Open Source, Open Design

by George DeMet

I've been following the redesign with great interest, and not just because of Tiffany's involvement coordinating the project with the Drupal Association and designer Mark Boulton. To me, it's fascinating because it's unlike any Web design project that I've been involved with in my fourteen years in the industry.

At Palantir, we get to work with great designers on Web development projects every day, but in most cases there's a single point of contact at the client end through which all comments, questions, and feedback are filtered. In the case of the redesign however, the "client" is a community of a couple hundred thousand Web developers and programmers, many of who have some pretty strong opinions that they aren't afraid to share in public. On top of this, both Mark and Leisa Reichelt, the project's usability guru and information architect, have sought to involve as many people as possible in the process.

In addition to more traditional forms of user research like surveys and interviews, Mark and Leisa have set up groups on Twitter, Flickr, and where people in the community can share their ideas for what the redesign should include. They've been frequently blogging about their ideas and works-in-progress, asking for community feedback at every step in the process. And boy oh boy, have they gotten feedback, both positive and negative.

At first glance, opening up the creative process in this way may seem crazy, but I think it's brilliant. You see, Drupal is an open source (or free) software product, which means that it's not controlled by any single entity. Fundamentally, it's software developed by a community to meet the needs of people in that community.

And as the software grows, the community is also growing to include all sorts of people who weren't part of it before (as I touched on here a few weeks back). And while the kind of rapid growth that the Drupal community has experienced over the last couple of years can sometimes be a little bit scary, it's also really exciting.

As Drupal (the software) is used by more and more people, then Drupal (the community) will inevitably become even more diverse and multifaceted than it is today, and I believe that diversity is an integral part of what makes both the software and the community so appealing.

To expand on an example briefly cited by Mark in his Drupalcon Szeged keynote address, the challenge that Drupal faces is similar to that of video game company Nintendo a few years back when they were working on the successor system to the GameCube, which had faltered in sales against Sony's Playstation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox. Although it's much smaller than its two competitors, Nintendo has a loyal fanbase of gamers devoted to the company's core franchises, such as Super Mario Bros. and the Legend of Zelda. When Nintendo announced in the spring of 2006 that the name of their new gaming console (which up until that point had been codenamed "Revolution") would be called "Wii", the reception from the core gaming community was almost universally negative. Two years later, with the best-selling console in the world and one of the most recognizable brands in the industry, Nintendo has managed to not only retain its core audience, but also bring in lots of people new to the videogame market.

And while it's a certainty that there will be some who won't like whatever new design ends up being selected by the Drupal Association (to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can't please all of the people all of the time), the goal is that the new Drupal site will not only continue to foster the existing community, but also bring in new people, with all the ideas and talents that they bring to the table.

It's a big challenge, to be sure, but after getting to spend some time with Mark in Szeged, I'm convinced that he and his team are up to it. Like most of the great designers I've had the privilege of meeting, Mark is always seeking inspiration from the world around him, and not only is he well-versed in the more esoteric aspects of design, he's also well-grounded in the practical realities of how people interact with design on an everyday basis.

And most importantly, neither Mark nor Leisa are afraid of putting their ideas out in the open for all to see, much in the same way that Drupal contributors put their ideas and code into the open. Yes, there will inevitably be some noise and static along the way, but I think that as this process continues, a clear direction will emerge that provide the Drupal community with guidance and inspiration as it continues to expand. And I can't wait to see it!


Mark actually made a post on his personal blog earlier today that addresses that very question.

One of the key differences between "designing by committee" and "designing by community" is that by involving such a large number of people in the process, it becomes possible to identify trends in the feedback.

As I read Steven Wittens' post, his primary concern appeared to be that while the Drupal community was more than willing to provide feedback, they weren't necessarily the best at making informed decisions about design.

And I think that's one of the reasons that the Drupal Association opted to hire a professional firm for the redesign project. While the community will get to be a part of the process, at the end of the day, it's Mark's team that's responsible for providing the final product, and that product will need to be approved by the Drupal Association.