.

The Introduction and first article are already available, and give a flavour of the rest of the book (which I've bought in hard-copy form and read, since I can't wait until the end of next year – just as the publishers intended.)

The introduction begins by offering a rather abstract framework for what is happening in open design, contrasting "possibilitarians" with "realitarians":

Possibilitarians engage in open design as a process, trusting their own abilities to guide that process. And as possibilitarians, they pursue strategies to be inclusive, to involve others, to build bridges between opposite positions: North-South, old-young, traditional-experimental. Possibilitarians represent a sharing culture which is at the core of open design. As such, they trust others to make their own contributions and to build upon what has been shared. Trust, responsibility and reciprocity are important ingredients in an open, sharing culture. These factors have been discussed at length in relation to software development; the debate has been revived in the context of the ongoing informatization of society. As with open data, open design will have to address these questions. And as with open data, open design will have to involve the actual end users, not organizations, panels or marketers. Design will have to identify the fundamental questions, which supersede the design assignments issued by mass-producers or governments. And design will have to develop a strategy of reciprocity, particularly when objects become ‘smart' parts of an interconnected web of things, similar to the emergence of the internet.

That provides the link with open source, and the need to make the design process more inclusive by involving end-users. This is a point picked up by the the first essay after the introduction, by Paul Atkinson from Sheffield Hallam University:

The relationship between the designer and the objects they initiate will change, as they might never see or even be aware of the results of their endeavours, changed as they will be by users to suit their own needs. The relationship between the user and the products they own changes too, as they move from being passive consumers of designed products to active originators of their own designs. Indeed, the terms ‘amateur' and ‘professional' may well disappear as we move into this ‘post-professional' era. Design education will also have to change its curriculum, perhaps moving closer to the learning style used in craft training – teaching students to create more meaningful, individual pieces rather than huge numbers of identically mass produced products. Designers will have to learn to develop systems that will be used by others rather than trying to remain the sole author of their own work. And while it might seem daunting for the designer to be further removed from the end product they design, it is in fact a huge opportunity for the designer to become far more closely involved with the process of production than before, with all the associated knowledge and awareness of material quality and behaviour that implies. The challenge will be to create systems that enable the design integrity of the end result to be retained and perhaps the identity of the original design intention to be perceived, while still allowing a degree of freedom for individual users to adapt designers' work to their own ends.

Again, the close similarities with the open source world are clear.

The essays in the book range widely, and reading them, I found they offered a fascinating perspective back onto open source. If you are interested in design and how open source techniques can be applied, you will probably want to rush out and buy the analogue book now; if open source is your main focus, you may prefer the gentle drip of cc-licensed articles over the next 18 months. Either way, "Open Design Now" is well-worth exploring.

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