Discussing ‘open design’ at iadlab15

  • Benoît Pointet

Andy and I lately got invited to host a ‘lab session' at the iadlab15 interaction design conference in Bern. We proposed to animate a discussion on a quite abstract topic: open design.

What the true meaning of our topic was, we didn't know by the time we proposed it. Yet we had a strong feeling that the ‘open' culture wasn't as strong in the design scene as it is in the tech scene and wanted to discuss that assumption, openly.

We thus introduced the open design notion with a big question mark: opensource we know since ages, opendata is now proving its value to the world, what about open design?

It turned out the discussions went fantastically well and we got thanked many times for having brought the topic onto the table.

Even more astonishing to us, what we encountered is a generational gap: digital-native creatives showed interest and seem to integrate open practices whereas their elders tended to disregard – if not despise – them.

Entering the conference

It took me a few minutes in the conference to realise that the event was filled with creatives, makers, coders, talents, artisans, … A mixed crowd of students (the conference was hosted by the SFGB-B design school teachers, agency and corporate employees.

The introductory talks that preceded the lab totally contradicted the tagline of the conference “design vs tech”. Although proponents of the design and the tech sides of the trade were supposed to battle on stage, they couldn't help but agree together. Being a strong believer that ‘design without tech without design' is useless, I was relieved to hear that proponents of both sides value and respect each other.

One of the learnings from the introductory talks were that there is great value in bringing design and tech as close as possible – potentially even creating both “components” at the same time. Finally defining a true agile approach.

After this introduction, the stage was set and I was expecting quite a bit of opposition and emotion to the inherent thesis we were about to throw in our two lab sessions: designers have so much to learn from techies about how to collaboratively design, build and refine their toolbox.

Discussion open design – session 1 : digital native creatives

The first lab session filled up with young people, probably most of them students of the school. I honestly must admit I feared they wouldn't get the idea at all. We did a short inspirational presentation of what ‘open' means in the tech scene and what open design initiatives we found interesting and then launched the discussion (in a park bench format), which started on how lame ready-made wordpress themes are and what a negative effect they have on the web design market: ‘Einheitsbrei' . Something I would translate with ‘insipidity'. Some went to throw UI frameworks like Twitter Bootstrap in the same pot.

Yet some voices challenged that opinion stating that far from being a major source of insipidity, those building block were the opportunity for designers to aim higher, to adopt and transcend them – adapt and improve – rather than just consider them as threats to tasteful and unique designs.

We then took the opportunity to direct the discussion onto the topic of ‘open brands': what does it mean for a brand to be open? Can it be more than careful attention to feedback? Could the openness of a brand avoid quinquennial rebranding rounds and ensure a constant and seamless evolution of the brand? Here again, that young crowd somehow nailed it down: they immediately identified that brands in the digital age have to plan for change, and to that purpose, designers shall anchor the brand in adaptive attributes.

Discussion open design – session 2 : not-so-digital native creatives

The second discussion slot filled up with people 10+ years older than the first session, mostly. Andy and I mostly did the same inspirational presentation and launched the discussion, in pretty much the same way as in the first session. And here again, the ghost of Einheitsbrei appeared after a few minutes.

But not first and foremost. The first thing that got discussed was … money – Ok, we had introduced 99designs (basically a online-bazaar for design) as ‘yet another way that design opens itself', which is a bit provocative, I shall admit. Through the exchange, I could sense the threat that the recent collaborative and global design market platforms imposed to the established designers and their business model.

Another striking difference to the first ‘younger' session was the importance given to the ‘genius' and ‘expertise' in design. That older crowd – or at least the ones who voiced up – didn't understand that one could contribute freely to a common effort at developing common design things and make money out of the advantages it gives them in client work – you know … the opensource business model.

The established models of thought and business were fighting back.

Yet, interestingly two pertinent ideas got developed at the end of that session: open font design and open design language.

A font is a clear building block for further design work and thus an ideal candidate for collaboration. Can a community develop a successful font in a sustainable and open manner? It turns it's actually the case with the Ubuntu Font Family, although it was not originally crowd-designed, its code is openly available and new contributors are welcome.

Material design is a powerful design language that has taken the world by storm. It however has primarily been designed by a corporation for its own sake. Can a community develop a successful design language in a sustainable and open manner?

The whole event was ended with an Apéro which in our book is always a good way to end a conference and gave participants an opportunity to network and exchange in a less formal environment.

Conclusion

By throwing that ‘open design' neologism to a digital crowd, we hit something: an open-native generation for whom design and tech are entangled, a design generation conscious of the role it can play in a global economy.

We have hope that open design becomes more than just an experiment in our minds and establishes itself as a true culture of design.


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