Understanding designers – or at least trying to

Back a few months ago I met with the team of La Fonderie in Paris and we were discussing opportunities of collaboration around some of the events that this regional agency for innovation and Information Technologies was planning. At some point several people were joining our discussion in a quite informal way. I realized that among them I was talking with their lead designers and graphist. The discussion we ended up in was quite interesing and allowed me to realize that graphic designers are very much the “third type contributor” in many Free and Open Source Software projects. I’d like to share what I took from this conversation, and how we could apply the bits I learned to the LibreOffice project.

I used the term “third-type contributor” because for several reasons, designers can be very attracted and very willing to join and contribute to a Free and Open Source project and yet they will never really get integrated in the project. They will contribute something, and at some point some will drop out; others will continue but will provide contributions that are in formats or under a copyright licence which will be difficult, if not impossible for the project to work with, and even more often they will contribute something no one else in the project will be able to reuse.

Part of this uncertainty or this difficulty that many Free and Open Source projects have when working with creative people, be it designers, artists or both, is that each operates and thinks along completely different line. While I could grasp that quite easily it is however necessary to understand what difference there is in how designers work and create compared to a set of more or less well defined contribution process of a software development project. My questions to the designer at La Fonderie ultimately led me to realize that the difference lies in the perception of what a contribution really is and the level of priority one gives to contribution’s formality. Let me explain.

Take a software developer. He’s been trained to 1)patch or develop whatever portion of code that’s relevant in this case to the project. 2) regardless of the presence of Easy Hacks just like with the LibreOffice project, a developer can analyze the code or the bug reports and then submit a patch. The way the patch is submitted follows a certain set of criteria, such as adequate licensing and the upload of the patch to a certain location and in a certain way. It could be anything from an attachment to an email to an attachment to a bug report system or one simple commit to a DVCS tree. It does not matter here, what does matter however is that process is either known in advance or rather well documented. By the way, the developer has been trained into taking care of the “last mile”, that is, how to contribute code.

Now let’s turn to the designer.

The designer has 1) talent (at least one hopes he/she has talent) 2) knows how to use specific creative tools and if everything fails there’s a pencil and a sheet of paper. 3) Beyond that, nothing, most of the time. This last point is not made to offend any designer out there. Their education, knowledge and skills are very often hard-earned; the point is to highlight that compared to a programmer, there are bits  of the process that are missing. At some level it is quite human: if a designer -that’s what I learned- comes to you or your project and designs something for you and then hands you the work saying “you can have it”, it means the world to him/her. Yet for a developer or for a Free and Open Source Software project, this contribution will quickly turn into a maze of problems if the content of the contribution itself is not properly conveyed to the project. In other words, contributing a new logo, when no one called for a new logo and putting it on Facebook does not turn this proposal for a new logo into an actual contribution.

From the point of view of the designer -or at least what I understand from it- this new logo is a real contribution and the very fact of publishing it, leaving it “out there” just means that you actually gave it away. And even better, you don’t even feel the need for a license, as it’s all being given to you, the project folks over there.

The net result of these constant differences in handling creativity and contributions creates both missed opportunities and frustration. We need to understand and appreciate each other’s culture and see where we meet. While designers’ ways can only be changed on an individual scale after discussions and mutual understanding, it is unlikely the typical designer’s habits will change anytime soon. Free and Open Source Software projects however may try to adapt themselves in order to make it easier for designers to contribute, then educate them to blend in the project’s processes and structure (however light this structure might be) and then optimize their own contributions.

In this regard the LibreOffice project has both achieved a lot, and not enough to secure a strong team of designers. Don’t get me wrong: we have tremendously gifted designers who actually took time and went through a painful but thorough effort of structuring the contributions flow and process of the design team. But we don’t yet appeal to a whole lot of designers out there who regularly send us mockups, artworks and new ideas for User Experience. This is talent that remains untapped or gets wasted, and if we could turn this around we’d not only win contributors, we would make a few people happy while strenghtening and improving the LibreOffice project.

I hope I got a few things right and not too many wrong and I look forward to more conversation!

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