Over at Automattic.Design, I recently posted some reflections about my first experience working as a designing in open source. The full article is reproduced below.
Throughout my career, most of my design work has been produced in relatively controlled environments: It was covered under strict NDAs, or it was presented to a very select group of colleagues, clients, or other stakeholders. Design was done in closed boxes, where all work was hidden away until launch. I got pretty used to this, and it felt comfortable. Without really thinking about it, I was gradually taught that this was the way design happened.
That mindset broke for me in July 2018. At that time, I began working full time on the open source WordPress project. In many ways, working in open source is the polar opposite to the sort of controlled environments I’ve been used to.
Working on WordPress has opened me up to a whole new way to collaborate, introduced me to many excellent people, and has undeniably made my work stronger. It’s been unlike anything else I’ve undertaken professionally, and I’d like to share some of the challenges and benefits that I’ve experienced.
Working in open source felt drastically different from day one. When you start a new job, you’ve typically passed some bar to get started: whether that’s a job interview, a design trial, or even just a resume review. The folks you’re working with know who you are, and they’ve decided they’d like to work with you.
That’s not always the case with open source work. Your colleagues may not know your background. They probably aren’t even going to Google you. They don’t know whether or not you’re good at what you do. What matters is how you conduct yourself today, and that you’re providing value in your work and your discussion. For some, it can feel a lot like starting over. As someone who spent over a decade building up a reputation and work history, this was at times a really difficult experience. On the other hand, it was refreshing to focus back in on what matters most: the work I’m doing today.
The WordPress community has been around for well over a decade. It has deeply ingrained processes and workflows — many of which are opaque to the general public. It takes some effort and some outreach to learn how to get work done. Luckily there are many folks out there who’re happy to help you get started. (If you’re interested in contributing as a designer, say hello in #design on the WordPress slack instance! Anyone can join.) The first introduction was difficult, but welcoming colleagues made it substantially easier.
The actual process of working in open source can also be a shock. As designers, we tend to hold our work close to the chest at first. The idea of letting strangers on the internet comment on your initial sketches is many designers’ nightmare.
The never-ending parade of critiques at design school prepared me pretty well for this, but it was still a difficult adjustment. It only got better through practice. I’d share more work every day, with a wider audience each time. Once I got used to working in the open, it felt kind of exhilarating to post in-progress work publicly.
This increased scrutiny had a clear benefit. Due to the heightened visibility of the work, and the frequent pushback, I learned to be much more tactful and clear when explaining my ideas. I’d spend extra time typing out clear overviews of my work, and try to anticipate and answer questions up front. This helped facilitate more productive discussions, and is a skill that will have a continued impact on my work.
Offsetting some of the more intimidating aspects of contributing is the diversity of the work to be done. Designers are lucky in that they’re able to float in and out of a wide array of industries on a regular basis. When I was working at agencies, I had the opportunity to work on an incredible variety of projects. Sometimes I’d be designing an app for a highly respected cable channel, and other times I’d be designing a tool to help folks better understand their retirement savings. Design afforded me the ability to fully immerse in each industry, learn to understand their business and the problems they face, and talk directly to their customers.
An open source project as large as WordPress offers no shortage of variety. In the past year, I’ve contributed to the editor, admin UI, the default theme, marketing, print signage, and brand design. Each project has had its own audience, its own set of distinct goals, and involved research and learning along the way.
Another clear benefit to open source work is the community. Working alone in the WordPress project is a true anomaly. You’ll frequently take up individual tasks on your own, but it’s near impossible to go from idea to deployed code by yourself. The WordPress community has a rich network of contributors to provide feedback and help make the product stronger. Often I’d wake up in the morning to find that someone halfway across the world had contributed a solution to a design problem that I’d been struggling with the day before.
The WordPress community also exposed me to a lot of different perspectives, and ultimately the work got a lot better for it. Perhaps the most clear example of this is accessibility. The WordPress Accessibility team and this year’s accessibility audit of the WordPress editor both served as excellent teachers. From contrast to keyboard navigation, to aria-regions, accessibility is now a major priority in all the work I do, and I feel much more confident about it than I did before.
Designing and building a product is difficult. As designers, we all know and experience that. But designing and building a product while also maintaining a healthy community is incredibly difficult.
I’ve met a lot of people who are incredibly passionate about the product they’re building. Truly raw, organic passion. Many contributors love this work not because it’s their job, but because it’s their life. I’m coming at this from a privileged place: as a company that benefits greatly from the continued survival and evolution of WordPress, Automattic sponsors my full-time work on the open source project. For the vast majority of contributors though, this open source work happens during their nights and weekends. It’s unpaid and a labor of love. Many folks have been involved for years at a time. This engagement is a rare thing to see, and it’s incredibly powerful.
Ages ago, I got started with web design by following tutorials, borrowing code, and sharing my work with friends. That’s not an uncommon origin story amongst those of us who work on the web. Over time though, most of us have been sheparded out of that open web we started on, and into the closed environments we’re mostly working in today.
Designing in open source has been a refreshing return to that collaborative era in which I first got started. I’d love to see more designers embrace this way of working, even if just for a short time. It forces us all to be a little more vulnerable with our design work, and encourages us to share our time, process, and work with others. It’s had a profound effect on the way I approach my work, one that I think will stick with me for years.
If you’d like to contribute to WordPress yourself, jump into the #design channel on the WordPress Slack instance and say hello!