24 April 2012

Design in the FOSS world

As I told in a previous post, I came with the idea of a panel about design in the FOSS world at the upcoming Libre Graphics Meeting but then chickened-out and resumed to photography stuff, still the panel will happen anyway. I think is a good idea to write-down my thoughts on the matter, since the outcome of the panel is going to be a direct opposite of what I envisioned (that's what I expect, giving the panelists).

So, what's the problems? while proper Free and Open Source Software happens in the bazaar, traditionally design is done the opposite way, in the cathedral, an unavoidable conflict. On top of that, there is also the problem of the designers being primadonas, considering their work dark magic, voodoo, incomprehensive by mere mortals. It doesn't help a lot of volunteer developers participating in communities have big egos too, as they are doing the work for free, so they expect at least that.

I am not a designer (some people call me so, thinking is flattering, but is not the case), I do graphics and photography and I am not exactly a developer either (my amount of coding these days is minimal), which is a different matter, so let me say it straight: designers are poisonous for a FOSS project. And if they are on the payroll of a company company sponsoring the project, that is the kiss of death. Look around, all you favorite FOSS apps, once they start being "designed" they suffer a kind of inverted Midas touch.

There is no hope? No way to have a polished FOSS product? There are examples of nice piece of software in the FOSS world you will say... And this is right, is possible, the key is not to have the development driven by designers and avoid your community project transforming in a blackbox, where feedback in unwelcomed, only patting on the back is accepted and the style of work resembling the corporate structure.

I said I'm no designer, but I will use design tools to illustrate my point: when one design a software, he creates a number of personas, fictitious individuals fitting various use cases and then the software is optimized to fulfil use-scenarios around those personas. Based on my long time spent on multiple FOSS communities, I will make my own list of "designer personas" you can find in the FOSS world:

  • The kid who got a bit of fame for drawing a set of pretty icons for a widely-used communication tool. He then goes to believe he has design skills and start making usage assumption for interface design for an application. He lacks the life experience and he is only an occasional user of the app, his assumptions are flawed. But he think of himself as a star.;
  • The designer who is employed by a large company for various tasks. He makes pretty graphics and is generally a nice person, doing volunteering for various offline communities for such. But he has a background in the corporate and proprietary world and does not understand the mechanics of a FLOSS communities. Tries to interact with the community in the proprietary ways he knows;
  • The developer suffering badly of the NIH syndrome who rewrite every piece of software because he think he's smarter. He got known for uselessly rewriting a basic tool, then he gets employed by a major company to rewrite an important tool, which not even now has feature parity with the old version, then he leads the wrecking of a desktop system used by millions of people. He thinks reading a book makes him a designer;
  • The leader of a design community, he got in the place saying the right community things, have a good position inside the sponsoring company and the needed relations. The community is happy with the choice, having the "right" person in the "right" place. Later, when he get the corporate position of overseeing the community, he turn his back to the community, acting mainly for his own agenda and job security;
  • The designer from a corporation with a hybrid business model: they release a "lite" version for free and a "full" package commercially. The designer has to polish only the commercial version, while making sure the Free version is rough and unfriendly;
  • The developer who says "to hell with UNIX traditions, Windows do this thing nicely, let's copy it in Linux", users have to swallow it while moaning "if I wanted to run Windows, I had ran Windows in the first place";
  • The designer who takes a project aimed at a certain niche (let's say computer professionals), tries to tarket if at a niche that will never use it (let's say school kids), changing it in the process so it becomes painful to use for the initial category of users. They leave in droves, for alternative projects;
  • The designer who does everything to please his boss, mixing professional, familial and community things and leaving the community always on the last place;
  • And obviously the designer with an Apple envy trying to emulate the Apple look and feel everywhere, even, or mostly, where is not the case.

I am sure some of my readers will recognize themselves in the personas above and I am also sure many of my readers will recognize some of the personas and identify them with designers they know, the descriptions are not 100% work of fiction.


  1. you, bastard... :)))))

    1. You, you always steal my thoughts!!!!
      It's not fair! :))

  2. I would take offence (for other people, because none of it is about me... because I don't matter) but that was obviously your intention so none taken. Your criticism about how everything is broken and there is no way to fix it and everyone involved is superficial and living in their own version of a flawed reality... well it's like politics... and that old statement... our government is the worst except for all of the other ones. When you see sausage made, you are supposed to be revolved.

    1. i think i said what is the way to make thing works: keep the bazaar

  3. Yes, obviously I've turned my back on the Fedora design community. Tell me more. What is my evil agenda here? Apparently you know more about me than myself.

    1. I don't talk about "evil" things, but putting the interest of the community on the second place is turning your back. I won't enter into a debate here and now, last time after a debate you were the one who came and asked me to remove info that were true but damaging for you (as you said). Then I complied.

    2. Nicu, just because I work in free software doesn't mean my private life is GPLed. I am not sorry that I put my personal well-being above the Fedora community. I would absolutely not begrudge a single person in free software for putting their well-being above their community work as well, and I know others on the Fedora design team in particular have done just that, and you know them as well and probably more about their situation than I do if they foolishly place trust in you as I have in the distant past. If you're going to dole out criticism for that, you're most certainly not doling it out equally or fairly.

      Who is the one who stopped participating in the Fedora design team and went on strike? That is certainly turning your back.

    3. When continuing with the team basically meant bending over and taking it up from McCann & co., I stepped down. You continued because you wanted them to attend your wedding. I am sure I did the right thing, standing up for my principles.
      You act like a drama queen, when you don't like what others say you shut them down, as earlier today when you kicked me from an IRC channel where I didn't said a word. That's not leadership.

    4. What a fantastically misguided and divorced-from-reality fantastical story! I can see you care so much about the situation you can't even remember it accurately. I made no decisions for Fedora based on the sake of my wedding. You are conflating multiple issues.

      I kicked you from an IRC channel you are *never* in (you quit, remember?) because you pissed me off, which is exactly what you wanted. My assumption is that you decided to join in order to provoke me. You succeeded. Hope you enjoyed it.

    5. What *is* acting like a drama queen is continuing to hang around a community you claim to have no part of. Make up your mind. If you want to participate, participate. If you don't, leave. Don't straddle the line and harass those of us who have stuck around and continue to work on things. This is a pointless, idiotic, and immature distraction. Grow up.

    6. you want me to provide quotes from the IRC logs? i have them, like here:

      Feb 08 18:44:55 <mizmo> i might have to live with the cause of the problem AT MY WEDDING
      Feb 08 18:45:14 <mizmo> its supposed to be the happiest day of a girls life
      Feb 08 18:45:18 <mizmo> mine is going to be ruined
      Feb 08 18:45:21 <mizmo> because of a stupid bullshit wallpaper

      and i *never* left the IRC channel, is put on automatic login. you act really bad bed enraged and lose control.

    7. Nicu, I really don't understand how my venting to an (ex-) friend shortly before my wedding about how stressed I was when I was the most stressed out I have ever been in my life shows any correlation between designers being a problem in the FOSS world. Really all it shows is how petty and stupid you are.

      Make a choice. If you stick around, this childish behavior will not be tolerated. If you go, go. I have removed you from all Fedora design-related Fedora Account System accounts because when you quit a project, you have to really quit a project. You don't get to keep the privileges that come with being a contributor and use them to attack people like this, Nicu. That's what makes quitting a project a big deal. To quit and yet not really quit, to maintain your account through the SSH key changeover in Jan and to continue to post to Planet Fedora means your only point in quitting is to be a drama queen.

      It's funny, because for all you do that is denigrating to young women, you are most certainly acting like an angry spoiled little teenage girl right now.

      I'm touched that you've saved our chat logs. I regret all the times I considered you a friend and stuck up and defended you: continue to save those logs because that will never happen again.

    8. No need to feel special, all the logs are saved by default and it was no casual chat but a talk about the growing conflict between the Fedora Design Team and the Red Hat Desktop Team.

      Do you think all the personas in the article are about you? Sorry, but that's not the case. Is not like Fedora is the only FOSS project I ever touched or like I arrived here after you.

      And do you think all I did at Fedora was graphics? Again, sorry, but that's not the case, for example these days I am training a new contributor to become an Ambassador and maintaining the local website in my country.

      I didn't quit from Fedora, I quit only from its Design Team and at the time it was temporary, with the intention of maybe returning. In the meantime I had other contributors come and say "you were right all the time".

    9. > I have removed you from all Fedora design-related Fedora
      > Account System accounts because when you quit a project,
      > you have to really quit a project

      Mairin, can you appreciate how childish you are sounding now?
      I don't want to believe this is the way you roll.
      Because if it was, well, it'd be pretty disappointing for someone holding your position.

  4. You are so full of BS. This post is nothing more than cowardly garbage, and it's really disappointing that I had to see it on Planet Fedora.

    It's easy to complain, to quit when things don't go your way, and to write thinly-veiled personal attacks on designers and developers you don't agree with. You know what's hard? Working with communities to change things you don't like and actually contributing to projects. But, you know, that takes work and commitment.

    If you had stayed on your original point instead of going off on into childish, vitriolic personal attacks, you might have actually been able to write *gasp* constructive criticism. Yes, the cathedral and the bazaar, blah blah blah. Folks working on FLOSS projects *should* do things in the open as much as possible, and I'm sure there are designers who could do a better job of it. Aside from the FLOSS aspect, accepting criticism is an important part of being an effective designer, and that means opening up your work to others for that criticism.

    None of the designer or developer "personas" are evil people trying to destroy the projects they're working on. On the contrary, they're actually working hard to make FLOSS better, not just sitting around and complaining. And none of the designers are handing down designs from on high and commanding developers to make them. No designer in FLOSS realizes their designs without a) coding and contributing the designs themselves or b) working with one or more developers to code and contribute them. And in most projects, contributing a major design change isn't as easy as submitting a patch - you have to convince the people working on the project, the ones with commit access, that your design and contribution is worth adding to the project. Yup, meritocracies can be a bitch.

    Design is hard, open source is hard, doing both is *really* hard. Good designers are hard to get in FLOSS and we need as many as we can get. If designers aren't working openly enough, that's a problem that needs to be solved, but that doesn't negate the need for or value of designers.

  5. *Grabs some popcorn*

  6. +1 to emichan. Well said.

    I think the challenges of doing design work in an community-based project needs exploration.

    Nicu's post made some interesting points, albeit provocatively, but didn't offer any concrete constructive advice besides "bazaar is better."

    On Fedora Planet, I see design work being discussed in an engaging way and attempts to gather feedback. I think that's fantastic!

    Are there areas that are too Cathederal in the FLOSS world? Absolutely. There should be a continuing, respectful, discussion of how design-work can engage the community and still end up with coherent result instead of an incoherent mess.

    I wish this post could have constructively added to that discussion.

  7. * The developer suffering badly of the NIH syndrome who rewrite every piece of software because he think he's smarter. He got known for uselessly rewriting a basic tool, then he gets employed by a major company to rewrite an important tool, which not even now has feature parity with the old version, then he leads the wrecking of a desktop system used by millions of people. He thinks reading a book makes him a designer;

    Sounds like Lennart Poettering.

    1. Actually I didn't have him in mind, but yes, you are right, the description suits him quite a bit (and at least a few others).

  8. Oh boy,

    Nicu, I love you mate but you are deliriously bat-shit crazy insane.

    These vapid oversimplifications of others contributions do you no favours. If you want to read a book read this one http://www.abookapart.com/products/design-is-a-job.

    So chill the fuck down.
    You are posturing yourself in an exclusionary manner; as if you have the chops to take on the contributions of everyone. you dont; i'm sorry.
    Celebrate the successes of others and pitch in where you can, even if there isn't a consensus that additional work needs to be done. A good idea gathers lots of attention and everyone wants to take things to the next level.

    Right now, nobody of consequence is listening to you — and why should they?

    Value design and designers will value your opinion.
    Right now you are in the wrong mate. I'm sorry but fix it. Be the bigger person you should be by behaving like it.


    1. oh am I the second one ?

      Because I steer clear of fedora for non professional reasons — I think it is a fictitious ecosystem centered around what should be considered part of the greater open source communities. This includes opensuse too. Fedora has exactly zero of my attention since I imagine upstream success would overcome the necessity for intermediary brands and chapters. Giving a name to what need not be named confuses the conversation — at least for me.
      That being said, the resources provided within the fedora community are fantastic mix of cross disciplinary contributors and having that support while problem solving cross-project is vital to consistent and coherent software. I just wish it happened non artificially across the board. Sort of like google summer of code where obviously sponsored boosters are given to projects and the individual communities take ownership of a problem with the support of added resources. more of a partnership rather than it be all about the brand facilitating the transactions which may include no paid contribution. did that make sense?

      When I help a project on free time. It is me helping, not my employer.
      When I am employed to help a project, it is my employer helping by giving my time.
      Only in the latter scenario does the framework get to set the attributable rules - and I generally perform better in that environment.
      In neither of those transactions does Fedora have a place unless I was staffed to participate.

      What confuses me, is why do the Nicu's of this world even entertain attributing their work to this system (you do actually submit work other than flaming my friends right?)

      I think you said I don't get communities, but I do. I just dont get fake ones. You're the sucker here — wake up

      LGM is fairly flat and honest. there's no primadonna wins there because work speaks for itself.

      You know that Peter S has done great work with many considered GIMP design improvements. Where is his profile in this?

      You know The blender team has greatly improved their interface design in recent years - especially for professional users. where is their cynical designer story?

      You know Dave and Raph L have done fantastic work bringing the google font directory to life, where is your rant profile on them?

      Designers in free communities do good work. Great work even. The ecosystem has to be honest, the work has to be relevant and necessary but they do fantastic work.

      all of the people you have trashed do good work in my opinion and you are being self-deceptive if you do not acknowledge that too.

      You are so different from me and others that i'm sure we can still learn a lot from you. If you continue to negate the contributions we make, we will not even consider the lessons you could teach us. which is a shame.

      It's time for you to evolve and rise above this. People giving a crap about you are at stake.

    2. Hi Andy,
      I would actually like to extend the conversation on the points from your other comment, the private one. There are a lot of things in there we see differently, actually there is a split in the community (both Fedora and larger FOSS community) on this matter.
      As for celebrating the success... I do when I see it, for the moment I see a series of failures.

    3. My bad, the second message wasn't deleted, just marked as spam by Blogger, I unmarked it now and will give a proper reply

    4. No, you are not the second one and I have no idea why do you think so... if asked for positive examples when writing this article, you Andy would have one of thee few. To clear any doubt, the second persona was modelled pretty much about Diana Fong, who worked for Red Hat for a couple of years and resigned after a huge and ugly fight with Mizmo and the rest of the community.

      Your view on Fedora seems very close with John McCann's position from the (in)famous "GNOME OS" paper and this is the root of many problems in Fedora those days. Some people think the OS is the kernel (that's the "old guard" view, and not very popular these days), some think the OS is the distro (the current majority view) and others the OS is the desktop (pushed hard by the GNOME camp).

      While you are, as I understand, in the third category, I am firmly in the second, I see the distro and the central piece and the desktop system only as one of its building pieces, if can be switched and replaced if needed (if is going the wrong way, for example).

      I didn't know much about Peter when writing this piece, but if I would write it now, he would definitely have one. LGM gave the opportunity to sit for some beer with a few GIMP developers and learn some about him and the internal GIMP affairs. The gist of it: Peter give them a lot of problems but also made a lot of good things, so overall those pretty much neutralise each other.

      I don't use Blender, I am not in touch with its community or development, so can't comment on that.

      Dave and Ralph are font designers, they do font design.