Design is a messy word with many different meanings. When people wants to stay focused on a practical matter, they add a noun to it: Graphic Design, Furniture Design. When they want to qualify Design, for instance, they use an adjective: Industrial Design, Good Design.
It´s a simple statement that an adjective can change the meaning of a noun, but after some frequent use of the same combination the change becomes almost invisible; it makes itself an inseparable part of the noun.
What would be of Design without the Industrial adjective? Perhaps a fuzzy science, but that´s not my point. What are the means we take for granted from the Industrial word? What are the pragmatic effects of using such a qualifier? And not using it? Perhaps less disposable goods.
But I don´t want to discuss the Industrial adjective on this post. I want to discuss the Open and Free adjectives that is starting to be combined with Design to mean a new approach for making things.
Massimo Menichinelli announces that Open Design is going mainstream now. It´s used mainly to qualify product design projects that share its source files, like vector and CAD drawings under an open license. These are supposed to be used by anyone who is interested in developing further the product or simply to build it up. It´s pretty much like Open Source Software: you can check the code, change it and compile your own version.
One of the first projects that did integrated Open Source Software and Open Design was OpenMoko, a free mobile phone. I was following the project development since the beginning, but I was not able to collaborate when it was only about software code. I don´t code.
When they announced the publishing of CAD drawings, I became excited because the project came to an area where I could possibly help. Soon after I checked the released files, I realized that the Design was done already. There would be no point to collaborate on that phase. Worst than that, there were no documentation available about how and why they achieved that design. I couldn’t even evaluate the design project because I didn’t know project constraints and user requirements.
Ok, that is not the purpose of Open Design. The main concern is about opening the design results, not the design process. Good things are happening through it, like the spread of fab labs, OpenIDEO, Design for Download and others. But what could be achieved by opening the design process? Then we come to Free Design.
Open Source and Free Software
I would like first to go back to an old discussion that took place on the software community and that possibly many Open Design enthusiastic are not aware of. The Free Software concept arose from the hacker culture at the eighties and one of its most important advocate is Richard Stallman. Stallman defined Free Software as one that guaranteed four types of freedom:
- The freedom to run the program, for any purpose
- The freedom to study how the program works, and change it to make it do what you wish
- The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor
- The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others
At the late nineties, people struggling to fit Free Software in business environments started to call it Open Source, because the Free adjective appealed to businessmen as unviable. Since the beginning, Stallman stressed that Free should be taken as in “free speech” not as in “free beer”, so Free Software projects could be sold as well, but that explanation was not enough. Although Open Source is an essential concept for Free Software, it lacks the activist ideal that engaged many people. Stallman wrote about it:
The main initial motivation of those who split off the open source camp from the free software movement was that the ethical ideas of “free software” made some people uneasy. That’s true: raising ethical issues such as freedom, talking about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things they might prefer to ignore, such as whether their conduct is ethical.
In Brazil the Free Software movement didn’t have the same problem. Free Software was translated as Software Livre because the word livre has very different meaning from grátis (zero price). That’s why we used Design Livre at Faber-Ludens when we started discussing this topic. When we brought this discussion into English, we prefer to use Free Design rather than Open Design because we consider those ethical issues a central theme.
Free Design is about letting everybody design. If we take design in a broad sense, we can say that everybody is already designing, but how conscious are them of this type of freedom? And what else could they design if we make bridges across what they know to design and what they don’t know like, for instance, a collaborative tool? A DIY manual? A Knowledge Base? A metadesign course?
Free Design not only about releasing source files. Its about releasing design knowledge. Opening the design process is the first step for that. Even if people can’t participate in a design process, they can check the design documentation and understand how it was conceived, perhaps learning something useful for another project of their own.
Imagine a society where everybody is designing and redesigning their material culture surroundings irrespective from professional expert assistance nor industrial facilities. Immediately you will be thinking about many issues that are, in its essence, ethical ones. What are the limits of design freedom? Are there safer alternatives for DIY surgery?
Because freedom is not something we can take for granted, better let people get into the discussion. That’s what we mean by Free Design. Do you wanna join us? Please comment.