Ask DN: Open source design

over 7 years ago from , Founder at LayerVault

Given the recent discussion around the DMCA takedown notice, I've been thinking somewhat about the related issue of open source code vs. open source design.

There's no active open source design community or movement. Why do you think that is?

Is there room for open source design? Can you see a world where you open source your work and where others fork your design?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.


  • alec salec s, over 7 years ago

    I think that design, by nature, is open source. It's easily consumed versus code, code usually needs to be read & thought through to re-use in an open source manner. That isn't to say either is better or worse, don't get me wrong, I'm a designer and not a particularly savvy coder (working on it). Design can be so quickly taken into our minds, think about walking by a sign of a restaurant you loved, a spread in a magazine that inspired you. You then go off and use that inspiration, taking & borrowing things from the various designs you've seen. To me, that's about as open-source as it gets. I don't think that anyone needs to make design overtly open source for the above reasons. I side with both parties regarding the recent DMCA fiasco, but I don't think an "open source" design makes a lot of sense. If you look at how design has progressed through the decades, with various styles prevailing over others, it already has an open-source feel to it. When Vignelli was doing tons of huge brand in the 60s, 70s and even the 80s, many people copied or borrowed (or forked) his style.

    This is just my opinion, great thing to talk about!

    5 points
  • Jeff EscalanteJeff Escalante, over 7 years ago

    Because of my development background, I'm going to think through how code reacts to these situations, then apply them to design. Here we go:

    First, it's interesting to think about when code is "steal-able" or not. All html, css, and javascript on the web is inherently steal-able, because the code must be public in order to work. That means you can copy the code, paste it into your own document, host it on your own site, and congrats you just stole someone else's website.

    There are also some pieces of code that can be made "un-steal-able", like putting it on With Facebook, the html and css their back end produces holds little value -- the valuable piece is the code that handles user registration, database actions, post sorting, etc. And that's all hidden, and could not be copied without as much effort as it took Facebook to create it in the first place. And although you can't steal that code (unless you break into their servers), you could copy it. Copying would be more difficult than stealing, but eventually you'd be able to produce almost exactly the same thing.

    Now let's think about design. All design is inherently steal-able, much like front-end code. If you like that graphic on layervault's website, you can just view source, save it to your desktop, and it's yours. Congrats, you just stole a piece of design. As is the case with code, and real world goods, stealing is pretty hard to get away with legitimately though. As soon as someone recognizes something you have stolen as a stolen good, it will probably be reported, and you will be called out. If someone broke into facebook's servers, jacked their codebase, and put up an exact copy of facebook, people would notice this, and it would get shut down. Same with if someone downloads and re-hosts your website, changing a couple piece of text -- and this happens all the time.

    Design and code are also copy-able though, and copying is much different than stealing. Rather than taking someone else's hard work, putting it up, and sitting back in your lounge chair, when you copy something, you are actually putting in a lot of hard work, making it yourself, and then releasing something that simply looks very similar to an already existing thing. This happens all the time within code, and it's actually pretty well-respected. There are a bunch of different database adapters, blog generators, html parsers, etc. And programmers love this because there's competition and variety - the best rise to the top. This is also the case with real world goods - if you've ever been to Chinatown, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about. This is also the case with "un-stealable" code, it can still be copied. Pinterest is a great example of this.

    Within both programming and real world goods, the original creators are not bothered by copiers, unless the copier has actually produced better work than them. But it's almost always the case that the original creator made something better - they were the first one to take it to market, have already gained a lot of influence, and in addition to having a big popularity boost by default, most people recognize a knockoff when they see it. And the ones that don't are not target customers anyway.

    It does not appear that designers have got to this point yet. As was demonstrated by Dustin Curtis' outrage when people started copying svbtle, and by Layervault's outrage yesterday, designers haven't got down these three points that I think developers have a handle on just because of the prevalence of copying and open-source in the community already:

    • copying is flattery. accept or discourage it graciously.

    • no copier will ever exceed the prominence of the original unless their work is better, in which case you need to pick up your game anyway

    • you cannot prevent yourself from being copied unless you pour a lot of money and time into legal, and even that will only work rarely, if the work is an exact replica of yours. generally, it's just not worth it - the best you can do is politely ask the author to remove it and move on.

    3 points
    • Chris RodemeyerChris Rodemeyer, over 7 years ago

      If we're talking about visual design, its also easily copyable. Take a screenshot and trace it pixel for pixel. It's all there for the taking. Moving beyond the "copying" discussion here though, is the bigger question that I think Allan is posing, which is — is there equivalent philosophy to open source (with all of it's spawned services and platforms) that could exist for design?

      0 points
      • Jeff EscalanteJeff Escalante, over 7 years ago

        Yeah you're right for sure. I just don't think that's a difficult question to answer compared to the whole copying debate.

        I guess my answer would be yes, there is. Showing a design and offering a psd download is open source design. Twitter bootstrap is open source design. Just design anything, put it on github with the source, and allow anyone else to use it, and it's open source.

        Layervault could take advantage of this by better hosting psd files and making it so that you could edit someone's psd and send a "pull request" back, where layervault could show where the changes were made and offer the ability to review and accept them, as it happens in open source code. This would make open source design easier, but not change the fact that it already definitely exists : )

        1 point
        • Chris RodemeyerChris Rodemeyer, over 7 years ago

          Good point. Interesting direction for the LV product to go, if it had a more of public dimension for those who wanted to open it up.

          0 points
  • Evan BrooksEvan Brooks, over 7 years ago

    This is a great question.

    I think this comes down to the relationship between identity/branding and user interface. The former can't really be open source in the same way software is, at least for a "traditional" company.

    User interface is much harder to pin down, because it encompasses both aesthetics and functionality. UI aesthetics can be very important to a brand, but I don't think it has to be. UI functionality is absolutely open source. Think about the development of the tabbed web site(http://www.lukew.com/ff/entry.asp?178), or the "hamburger button" side menu.

    3 points
    • Taurean BryantTaurean Bryant, over 7 years ago

      Hit the nail on the head with this. I think its not as vocal because more often than not its not applicable, but its definitely there.

      0 points
  • Gavin McFarlandGavin McFarland, over 7 years ago

    Also let's not forget there is the Noun Project which could be classed as open source design.


    1 point
  • Matt McInerneyMatt McInerney, over 7 years ago

    There is a bit of an open source type design community: http://www.theleagueofmoveabletype.com/

    It doesn't always result in the highest quality work, but I've been a part of it and seen some interesting things come out of it.

    Not too long ago, Google decided to pick up my single weight font Raleway and expand it into nine weight: http://www.google.com/webfonts/specimen/Raleway

    I don't think design can benefit really as much as code can from going open source, but I don't think that means that it can't be good in some ways.

    1 point
  • Antonio PratasAntonio Pratas, over 7 years ago

    Isn't this already covered by creative commons license?

    There's copyright to protect original works, but there's already a great deal of revamping and remixing going on based on freebies online and some on dribbble, with the rebounds. Even though people don't use it as much as they could, probably due to fear of accusations of plagiarism. That and there are also design patterns, that eventually evolve into some kind of open-source-like design. Patterns like pull-to-refresh designed by Loren Brichter, that is patented but still free to use.

    1 point
  • Chris RodemeyerChris Rodemeyer, over 7 years ago

    Was just thinking about this exact thing last night. I think design is becoming more and more open, but developers have always seen more willing to share and build upon other's work.

    Still working through this, but design (we're talking about visual design here) is inherently tangible and has a strong emotional dimension. On the other hand, code is intangible, and a person's relationship is with the "designed thing", vs. the mechanism that makes it work. Therefore is in designers' best interest to feel like they need to protect and own what they've created. More and more, if good design is market advantage, why give that away?

    1 point
  • Garth BraithwaiteGarth Braithwaite, almost 7 years ago

    I know this is 9 months old, but I'm really wanting to help on this front.

    We are actively working on it at OpenSourceDesign.is and the github.

    0 points
  • Jon KantrowitzJon Kantrowitz, over 7 years ago

    There are movements and communities except they're not in the form of UI PSD kits or complete front-end web frameworks. Step outside the Photoshop, Mac OS X, Windows, web sandbox for a second and take a look at what's been going on in the world of Linux.

    You've got huge open source design movements / projects with hundreds of contributors and forks. The biggest design and user experience examples that come to mind are GNOME, KDE (Plasma), Canonical's Unity, and the Tango and Oxygen icon projects. Each one of these has a successful open source design movement and community behind it.

    0 points
  • Toni GemayelToni Gemayel, over 7 years ago

    Is there room for open source design? Yes & No. PSDs will never become a part of open source design but I would argue frontend libraries like twitter bootstrap & zurbs foundation are the future of open source design

    0 points
  • Matt SistoMatt Sisto, over 7 years ago

    TL;DR. Hopefully Pixelapse changes this though.

    0 points
  • Tor Løvskogen BollingmoTor Løvskogen Bollingmo, over 7 years ago

    What is design? A PSD file, or a whole product? I don't think we need to separate code and design. I've been doing a tiny bit of design for open source – and it's a place with huge potential. If you want to, start sending design ideas to Github projects, and get in touch with open source developers, I'm sure they'd love some design help.

    0 points
  • Gavin McFarlandGavin McFarland, over 7 years ago

    The thought of open source design has got my brain coming up will all sorts of things. When I first thought of this I thought – how could design replicate the online collaborative code spaces the likes Github and Bitbucket? I found it hard to visualise because the end product may not be something you can open source for free, but what about the theory? Can you open source the thought process? Sites like Pixelapse where you share your PSDs to the world, make me believe you can. Perhaps one equivalent to open source design is collaboration? If so, then some of this open source design already takes place at events such as Design Jam or services like Quirky.

    I'd be really keen to see more of this come to life, specially in the product design arena. When will we there be a service that helps designers collaborate to create products which solve a problem without the underlying agenda of making money?

    0 points
    • Chris RodemeyerChris Rodemeyer, over 7 years ago

      I guess we need to unpack what we mean by design, exactly. Few lenses to look at, moving from broad to specific:

      1) Strategy 2) Brand 3) Process 4) Patterns 5) Artifacts

      I see a lot more sharing, discussion, and general willingness to "give shit away" under 4 & 5. And there's certainly no shortage of people writing and about 1-3. I't would be interesting to see a Branch or collaborative problem solving type platform for items 1-4, but I think it becomes much harder to create meaningful systems around it.

      0 points