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.
There are some great examples of open design projects, but I wish there were more. Here are the ones I’ve gathered:
- Super Friendly’s open redesign of Reading Is Fundamental
- Sparkbox’s redesign of their own website (read their thoughts on the topic)
- Mark Boulton Design’s Drupal UX project
- The UK Government’s redesign project
- Happy Cog’s design project for Mozilla
- Chris Coyier’s redesign of CSS-Tricks Kickstarter project
- University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s redesign
- Penn State University’s redesign
- Andy Clarke’s redesign of New Internationalist (blog posts: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9)
- Our redesign of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank website
- Super Friendly’s How To Build An App project
- Starbuck’s responsive pattern library
- Other pattern libraries/front end style guides
- Indie Game: The Movie – while not a web design project, the creators of Indie Game: The Movie (with whom I had the extreme pleasure of interviewing at Smashing Conference) wrote a staggering 200 blog posts throughout the 3 year creation of their documentary.
- skatteverket.se redesign (in Swedish)
- Open Source Design by Garth Braithwaite is a new resource site dedicated to designing in the open. It’s in early days, but hopefully we can all contribute to the cause.
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.