On Facebook, Máirín Duffy, a fellow designer in the community, posted a link to “Can truly great design be done the open source way?” I commented with a string of thoughts on the topic. I’m posting my response here for a wider audience.

Pandas Forever: a photo I snapped in London's Design Museum

The following is (a slightly edited form of) what I quickly wrote:

First, two points in direct response to the link:

  1. Apple’s design isn’t fully consistent, if one looks close. It is consistently high quality, however.
  2. Rhetorical question: What is “the open source way”?

There are many ways open source software is made, and some of it isn’t necessarily out in the open.

It is always assumed in this sorts of discussions that people code and software is churned out… But really, there are talented people with a vision controlling what goes into a codebase in many successful projects. (Linus and the Linux kernel, for example.)

A comparison is usually made between an entire project and a single design. That’s always ridiculous, and this is one of the reasons why these discussions are not so useful.

I’ve never seen “community coding” done by contests and voting for individual source files. Imagine if programmers were treated like that. How many would stick around?

The phrase “design by committee” is always brought up in these sorts of discussions, but nobody ever stops to think about “programming by committee” (and, obviously, that doesn’t happen in the open source world). Often there are too many opinionated, amateurish cooks in the design kitchen, spoiling the broth.

The Tango project and its offshoots, such as the Tango-styled Gnome icon theme, are examples of where open source (visual, in this case) design works well. There’s a standard, shared vision and a handful of talented designers work toward that goal.

Essentially, for programmers and for designers, there are some talented people doing stuff and later releasing it. The difference is that everyone has an opinion on UI and visual design, even if they are no good at it themselves. Not everyone using software is so opinionated about its source code. (People do not refuse to use resulting software because of indentation (tabs vs # of spaces) and coding style in the source code, for example.)