Breaking the Language Barriers Between Designers and Developers in Open Source Software

—Monday, December 19 2005

Before I got into the world of software development and programming, I was a Graphic Designer. In fact, I still semi-maintain (which is long overdue for an update–one day). I find myself in a position today where I get much more enjoyment from programming. Along the way, I’ve had to deal with the fact that the software development process and the tools used are very much designer-unfriendly.

You won’t find a lot of Designers who consider Terminal or MS DOS an essential part of their workflow, but if a Designer plans on getting into Software Development they’ll need to get acquainted with one of them or find alternative tools that will allow them to work more efficiently with Developers.

Say what?

I believe one of the main reasons why Designers aren’t involved in more Open Source projects is due to the fact the language isn’t something we encounter in our day to day lives as Designers. I’m going to pick on the Typo project because I was once involed with it and I know Scott and crew are good sports ;-). Here is an extraction from this page describing how you can begin to contribute to Typo:

The Subversion repository resides at svn://, so checking out the current trunk can happen with a command like: svn co svn://

Already we’ve been told to hop on the command line. Is this the only way we can begin to contribute to Typo? Now let’s take a look at something developers will likely never hear:

Open the .psd file, create a new selection from the midtones, copy this selection to a new layer and give it a slight Gaussian blur.

Developer/Designer contribution

Typo is only one of many open source projects or projects in general that suffer from not having active designer(s) on the team. Craig Fitzpatrick published a great article in late October entitled: “If you get 1 thing right in your application, make it the User Interface” and 37signals continuously talk about the importance of design, but yet so many open source projects have a hard time getting contributions from Designers and the UI and interaction of the application end up suffering as a result of this.

Some of these projects are fortunate enough to have a designer in the loop, but this designer will probably never achieve the level of outside help in bug fixing and enhancements that the development team will. When you have 5 developers and 1 designer on a team of 6 and then pair that with the contributions through patches to the code, the design of an application can quickly lag behind because the designer simply can’t maintain the pace of the development.

Reaching out to Designers

Although it may be a given to you that anyone can contribute to an open source project, it wouldn’t hurt to let Designers know how they can contribute and how to get started. There are plenty of tools available for OS X, Windows and Linux that allow Designers to steer clear of the command line when working with Subversion or other SCM systems.

Also, there are simple installers for an applications underlying technology that can allow Designers to get up and moving quickly. Here are just a few:

Ruby/Rails environments


While we can’t fully render the command line useless for Designers, we can lower the threshold of getting started and offer alternatives that get Designers initially interested and involved. Once Designers take an active role in a project then it’s a safe bet to start introducing them to some of the command line knowledge they should have.

What’s your take on the situation?