Ura and the Challenges of Open Source Design

Elio Qoshi is the person behind Ura, a fascinating design studio dedicated to improving design in free and open source projects. As part of that mission, Ura works with projects of all budgets. When we talk about open source, we’re usually talking code first and then—maybe—documentation second. Design is often an after-thought. But as designers like Elio get involved in open source culture, that order could eventually change.

  1. Why is design such a challenge for free and open source projects?

    Many FLOSS projects aim to solve a specific problem and focus solely on that problem. Unfortunately this means that the solution might not be accessible, usable, or visually appealing, because all efforts have been focused on making the software work. On top of this, designers aren’t used to work process like programmers are. Open source doesn’t interest us designers as much as it might a programmer, because we usually work alone. Designing in the open is also a bit
    more complicated than programming. For example, there is still no established git equivalent for visual design.

  2. Given how many designers use proprietary software (no judgement!), how can more be brought into the free and open software movement, both as users and contributors?

    People expect GIMP and Inkscape to magically improve one day. This is the wrong approach. I have used GIMP and Inkscape for quite a lot of my design tasks and once you get the hang out of it, it’s a full-fledged Adobe alternative. Instead of paying your Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, you could make a small donation to these FLOSS projects and watch how fast they would improve. I also am really amazed how many designers miss the opportunity to get involved in open source. The entry-level barrier is low, like nowhere else, and your work could easily be seen all around the world, with the financial aspect following soon rather quickly. I believe that people need to get out of their comfort zone first, which is an important step. After all, no one ditched their Macs and iPhones one day and went fully GNU/Linux the next. It needs a stream of constant little changes, just like going to the gym.

  3. There’s often a feeling that design has no cost attached (a la this article). Do you worry Ura reinforces that misconception?

    I am a firm believer that you get what you pay for. When I started Ura I expected some people to abuse it by requesting free designs, but these cases were always justified, as these projects were not able to pay any coder, let alone designer, because they were usually hobby projects. Most people who approach us at Ura are limited with their budget; it’s not that they don’t see the value in investing in good design. So far I have had more requests with quite reasonable budgets than design requests for free, which gives me hope that open source communities have great empathy.

    Furthermore, I encourage people who ask for free designs to pledge via our Patreon campaign, which allows Ura to help open source projects without a budget. The more people pledge on Patreon, the more we can help projects which lack the budget for design.

  4. What are common design mistakes you see in open source projects and how can they be avoided?

    I recently started working as a brand designer for Tor and the classic problem I see time and time again are branding guidelines not being respected. You can see it anywhere, from Firefox using an old logo somewhere, to the various versions of the Tor logo. Projects like Red Hat or O’Reilly are really able to avoid this problem, but then again, they are usually not community-focused and have VERY strict branding guidelines which would not work in more casual open source projects. Things like this could be solved by educating community members on how to use the assets correctly. Eventually it will stick and we designers won’t need to do design policing anymore (which we should’t do anyway…).

  5. If you could get every open source project to follow one design principle, what would that principle be?

    Definitely flat design. While it can get repetitive or boring if done mechanically and by-the-book, it can rarely go wrong. It’s a safer bet than playing around with shadows, gradients and skeuomorphic objects.

  6. Which open source project has the best branding and/or logo? Why do you like it?

    Definitely Red Hat. It’s clean, simple, unique and leaves very little space to break the branding guidelines. It’s also very flexible as a branding, with various colors and use-cases. They are quite good at “owning” the red and black combo. Their branding translates well into other mediums, too: you can see people with actual red fedoras walking around. It makes you kind of jealous when all other projects have is a branded t-shirt. It’s a great way to differentiate yourself from other projects.

  7. What do you think of Tux as a Linux logo? It’s a controversial one:


    Tux is one of the works I am to afraid to touch. It embodies a lot of history and background for the whole Linux community, which I believe is quite a lot of weight for a designer to carry on his shoulders. I believe that the penguin as a mascot is a total success for Linux. Linux owns the penguin world and that is an achievement on its own. There are some simplified versions of Tux, which are quite more modern and I find those fitting for today as well.

    I would personally do a completely different take on Tux if I did the logo today, but as I said, the sheer weight of brand history Tux comes with should not be treated lightly. It’s like redesigning the floppy disk “save” icon. It’s really outdated, but would you have the courage to redesign it?

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