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Open source goes beyond software. It can also serve as a business’s operating model, where work is grounded in the principles of transparency, collaboration, releasing early and often, meritocracy, and community.

For some designers, designing in the open sounds scary—that’s understandable. Imagine transitioning from having a password-protected portfolio to having your work accessed by anyone through a quick Google search.

But designing with an open source mindset increases a designer’s visibility, influence, and impact. PatternFly is a great example of open design’s benefits. With design and development information out in the open, knowledge is democratized. Solutions are shared. And, above all, community is created.

To truly design the open source way, you need to have the open source mindset every step of the way. Here’s what designing with an open source mindset really means.

Be a shepherd of design 

As a designer, you’re not the sole creator of design. Instead, you’re the guide —or shepherd—of design. In open source communities, good design ideas can come from anywhere. It’s your job as the designer to recognize those ideas when they come up and shepherd them through implementation.

Does this mean you can’t claim sole credit for the design work you do? Absolutely. And that’s a good thing—for your team and for the world. When we share ideas and build on each other’s perspectives, we can produce our best work. Take credit for being the designer, but also give credit to your colleagues for their contributions.

Prove yourself  

You must show value to the teams you work with. This way, you gain their trust and build your reputation as someone who has the product’s greatest interest in mind. In proprietary companies, designers can often rely on company procedure or hierarchy to enforce design direction. In open source communities, the responsibility falls to the individual to build a reputation for themselves in order for their work to gain attention.

Building this reputation takes some time and dedication. Here are some tips for starters:

  • Deeply understand the product and team you work with.
  • Participate actively in the entire creation process.
  • Share your work transparently so that everyone can see the reasoning behind your decisions. (Remember those “show your work” math problems in school? Now you get to put that skill to use.)
  • Graciously receive feedback and respond thoughtfully to what you agree and disagree with.
  • Cultivate open debate in the team and take part in it.

With this kind of behavior, your team has visibility into your work. As a result, they’ll openly engage with you and trust your outcomes.

Document your reasoning

The team you work with needs to trust you as a person and believe in your ideas. When working in an engineering environment driven by logic and practicality, establishing buy-in for your designs isn’t always easy. You’ll need to speak towards the importance and impact of your designs.

Here at Red Hat, our designers often write blogs or document design reasoning in Github as part of their design process. We have to prove to anyone in the community why we are doing what we are doing. Sharing design reasoning in any company, even on internal wikis, can improve your stature as a designer.

Communicate early and often

Open source teams are often remote, with teammates all over the world. This kind of diverse insight and experience is good for design. But keeping everyone connected requires some extra thought and attention. To keep projects healthy, the team needs to communicate regularly with asynchronous technology. Most successful open source projects follow a philosophy of “release early and often.” This philosophy allows everyone collaborating on the software to easily see the direction and make continuous small modifications to the code or approach.

At Red Hat, the designers on our open source team also adopt this same philosophy into their working style. They communicate UX plans on a regular basis with the community. They deliver documents, designs, and prototypes early and often so that small changes can be made to the design or UX approach. When applied to design, this philosophy ensures the entire team is confident you are regularly working towards the common goal. 

Try the open source way

Consider your design process and philosophy. While these changes are required for open source designers joining Red Hat, they may also be valuable in any design organization. Think about how you can use an open source design framework to improve your team’s design impact. Where can the principles of transparency, collaboration, releasing early and often, meritocracy, and community impact your work?

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