Why You Should Design for Open Source

Let’s be honest. Most designers don’t like working for nothing. We rally against spec work and make a stand for contracts and getting paid. That’s totally what you should do as a professional designer in the industry. It’s your job. It’s your hard-working skill. It’s your bread and butter. Get paid.

However, I’m going to make a case for why you could also consider designing for open source. First, I should mention that not all open source work is free work. Some companies hire open source contributors to work on their projects full-time, usually because that project is used by said company. There are other companies that encourage open source contribution and even offer 20%-time for these projects (where you can spend one day a week contributing to open source). These are super rad situations to be in. However, whether you’re able to land a gig doing this type of work, or you’ve decided to volunteer your time and energy, designing for open source can be rewarding in many other ways.

Portfolio building

New designers often find themselves in a catch-22 situation: they don’t have enough work experience showcased in their portfolio, which leads to them not getting much work because their portfolio is bare. These new designers often turn to unsolicited redesigns to fill their portfolio. An unsolicited redesign is a proof of concept in which a designer attempts to redesign a popular website. You can see many of these concepts on sites like Dribbble and Behance and there are even websites dedicated to showcasing these designs, such as Uninvited Designs. There’s even a subreddit for them.

There are quite a few negative opinions on unsolicited redesigns, though some people see things from both sides. If you feel like doing one or two of these to fill your portfolio, that’s of course up to you. But here’s a better suggestion. Why not contribute design for an open source project instead?

You can easily find many projects in great need of design work, from branding to information design, documentation, and website or application design. The benefits to doing this are far better than an unsolicited redesign. You get a great portfolio piece that actually has greater potential to get used (especially if the core team is on board with it). It’s a win-win situation.

Not all designers are in need of portfolio filler, but there are other benefits to contributing design.

Giving back to the community

My first experience with voluntary work was when I collaborated with my friend, Vineet Thapar, on a pro bono project for the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative redesign project back in 2004. I was very excited to contribute CSS to a website that would get used by the W3C! Unfortunately, it decided to go a different direction and my work did not get used. However, it was still pretty exciting to have the opportunity, and I don’t regret a moment of that work. I learned a lot about accessibility from this experience and it helped me land some of the jobs I’ve had since.

Almost a decade later, I got super into Sass. One of the core maintainers, Chris Eppstein, lamented on Twitter one day that the Sass website and brand was in dire need of design help. That led to the creation of an open source task force, Team Sass Design, and we revived the brand and the website, which launched at SassConf in 2013.

It helped me in my current job. I showed it during my portfolio review when I interviewed for the role. Then I was able to use inspiration from a technique I’d tried on the Sass website to help create the more feature-rich design system that my team at work is building. But most importantly, I soon learned that it is exhilarating to be a part of the Sass community. This is the biggest benefit of all. It feels really good to give back to the technology I love and use for getting my work done.

Ben Werdmuller writes about the need for design in open source. It’s great to see designers contributing to open source in awesome ways. When A List Apart’s website went open source, Anna Debenham contributed by helping build its pattern library. Bevan Stephens worked with FontForge on the design of its website. There are also designers who have created their own open source projects. There’s Dan Cederholm’s Pears, which shares common patterns in markup and style. There’s also Brad Frost’s Pattern Lab, which shares his famous method of atomic design and applies it to a design system. These systems and patterns have been used in real-world projects, such as RetailMeNot, so designers have contributed to the web in an even larger way simply by putting their work out there for others to use. That’s kind of fun to think about.

How to get started

So are you stoked about getting into the open source community? That’s great!

Initially, you might get worried or uncomfortable in getting involved. That’s okay. But first consider that the project is open source for a reason. Your contribution (no matter how large or small) can help in a big way.

If you find a project you’re interested in helping, make sure you do your research. Sometimes project team members will be attached to their current design. Is there already a designer on the core team? Reach out to that designer first. Don’t be too aggressive with why you think your design is better than theirs. Rather, offer some constructive feedback and a proposal of what would make the design better. Chances are, if the designer cares about the project, and you make a strong case, they’ll be up for it.

Are there contribution guidelines? It’s proper etiquette to read these and follow the community’s rules. You’ll have a better chance of getting your work accepted, and it shows that you take the time to care and add to the overall quality of the project. Does the project lack guidelines? Consider starting a draft for that before getting started in the design.

When contributing to open source, use your initiative to solve problems in a manageable way. Huge pull requests are hard to review and will often either get neglected or rejected. Work in small, modular, and iterative contributions.

So this is my personal take on what I’ve learned from my experience and why I love open source. I’d love to hear from you if you have your own experience in doing this and what you’ve learned along the way as well. Please share in the comments!

Thanks Drew McLellan, Eric Suzanne, Kyle Neath for sharing their thoughts with me on this!

About the author

Jina Bolton is a Senior Product Designer at Salesforce UX, where she helps design and develop systems for enterprise software. She also loves Sass; she leads Team Sass Design, an open source task force that redesigned the Sass brand and website. Jina also organizes the San Francisco Sass Meet Up, The Mixin. She coauthored two books, Fancy Form Design and The Art & Science of CSS. Previously, she has worked with rad companies including Apple, Engine Yard, and Crush + Lovely.

Photo: Nick Howland

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