vi·to

Designers and women in open source

TL;DR: no designers and no women because open source isn’t feminist

What follows is an email I recently wrote explaining my theory that the reasons there aren’t more designers contributing to open source projects are the same reasons there aren’t more women in open source. It’s a roll-up of a few comments I made on Hacker News and Reddit last year.

I would be interested in discussing this idea further or .


In July 2010, Chrissie Brodigan asked why designers don’t contribute to open source projects. Charlie Melbye commented on Hacker News that it seemed like designers simply had no interest, and that “any open source project would be very receptive to a designer looking to help out.” I called bullshit and wrote:

I’m not so sure that “any open source project would be very receptive.” The ethos of design is very different from that of open-source development and they are, perhaps, incompatible.

There’s the example about putting every option in there as a user preference instead of making a decision or alienating a vocal user or developer. This even came up in the iPhone 4 reception UI “bar height” discussion: someone said to just make it a preference, and someone immediately said that’s not the Apple way, which is true, but it’s really not the way you design well in general.

For a designer to contribute to an open source project, there would have to be developers committed to implementing the work, to work on “polish” and “froofy things” instead of “real features” and other “important things.” That’s a hard nut to swallow, and what volunteer project owner will ask all their volunteer contributors to, please, stop working on your pet projects within this codebase and let’s actually cut features and work on UI and usability and design?

Drupal is a great example. Acquia and/or the Drupal Association hired professional designers to redesign drupal.org two years ago but no-one in the community was interested in implementing the theme to completion or doing the work necessary to roll it out to the live sites. It might get done later this year, finally, as they’ve decided to actually hire people to do the work.

Drupal 7 is another example. Designers hired, but no takers on the complete implementation. Only portions of it made into Drupal 7.

I’ve personally dealt with this twice, trying to contribute new logos to open-source projects. One was using a trademarked character as their mascot (IP infringement), and they spent a couple of years discussing it before deciding to not do anything about it at all. The other spent only a year discussing it before it was decided upon, against the very vocal protests of a major contributor.

I would wager that as most of the developers of any given open source project are not representative of its end-users, the developers wouldn’t even be involved in the design process in the first place. You can’t design by committee, only take into account the needs of the stakeholders, and if you don’t actually use the software, you might not be at that table. The designer would, essentially, only be generating work for them.

That said, I’m sure most junior designers would love to have “real clients” to work with, to get that vital experience, I’m just not sure many open source projects would actually be able to field them.

A month later, an unrelated blog post by Sara Chipps makes it onto Reddit, and a commenter there takes issue with her domain name (girldeveloper.com) emphasizing her gender, and notes that he doesn’t understand why all the female developers he knows “work in Microsoftie land.” I reply:

Microsoft works very hard to make developers feel wanted, welcome, and productive. “Developers, developers, developers” isn't just a funny YouTube video: making everyone who wants to make something feel like they can, that MS will support them and help make them money, is how Microsoft has been as successful on the desktop as they have been.

It’s in their best interest for them to support you as a developer. You pay some money to indicate interest, and they shower you with devkits and communities and let yourself get carried along.

But, open source platforms are a community in the traditional sense of something you pretty much have to be internally motivated to join. Joining an open source community is closer to joining a church or moving into a neighborhood, and, let’s be honest, these neighborhoods are sexist boy’s clubs with no facility for mentoring, no respect for design, and mailing lists that are 50% dick-measuring contests.

My understanding is that mentoring and socialization are really important for women developers, there’s a level of trust that has to be built, that the traditional flamebait responses to questions or broken patches are enough to turn them off completely.

This is on top of the regular gender issues: being the only woman in the group is incredibly intimidating, and you’re always wondering which half of the men only see you as a sex object, and which half of the men assume you’re genetically incapable of participating. It’s worse when you’re a minority, on top of that.

Just like open source software tends to have no ability to support proper user experience design, because it’s all volunteer and no-one wants to volunteer to enforce “froofy” feature-cutting front-end work (and lose a bunch of those same volunteers), no-one wants to volunteer to discipline (and alienate) a lot of immature, sexist volunteer developers and provide a welcoming, women-oriented (which is really just a socially-accepting, newbie-oriented) development and contribution environment.

TL;DR: It’s depressingly cultural for open source to be dick-measuringly sexist, but MS makes money when they’re friendly to women.

He doesn’t like this, and I quote the relevant part of his reply in my response:

So [women] have to be spoonfed? What makes them so goddamn important if they haven’t proven they’re willing to contribute? I have actually tutored many people before, but if they don’t express an interest to learn and willingness to contribute I am not going to waste my time on them.

That’s the precise, problematic attitude.

What you see as spoon-feeding is what normal men and women [here I imply that as a programmer, he is, by definition, abnormal when compared to the general public] see as proper, instructive socialization. “Hi, welcome to the community, here’s a housewarming present, here’s how things work, we could really use some help over here and I’d love to show you how to work on it, but anything you want to do, feel free and I’ll be here to answer and questions and walk you through every process until you feel comfortable.” When you volunteer your mortgage payments and your children’s educational future and your commuting time to move into a neighborhood, the neighborhood welcomes you and shows you the ropes because now you’re all in it together. With open source, you’re also volunteering your time and knowledge and effort, but there’s no welcoming committee, no backyard barbecues, just a bunch of unappreciative keeping-up-with-the-Jones’, where if you don't have the internal motivation to contribute, you won’t last.

That’s not a good thing. Someone from Mozilla gave a talk a year or three ago about how open source developers have gotten really good at compartmentalizing and distributing development, but that’s not the same as working together. It’s true.

No-one lacks a willingness to learn, but the fact that you were unable to cite a project that has all of these attributes seems to prove my point. That’s okay, I don’t know of a single one that does, either. (Maybe ThinkUp, founded by Gina Trapani, since they recently announced that a large percentage of their code contributions were by women, but I haven’t looked into it at all.)

TL;DR: Your comment proves my points.

I believe the problems with open source not being able to handle non-programmers in their projects is the same problem as the rampant sexism: open source culture is not feminist. Feminism is fundamentally about equality for everyone, not just women, and designers of any gender are just as alienated as women programmers, because it’s not an equally welcoming environment. There’s no perceived value in open source for mentoring, facilitation, disciplining of unruly users, training of newcomers or non-technical users, etc., which are needed to support both designers of any gender and women in any role. I tie these two ideas together in this later comment:

I’ve been thinking lately that the typical open-source development model, and the typical design process, are incompatible. I commented in this HN discussion about it, but, in general, I am drawing the parallel that the issues that open-source has with regards to being unable to support mentoring, facilitation and being welcoming to new and non-technical contributors are the same issues it has with being unable to support a user-centered design process to drive development.

This Keepstream is a collection of the above, in response to Simon Eskildsen’s question and the subsequent discussion last month (in which I did not participate) as to what it takes to get designers to contribute to open source projects.

As another example of the difficulty open source projects have in welcoming new users: an open source project dedicated entirely to making it easy for a project to document how to contribute to it: Brad Fitzpatrick's Contributing.