This essay takes Free/Libre Open Source (F/LOS) as a lens to rethink design practice and pedagogy. The paper provides an overview of F/LOS concepts, figures, and thinking. The narrative inter-connects these concepts with historical design precedent and outcomes from a new class, “Special Topics in Graphic Design: Open Source.” The essay ends with thoughts for how design practice and pedagogy improve by adopting F/LOS.
Special Topics in Graphic Design: Open Source ran from January to May of 2018 at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). The course asked students to explore F/LOS software and ideologies in producing graphic design. Other than “earnestly experiment with F/LOS tools,” the main projects were working with the MICA library on an identity and print materials, and collaboratively writing, designing, and printing a book that was exemplary of and about our F/LOS exercises and experiments. Each week we discussed how F/LOS’s ideas and technologies might serve the students’ (and the greater design communities) needs better than mainstream offerings.
Three lectures and workshops at MICA inspired the class’ origins. Loraine Furter and Eric Schrijver, members of a collective known as “Open Source Publishing,” ran two workshops: one using public domain resources in one’s design practice, and one customizing open source fonts. David Crossland of Google Fonts visited MICA and demoed new open source variable typefaces that Google and Type Network , collaborated on. Ending his lecture, Crossland explained how he ended up working at Google Fonts in the first place: being a lover and supporter of F/LOS. With Furter and Schrijver’s examples for how design practice might embrace F/LOS, and through casual conversation with Crossland about his libre font and software background, F/LOS ideals and tools felt like good exploratory territory for a graphic design course.
A search for “Open Source Design” online returns The Open Source Design Manifesto by Garth Braithwaite, a designer working on open source projects at Adobe. Braithwaite’s manifesto made a simple starting point in understanding how F/LOS impacts graphic design. The manifesto reads:
- 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
In a 2013 talk called “Designers Can Open Source,” Braithwaite explains actions and behaviors designers might adopt for the “open-ness” the manifesto aims to inspire. The main tenant is to share more: “Sharing process, especially the failures, really helps” and “post as you are working, show how things evolve.” This creates an ecosystem where designers are more collaborative and more open with their neighbors — more unselfconscious — making design knowledge more effectively shared. Taking Braithwaite’s ideas to heart, our class made sharing and communicating a goal. To facilitate this we moved our class’ project files to repositories on Github (Braithwaite mentions Github as a tool for sharing and collaborating for codebases, we tried it for designing). We wanted to earnestly “design in the open.”
Contemporary open source understanding (Braithwaite’ included) comes from Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar. In the essay, Raymond analyzes Linus Torvalds’ (and his distributed hacker crew’s) development of the Linux Kernel. Raymond found magic in Torvald’s “release early, release often” mantra and distributed method of working. Raymond points to the maxim “Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone,” or “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow,” as key to Linus’s (and Linux’s) success. Get as many self-selected, expert users as possible to tinker with a design; then ask those same users to share everything wrong they find. As fixes are made, redistribute updates as fast as possible back to the group. Problem finding and solving is accelerated (duplicate searches end quickly since redistribution of fixes is rapid). This was crucial to Linux’s stability and rapid improvement.
Braithwaite is encouraging designers to adopt the same shared, distributed model in hopes that many skilled eyes will also make light work. , Graphic designers aim to find the best visual solution to a problem, but do we show “buggy” ideas to clients, colleagues, or stake holders as part of our process in such an unselfconcious way? This is done easily within the classroom or in the studio between colleagues: hang work on the walls; pass designs between desks/desktops as they develop; look over each other’s shoulders. It can take place out in the world by using services like Dribbble, Behance, and Github. But, open designing is not about accruing comments like “cool!” or “nice work!” or “wow! what’s that great esoteric typeface!” The goal is real solutions to unsolved problems. Designers and audience members other than ourselves might see things differently, catch things we have missed, or have a solution waiting that we have not found on our own (or have not found yet, thus shortening our solution’s path).
Our Special Topics: Open Source class had moved our project files to Github, and we also decided to utilize Github’s issue queue to aid in communal problem solving — making sure we lent each other our eyes. Issues let a user reveal found problems to the “community” (in this case our class, but in general the maintainer and anyone else interested in a project) and then request help with solution finding. Peers peruse each other’s queues attempting aid by providing thoughts; sharing a tutorial; or downloading, tweaking, and re-publishing a fix. For our class, utilizing issue queues kept us a community beyond the classroom when at our homes or working from separate studios across campus. It was also incredibly complicated! For visual design projects the Github “distributed critique” made it hard to get deeper into each others’ experiments that just superficials; it was easy to provide basic visual feedback — asking a question isn’t hard; theorizing isn’t too much work; throwing up a screen shot or two is easy; a “this is working, that isn’t” is no problem. But, forking someone’s project, opening the files, and trying to make sense of design decisions AND understand the context and content of that direction? That required time that not many ended up undertaking. Our class found what most open source communities have found — a small percentage of the community are actually responsible for the majority of the work; most “members” merely download and attempt to use the software, code, utility, whatever, not actually help problem solve and improve.
The community aspects that Braithwaite and Raymond point to are not all there is to F/LOS — and not all that might interest a Graphic Designer. Torvalds was working on the Linux Kernel to aid in the completing of a larger project: GNU. GNU was created by Richard Stallman as “an operating system that is free software — that is, it respects users’ freedom.” This is where the Free/Libre part of Free/Libre Open Source came from.
- The freedom to run the program as you wish, for any purpose (freedom 0).
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help others (freedom 2).
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
A program is free software if it gives users adequately all of these freedoms. Otherwise, it is non free.
Free software defined by Stallman values users, it does not want to enslave a user to the will of a program or the will of that program’s developer. Stallman’s motivation in 1983 was to maintain the share-and-share-alike, vernacular-like model computer programmers were accustomed to where all are able to build upon existing works. Stallman saw this under attack (most accounts claim that “free software” was birthed when Xerox asked a peer programmer not to share a printer’s source code with Stallman). He was also motivated by being a good citizen.
“I consider that the Golden Rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way.” — Richard Stallman
Braithwaite nor Raymond deal with any ethical points in their discussions or analysis of open source. Neither take point of view as to why making should be done this way other than that “open design” arrives at better designs while saving resources. But “better” in that context is about less bugs and faster improvements, not “better” morals. Corporate culture has embraced the “open source” part of F/LOS, , what about the Stallman-esque Free/Libre piece, does that have implications for designing?
In “Designer as Author” Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby propose that designers “develop a parallel design activity that questions and challenges industrial agendas.” This is design that is in opposition to mainstream culture. Stallman’s ideals play wonderfully with this “critical design” perspective — Stallman is promoting critical software. Free Software challenges proprietary software’s agendas. Designers fully embracing “free-ness” in their software end up precluding themselves from the normal range of design tools, but open themselves to new territory better representing socially conscious and sustainability related content (the ideology of respecting a user [an audience] matches nicely with a socially aware design practice). Switching one’s software in this context is a critical act.
Students in Special Topics: Open Source formulating practices around “design is political” or “design is ideological” found Stallman’s position more valuable than the pure pragmatics of Braithwaite’s “share more.” Using collective making to more rapidly come to a solution was not the important bit from F/LOS — the good citizen-ship was! That tools might now reflect one’s ethics was a valuable discovery. But, somewhat ironically, in adopting full libre practices for ideological reasons, collaboration can be more difficult. A peer’s set of tools may no longer be your tools. So, though F/LOS tools might not always be possible, protecting an audience member’s freedom is. Stallman’s golden rule still holds true: “… The Golden Rule requires that if I like a program [design] I must share it with other people who like it.”
The Special Topics: Open Source class collaborated with MICA’s library on new print and signage materials. The library thinks of itself as an open entity within the school — the ideals of Stallman’s and F/LOS at large are mirrored by the Library’s director and staff (free-ness of information, open access, collaboration, etc.). There were limitations to how “free” we could be — we had to create files with Adobe Creative Cloud (it is a standard toolset for MICA offices), and we had to use the institution’s fonts. Though software and fonts were non-free, students did still go to great lengths to find ways of using F/LOS content and the share-and-share alike mentalities. One student utilized the MICA library’s personal archives for imagery. These are often works in the public domain, with no known copyright holder, or that the MICA Library directly holds the rights to. Reusing and remixing in the vernacular/open source vein is now a possibility for future library works. The class used issue queues to help divide and assign work; and the library staff were able to have access to the repositories to provide some input. The MICA brand guidelines themselves can be made more powerful if following institutional “open sourcing” is the goal. Instead of blindly following brand guides, find holes and places for improvement. There was one “bug” that the class asked the MICA communications department about for the library materials: what default set of icons should MICA school projects use? The communications team didn’t have an answer, and since then have been exploring what the best way to solve a branded icon set institutionally with some of our work as starting point.
We as visual designers are not precluded from accessing the techniques and ideas of F/LOS. Graphic Designers can integrate F/LOS into their practice both pragmatically and conceptually: more and more (and better and better) tools exist from this realm (Github, Inkscape, Nodebox, etc.). F/LOS offers chances for design as a social critique; design that returns to unselfconcious, vernacular roots (open source isn’t new, it is basically the way that human creative endeavors have historically come into existence ); and design that serves more than just stereotypical clients and business needs (or, can serve those needs, but even better (faster and w/ less bugs!)). In choosing F/LOS alternatives in software a designer can say “I (and my tools) have different ethics than you (and your tools).” Designer’s adopting F/LOS critique the status quo. And even simply trying to make things with F/LOSS makes us better designers. Experiencing (or struggling with) new tools reminds that “goodness” in an interface, typeface or other artifact is often based on familiarity — when things do not behave as expected they appear less good, whether or not this is objectively true.
Making with F/LOS tools and ideals has pedagogical implications: all designers become teachers and students. A design file that one can open up and poke around in is useful for anyone to learn from (how’d they organize these layers? what makes that loopity-loop animate?). Since everyone can see the source code information transfer can go back and forth through many different paths, not just from the top down. F/LOS tools are also likely to use open file formats that can be used across a wide variety of other tools and mediums — so you aren’t locked into one program (even if the program’s filetype is specific, the many filetypes are really some type of XML, so you can still “read” the file with a text editor to get what is going on). It’s not just having access to files that is important, deciding to use F/LOSS means you have access to more kinds of tools; more options for making are available. There are F/LOS tools that do not exist in offerings from Adobe or Autodesk (the Spiro spline drawing tool which finds its way into InkScape and FontForge, or generative design tools like NodeBox and Processing). Seeing other kinds of vector drawing options might open space for one to make new things. If you believe that as an educator part of your role is to build on the knowledge of the past to create new knowledge you must adopt F/LOS.
The Special Topics in Graphic Design: Open Source class meandered along over the the term — but always in the direction of becoming more open; more libre. Despite not always being able to be fully libre (Richard Stallman would not have approved all our methods or tools), we did come out at the end of the term with new points of view on what makes a graphic design practice “good.” To the students “goodness” in a design practice now includes being open to sharing one’s work (failures and successes; code, files, etc.). Goodness also means building on works when and where you can (and letting others build and re-use your works). By increasing the variety of tools and techniques at one’s disposal (by utilizing open source tools, even in addition to proprietary ones — students didn’t think we needed to fully abandon our old tools and operating systems to be “libre designers” — one massively increases possibilities for formal output) a design practice can be more good. And, goodness also means operating ethically — attempting to make your designs ethical in the context of the golden rule (do unto others…), or in egalitarian access, or in not enslaving or entrapping an audience to the will of a client or a designer.
So, the next time you go looking fonts, icons, templates, stock illustrations, or frameworks for a design project look for free/libre open source ones. F/LOS offers up not only a pragmatic approach reviving how we have historically created socio-cultural artifacts, but also a critical approach that through utilizing ideologically based software and tools intentionally positions itself in opposition to mainstream modern-techno-capitalism.