7 ways to lean into an open design process

From ditching silos and workarounds to embracing purple squirrels and remote work, here’s how to navigate the changing world of modern design.

To achieve better outputs and survive organizational change and scale, design needs to be more collaborative. So what do we mean when we say “open design”? Rooted in the open-source tech movement, open design has evolved since Israeli designer Ronen Kadushin coined the term in 2004. And it’s still under construction.

“Open design starts with transparent collaboration,” say Abstract Cofounders Josh Brewer and Kevin Smith. “It extends to open source and open access, as well as open tooling and data.” Abstract designer Hugo Baeta says that a big part of open design is communicating openly with his team about what they’re creating together. “Every time you make a Commit, you’re openly putting your work out to your whole team — even if it’s very rough at first.”

Teammate Vince Joy echoes Hugo’s sentiment. “Our ethos as a company is about showing your work.” Abstract is built upon the idea that the future of design is transparent, and understanding the history of our work helps us move toward a more intentional workflow.

Morgan Keys, another Abstract designer, describes open design by juxtaposing it with a closed approach. “Open design is an ‘us / ours’ mindset vs. a ‘me / mine’ mindset,” she says.

If you’re curious about how to bring the concept of open design to your team, here are seven ways to start the conversation.

1. Share your work early and often

If you’re accustomed to feeling like your work is never finished, shifting your mindset to “done for now is better than perfect” takes practice. Historically, we’ve often avoided sharing our work with stakeholders early in the process for fear of surfacing imperfections. Not to knock excellence, but polish can and will happen soon enough.

Instead of keeping your designs close to your chest, don’t obsess over pixel-perfection from the get-go. Open design is about inviting feedback early to steer a clear path forward. Sharing increases the likelihood of getting buy-in and allows us to explore low-fidelity concepts that can or cannot be implemented.

At Abstract, we make Commits to kick off conversations with our team. “In essence, committing is a mindful approach to design,” explains Abstract’s Payam Rajabi. “And bringing mindfulness and intentionality into our work makes us better creators.”

Open design is an ‘us / ours’ mindset vs. a ‘me / mine’ mindset.

Morgan KeysSenior Brand Designer

2. Step out of walled gardens and into the open courtyard

Have you ever worked diligently on a project for months, only to discover that another team in your company was basically doing the exact same thing? With open design, duplicative work is less likely because coworkers have visibility into each other’s projects.

Luckily, even mature companies can learn new tricks. After 44 years of walled gardens, Microsoft has adapted an open design ethos and overhauled how they manage Sketch files. For its recent design system, Fluent design, Microsoft is pulling ideas from across the company and keeping employees in the loop with shared principles and guidelines.

In The Verge’s “How Microsoft Learned From the Past to Redesign Its Future,” the company gives a transparent tour of its systemic reinvention. Designers now log in to see others’ work through mock-ups, concepts, and designs that have shipped to the public. “That was the first base layer step of democratizing design at Microsoft,” says Jon Friedman, corporate vice president of design and research at Microsoft.

In his Medium post, Microsoft Product Designer Joe Woodward shows how his team organizes files for the design of Outlook.

In his Medium post, Microsoft Product Designer Joe Woodward shows how his team organizes files for the design of Outlook.

3. Embrace nontraditional ways of working

Traditional, closed-door corporate ways of working are becoming so outdated that some giants like Capital One are actively trying to replicate disruptive, nimble cultures. Similarly, more companies are establishing “nontraditional” work methods such as work-from-anywhere “offices,” flexible schedules, and purposeful inclusivity. The philosophy is rooted in sourcing innovation from happy employees and honest-to-goodness collaboration.

“The most successful design leaders are investing in personal growth, helping them scale themselves and their teams,” says Mia Blume, founder of Design Dept. and former design leader at Pinterest and Square. “They’re challenging assumptions about how organizations work and creating the way for more healthy, inclusive teams to thrive,” she goes on to say in John Maeda’s Design in Tech Report 2019.

4. Become a “purple squirrel”

The lines between designer, developer, and product manager are already blurred, and job descriptions for hybrid roles are on the rise. Some recruiters are calling multi-disciplined workers “purple squirrels” because they’re a sought-after, rare breed. Don’t cringe, but how does designoper or develosigner sound? While specialists will likely always be in demand, many designers have already become multidisciplinary.

“Not only does open design encourage other stakeholders to wear their designer hats, but it also lets designers branch out,” says Morgan Keys. Along similar lines, some designers are taking on aspects of what was formerly expected only of UX strategists, journalists, or process engineers. To drive impact, designers have to constantly ask the right questions and focus on improving processes.

5. Focus on design, not work-arounds

If your idea of a good time involves exporting assets and updating a hundred instances of an element every time a global style was changed, you may not like the concept of open design. In this new world, many tedious tasks have been replaced by auto-updates in sophisticated software. This means you can forge ahead with complex elements instead of creating workarounds to avoid constant updating. While many designers pride themselves on the details, open design sets the stage for a world more attuned to strategic execution vs. process for the sake of process.

To embrace the new ways of design, we have to unlearn the ingrained assumption that busy-ness = productivity.

6. Let go of ego

With all of these shifts comes the dying dependency on dichotomous power structures. If you’ve worked for a sizeable company (or at any competitive organization), chances are, you’ve experienced playing Game of Discipline Thrones. Navigating power structures can be exhausting and counterproductive to company growth.

At the end of the day, our job is to build products and experiences that benefit users — not out-elbow other departments. Teamwork makes the dream work. 🙂

7. Don’t forget the soft skills in your design toolbox

You’ve probably heard a thousand times over that widening your skillset is required for staying at the top of your game. Designers’ tool boxes have long been full of the latest and greatest program and software versions. We see you 👀browsing ProductHunt on the daily. To rise to the challenge, we have to think beyond mastering our tools, and stay up to date with our soft skillsets as well.

Curiosity, decisiveness, and asking for help when you need it are among product designer Sara Zhang’s recommended soft skills. At Abstract, where feedback is highly encouraged, she’s on the giving and receiving end of internal and external input from various stakeholders. “Opening myself up for feedback when I’m stuck always empowers me to make better decisions,” she says. “But it’s also my job as a designer to decide the right thing to do in the moment.”


Many thanks to Daina Lightfoot, Morgan Keys, Hugo Baeta, Vince Joy, and Sara Zhang for contributing to this piece.

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