Designing In The Open

My wife and I are redesigning the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank’s website, and we’re really excited to be designing the whole thing in the open. I suppose a good place to start is to talk about what designing in the open is, its pros and cons, and examples and tips.

What is designing in the open?

Designing in the open means sharing your work and/or process publicly as you undertake a design project. Open design projects generally come in a few flavors:

  • Sharing artifacts- Some designs projects (like Super Friendly’s redesign of Reading Is Fundamental) mostly share design artifacts such as sketches, style tiles, mockups, prototypes, and other tools/deliverables.
  • Bits and Pieces – Some open design projects just share previews/teasers of the project. Think of cropped previews on Dribbble or short trailer snippets for an upcoming movie.
  • Sharing stories- Some projects (like PSU’s redesign) share progress by telling stories of process, techniques, and lessons learned.
  • Alphas – Some simply provide a link to the project at its most current state.
  • Sharing tools- Some projects and companies (like The Guardian and NY Times will share their code and toolkits on Github.

None of these styles of designing in the open are mutually exclusive, and some of the most effective examples I’ve seen use a combination of these techniques. Also, some projects actively are seeking feedback, input, or approval from the general public, while others are sharing for other reasons.

Benefits of Designing in the Open

So now onto the million dollar question: why in the world would you design in the open?

As it turns out, there are a whole bunch of benefits to sharing your thinking and resources with the world.

  • Gain resources, tips, and techniques from community- Communities are fantastic for sharing resources and advice. If you write a post discussing a particular challenge or tool, the community can respond with potential solutions, resources, and valuable advice.
  • Gather feedback- If feedback is something you’re looking for, sharing your design process can be a great way of getting the community’s reactions to design direction and more.
  • Build interest and community- By sharing your work in progress, you can gain fans and followers of your upcoming project. The creators of Indie Game: The Movie were religious about sharing their progress and process as they filmed and edited, and as a result built up a massive community of people interested in their project. By the time they released the film, they had amassed thousands of people who were dying to purchase the movie.
  • Establish yourselves as leaders and innovators- Lead by example by sharing how you’re approaching your project.
  • Have impact far beyond the scope of your project- Another massive altruistic benefit of designing in the open is that it can help other people in their own work. All of that reflects very nicely back on you and your client.
  • Lose the Big Reveal- You and your client can learn how to get comfortable sharing works in progress and working toward a more continuous, iterative process.
  • Communicate design decisions- By designing in the open, you can better explain why certain decisions were made, why certain directions were avoided, and why the end result came out the way it did. This can be tremendously helpful in larger organizations with lots of pseudo-stakeholders wondering why they weren’t consulted.
  • Commit to the project- By designing publicly, you’re involving an audience beyond the people sitting around a meeting room table. You become accountable to more people, which lights a fire under your asses to see the project through.

Challenges of Designing in the Open

Why isn’t designing in the open the default? As it turns out, designing in the open can be pretty damn tricky.

  • It’s uncomfortable to share works in progress- We as humans fear failure. We hate making mistakes. We don’t like sharing things that aren’t the best representations of who we are. Sharing work in progress means admitting imperfection. Design directions will be discarded. Sketches look sloppy. Prototypes are buggy. However, by sharing the ugly process, you’re able to own it and come out stronger as a result.
  • Comments from the peanut gallery- Designing in public means dealing with the public. You’re going to get feedback whether you like it or not. Some feedback is genuinely valuable. Other feedback looks like YouTube comments. You, your team, and your clients will need to discuss how much you should care about what John Q. Public has to say about your design project.
  • “Other people will take our stuff”- This is a huge challenge any time you talk about sharing your ideas. “You mean we’re just going to give everything away? Our thinking? Our competitive advantage?” This paranoid belief is a huge myth, and it’s important to convince clients and team members that you are best suited to implement all those good ideas. Knock-offs are inevitable and are a dime a dozen, and by sharing your process you can declare “Look, we were doing this first.”
  • Time-Blog posts take time to write. Scanning a sketch takes time to sketch. Committing to an open design project means you have to sink extra time into the open design process.

At the end of the day, the biggest challenges around designing in the open involve overcoming human nature. Hard to overcome? Sure. Impossible to overcome? Not at all.

Examples

There are some great examples of open design projects, but I wish there were more. Here are the ones I’ve gathered:

Convincing Clients to Open Design

It can be difficult to convince a client or organization to commit to an open design, but it can be done with a bit of tact.

  • Explain the benefits – Go over the benefits of open design projects, and how it relates to their project goals.
  • Speak their language- Map the goals of your client’s project to the benefits of open design projects. If a client wants to be perceived as a leader in their field, explain how sharing the design process can establish them as “thought leaders” (I’ve learned people love being called “thought leaders”).
  • Ease their nerves- Explain that you aren’t going to share any legally sensitive or proprietary information. You can set up approvals of blog posts if need be. Ensure them that you’re only sharing information regarding the design process (unless of course you can convince them to release sales numbers and other awesome-to-know data).

Open By Default

The beauty of the Web is its openness. I feel extraordinarily lucky to work in a field that is open by default, that freely shares thoughts and resources, and that values transparency.

My best practices have changed for the better because people like Lincoln Mongillo were kind enough to share the Starbucks Pattern Library. Because people like Dan Mall shared his element collage concept as part of his open redesign with Reading Is Fundamental.

It took me a while to realize that it’s not about the work that I do, but rather what that work enables others to do. By sharing your thoughts, your successes, your failures, your techniques, your process, your resources, you’re able to have a much greater impact on the world than whatever happens to be in your project’s scope.

18 Comments

  1. YES! More of this, please.

  2. Well said.

  3. Great idea!

  4. Awesome idea. It also has a huge value for the community. Glad to be in an open, sharing industry.

  5. Erik Isaksen

    This is a great way of thinking! Realistically it will require great negotiation skills on our part to get some clients to agree (which we should all strive to get better at these conversations anyway) or if possible just choosing the right clients for your business, meaning those of the same philosophies, which isn’t always possible for some companies or people.

    Ideally this approach is a great way to go though. The fact that you listed so many examples is great ammunition for client conversations. I feel empowered already. This is great!

  6. Very informative and good post!

    I’ve attempted open design in regards to designing a project model that can be used by designers/developers/project managers- open design is a great way of gaining valueable information!

    Good read, keep it up!

  7. This is one of my most favorite articles! Especially your last words made me smile through and through. I love it this Industry.

  8. Not really a new idea. Settings the “line of visibility” is described in many management books.

    Nevertheless I think it’s a great idea, but do you really need to make everything visible? Doing less would be also less effort to you.

  9. Interesting. One approach I see missing is customer feedback (perhaps out of the scope of this article). Wouldn’t one approach would be to develop a system and iterate perhaps with the people that is actually going to be using the system?

    I think I’ve learned more based on customer feedback than design buddies. Simply because sometimes people use your site in some unimaginable ways that you didn’t intended them to use it.

    Obviously you want to be clear of the limits you set and avoid the Henry Ford statement that if you ask people what they want they would say a ‘faster horse’.

  10. @Andreas: Brad doesn’t seem to be saying this is a new idea. It’s certainly more effort to do this way, but in my experience of doing public redesigns, the extra effort primes you to be more articulate. It’s also an exercise in reflection, as expressing your thoughts may surface some areas improvement you may not have realized otherwise. Same reason people keep a journal or same principle behind rubber duck debugging.

  11. Brant Day

    Well said. Love this idea. How would you encourage designers and/or agencies to apply this and what medium do you think supports this idea the best?

  12. Great post! Found it through my daily Sidebar. This is just as applicable to personal projects as it is for working with clients. I’ve found when you don’t design in the open and share what you’re up to its so much easier to put something on the back-burner or shelf it completely.

  13. In Brazil the ideia to open the design was calling “Design Livre”, the concept is opening the project for anyone who have something to contribute not just other designers.

    We have two interesting cases with open design, the first is the book “Design Livre”, written a collaborative form. And a magazine called Revista Cliche which was created with all community of design students.

    - Here the link to presentation about Revista cliche: https://speakerdeck.com/zehfernandes/design-colaborativo

    - And the link of the book “Design Livre”:
    http://designlivre.org/

    Both in portuguse, but I think is interesting to share.

    Cheers!

  14. I couldn’t agree more! …and thanks to @Dan Mall for sharing the RIF Redesign. This was the first major “design in the open” project that I followed. It taught me a whole bunch of new tricks, including Element Collages.

  15. Great article … what you said sounds a lot like this: http://www.thoughtworks.com/radar

  16. @Dan
    You’re right, so I sum both reasons up:

    1) do it for yourself
    2) do it for the customer (“line of visibility”)

  17. Thanks for the inspiration. I’m designing in the open right now and I think this article was one main reason for that. Hope, I will see some of the benefits myself.

  18. Hi,

    I love this article!

    I wanted to suggest another project for your list: ICANN Labs (http://labs.icann.org / @icannlabs). ICANN Labs is an open innovation project to drive engagement with ICANN, which is the governing body for the domain name system. If you haven’t heard of ICANN, you might know it as the body that established the policies that govern the operation of .xxx domains.

    The goal of ICANN Labs is to get more people involved in ICANN and internet governance. We are definitely designing in the open! And, while we have experienced many of the challenges listed above, overall it’s been an extremely gratifying experience.

    Thanks again for the great article!