A Beginners Guide to Open-Source Design

Heard of open-source design but not sure what it is? Don't sweat it! We covered the basics of the movement and the tools for you here.

Jay Perlman

The first and maybe most important thing to know about open-source design is that it's the future. Developers, creators, and designers of all different fields and backgrounds will be working with open-source tools for most of their projects.

But what exactly is open-source design?

While originally coined for software development, open-source design has come to encompass a broader meaning that describes any tool, product, or project that can be freely shared, collaborated on, or prototyped by a group of people or community.

Illustrated hands unlocking a lock
Doodles from the collection Hands

Open-Source Design Beginnings

Open-source design tools are, in a way, a response to restrictive and expensive closed source or proprietary design tools and products. These closed source products limited many creators and made the collaborative design process somewhat of a hassle.

In addition to making open collaboration one of the foundations of open-source design tools, another key element to these products is that they are often (but not always!) free of charge. This was a major moment in design as closed sourced tools are often hundreds of dollars in subscription fees and require regular expensive renewals.

As this design movement gains popularity, developers and programmers are creating a broad spectrum of open-source tools. Below are a few of the fields in which plugins and products are popping up:

In the years to come, it's a near guarantee that tools like these will be improved upon and expanded in new ways, opening up even more creative power to all users.

More Benefits of Open-Source Design Tools

Apart from open collaboration and being free – which is excellent – there are tons of benefits to open-source design tools, and plenty of reasons why these products are so popular.

1. Transparency

Customizable illustrations from Cool Kids

In line with the idea of collaboration, design tools that allow others to see each step of the design process helps establish trust and builds a stronger sense of teamwork. Especially when it comes to group projects, every step and edit can be reviewed by team members, which dramatically helps with workflow.

While some proprietary design tools allow for collaborative work, payment is still required, and editing or modifying a project is far more restricted. Compared to the transparent nature of open-source products, the sluggish nature of proprietary tools can seriously disrupt creativity and workflow.

2. Community aspect

Maybe the most popular aspect of open-source design tools are the communities that come with them. Open-source communities provide productive feedback, give valuable creative insights, and contribute additional plugins and products that enhance the overall tool.

For example, Figma is an open-source design tool with a massive community of creators who can publicly post plugins and other resources that community members can use for free. This helps people discover new things while also acting as a form of self-promotion for the creators posting within the community.

To put it succinctly, the community aspect enhances the collaborative spirit of open-source tools, which builds the product up and creates a stronger and better experience for all users.

3. Onboarding and teaching

Doodle characters looking at charts
Cool Kids doodles by Irene Falgueras

Since open-source tools and products are open for public use, they are excellent for onboarding, teaching, and mentoring. Plus, there are huge financial benefits for teaching students or new hires on open-source tools instead of proprietary ones.

Once again, building off the nature of collaboration, open-source design tools allow students to share their work openly with colleagues, other contributors, and the product's community. This promotes teamwork, nurtures idea sharing, and builds confidence within the new user.

4. Personal development

All fields of design are competitive. For creators to get promoted or get ahead of the competition, they need extensive knowledge and large bodies of work to highlight their skills. Creating portfolios and accumulating this level of skill is difficult in any circumstances, but becomes much more challenging when creators need to pay for expensive tools and degrees.

Open-source tools allow designers of all levels to sharpen their skills, learn new techniques, and build projects without the big price tag.

In a broader sense, this design movement is opening doors to creatives that otherwise would have been shut. Open-source tools are genuinely creating an equal world on top of helping creators produce new, exciting, and great projects.

5. Open-source tools are fun!

Doodle character working and having fun
Workspace illustrations from Cool Kids

This is not to say that proprietary tools aren't entertaining. Instead, the fun that comes with creating on them is limited to those willing to fork over big bucks to use them.

Being able to experiment with creativity and design is something that everyone should have access to, and open-source tools do precisely that. Anyone with access to the internet has the opportunity to explore their creative dreams and have a blast experimenting with design.

When more people can explore their imagination through design, the opportunity for incredible work and solutions grows exponentially. Open-source tools are actively opening up these opportunities for all creatives.

The Future of Design

There's always going to be competition within design and the tools that come with it. Plus, it shouldn't surprise anyone that businesses will continue to pursue profits and aim to make financial gains off their products.

The other side of this coin is the guarantee that designers and developers will continue to produce plugins and tools to enhance the open-source experience. This will happen because, despite the challenges associated with open-source design, the benefits greatly outweigh the potential hurdles on a personal and team level.

As more creators discover open-source tools, the design community will thrive and see tremendous innovation. It's now a matter of awareness and participation, and as more time passes, the advancements will change the way designers work, collaborate, and invent.

What are your thoughts on open-source design?

We want to know your take on the open-source design movement! Do you have favorite tools or important insights that we didn't mention in this article? Let us know! The community always benefits when others contribute!

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