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Three things I learnt about open design

Three things I learnt about open design

10 October 2013

Open design might be a hot topic, but it’s not new at all

From swapping recipes in search of the perfect cake, to altering a dress pattern to make it fit just-so, we are probably all familiar with the principles of open design, even if we didn’t know that’s what it was called. Our great-grandparents would have understood it too. And there are good reasons that open design has been around for centuries: by tweaking designs, we can improve and customise them to suit our preferences; and sharing and collaborating are important parts of the learning process.

Technology that means open design can now be used in different ways and by different people

What is new is the technology that means open design can now be used in different ways and by different people. To quote Tom Hulme, 'technology is just taking the friction out'.

People are both the problem and the solution

The potential for open design is really significant because people’s enthusiasm can be a really productive and powerful force. For example, Wikipedia exists because over one billion hours of time has been volunteered by people to create, edit and refine content on every topic imaginable.

Why have so many people volunteered all of those hours to this digital knowledge bank? It certainly isn’t financial reward: there are many different things that motivate people, and it is worth taking these into account when trying to get people involved in a design process.

Sometimes there is a downside to this enthusiasm, when a lack of understanding can harm the thing that people want to support. For instance, you might be keen to support nature and have a bird feeder in your garden, but these only benefit certain species, which can upset the balance of an ecosystem; and if the feeder isn’t kept clean it can spread disease amongst birds.

Maybe this is where the expertise of specialists can help, by identifying, communicating or removing potential hazards.

Not all parts of the design process can be open

There are some parts of a design process that lend themselves to collaboration, for example:

  • The early discovery and research stage when getting lots of different perspectives is helpful to define the problem and shape the brief
  • The development stage when you want to generate lots of ideas for how the defined problem could be solved

The results of these stages will be more valuable when there are some clearly defined rules (e.g. if you just ask people for their favourite recipes, but you’re really looking for one for chocolate fudge cake, you might get some great suggestions for a curry, but that’s not at all what you’re trying to find).

Each open stage is only valuable when followed by a closed one, when opinions and ideas can be gathered and sorted. Thinking of the two contradictory proverbs 'many hands make light work' and 'too many cooks spoil the broth' is one way of understanding how open design has different stages which can be either open or closed.

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