Howdy designers! I’m sure it has been drilled into you, over and over again, that you need to watermark your images, add copyrights to your website, and guard your secrets like a national treasure. After all, who knows what would happen if neither you nor your client owned the rights to your creations? Other people might copy you and make potentially hundreds of dollars off of your hard work. Well, you know what? That’s entirely possible; and for certain clients, make sure you do just that.

However, I’m proposing an alternative route that just might change your life in the best ways if you decide to take the leap. Your clients will also benefit from a different way of thinking.

Open source as much as you can get away with.

This is similar to my favorite design philosophy, “Delete as much as you can get away with.” However, the Open-Source philosophy is a heck of a lot more powerful. It can grow your skills, career, network, and happiness.

What’s in it for me?

I know it sounds crazy, but there are plenty of benefits to spending time improving projects that improve the tools many people rely on. So let’s go over these benefits really quick. Bear with me, there are a few:

You’ll learn from the best in the industry.

Sure, you’ll learn from design experts. That’s a given, but more importantly, you’ll learn a whole new arsenal of skills that will make you incredibly valuable to your employers.

You’ll have your code reviewed by brilliant developers. You’ll learn all about what you can do to make websites accessible. Your JS and PHP skills will dramatically improve. You’ll learn how to manipulate the materials of the web. Even CSS will put up fewer fights as you get more comfortable with its use.

You’ll have a competitive edge

Because you’ll be involved with the projects of your choosing, you’ll know what cool features or tools are coming next and be able to use that to your advantage at work. Knowing all the cool things the WordPress REST API can do adds freedom to try all sorts of new things when designing products. (If you don’t know what the REST API is, don’t sweat it. I didn’t either at first.)

Your work will be used by potentially millions of people

I work primarily on the WordPress project. It’s pretty dang cool to say that your work went out to a quarter of the websites on the internet. Not many people have stats like that on their resumé. It’s even cooler to know you helped improve a project that has an impact like this. And WordPress isn’t the only Open Source project with that kind of reach.

On smaller projects, it’s just as cool to have a product that you and your friends use. Especially if it’s one you helped create early on. Many of the best Open Source projects were started to solve the problem of an individual but are desired by many.

You will build a deep and lasting global network

This is my favorite aspect of Open Source projects. You will work with people from all corners of the globe. You will make friends with experts across many domains with a wide range of skill sets. It’s certainly easier to solve problems when you know who to ask. It’s also fun to be able to meet up with someone in almost every major city for coffee or to co-work in person.

This is one of the most valuable assets by far and one that motivates me every day to keep doing what I can to help out.

You’ll be able to make more $$

As you develop your skills and reputation in the open source community, you’ll notice you will get bigger clients with larger budgets and you’ll be able to charge more for your time. You also won’t have to look too far for new work as there’s a good chance someone in your network is looking for some design help. Go ahead. Ask any of the people regularly contributing to Open Source projects how their work is going.

What’s in it for my employers?

Your clients will even see benefits of Open Sourcing their website or apps. What client doesn’t want to show off their cool new website or app to encourage others to help them improve it? Yes, someone may copy it, but it’s Open Source. That’s part of the fun of it! If they do copy it, they may make some improvements to it and decide to send the improvements back your way.

The Open Source way

Here’s what you need to do to get started:

  1. Show up
  2. Listen
  3. Learn
  4. Contribute
  5. Repeat

It’s really as simple as that. Let’s go into it a bit. Since I’m super familiar with the WordPress project, I’ll use it as an example in a few places.

1. Show up

Showing up is the most important. Picking a time each and every week will help you sort out any of the idiosyncrasies the project might have and keep you both learning and active in the project. It will also mean that others will start to recognize you and your skills and seek you out to help with their work on the project.

2. Listen

Try to listen as much as possible. Find out why things are happening. Get input from those who might know why something is the way it is. There are many things that appear rough or crazy on open source projects that are there for really good reasons.

You’ll end up learning more than you would expect just by paying attention to conversations. Yes, even developer-y stuff. It’s cool to know and will give you more insight into the medium you’re working with.

3. Learn

Keep an open mind and ask many questions. You’ll learn design techniques, improve your dev skills, become adept with cool industry tools, and you’ll learn about all the crazy stories that make up the history of the project. There is so much to learn when working on the web, and contributing to Open Source projects is the fastest way to grow.

4. Contribute

Once you’ve got your feet wet, why not put your skills to use helping to improve the project? This can be as easy as helping someone on the forums or as complex as working on larger design projects with other contributors.

In the WordPress project, we’ll take any help we can get. Are you interested in icon design? We’ve got a team for that. Are you interested in flexing your print design skills? We’ve got a community team that could use some help designing marketing materials. Are you interested in UX work? Well… we have a little old thing called WordPress that has quite a range of projects that could use your design help.

5. Repeat


Now go Open Source something!

All it takes is adding a license and putting a project someplace public. If you’re not quite ready for that leap yet, go find a project you are interested in working on that’s already Open Source. I’m happy to provide some suggestions if you’re not sure where to start or where to look. However, my first recommendation will likely be to jump into the WordPress project and see what you can do to help out. It’s a great time for designers of all skill sets to jump in as the project lead, Matt Mullenweg, just announced that the project will be design-led from now on.

❔ Whois

Michael Arestad is a designer who calls Denver his home most of the time. (What a crummy place to live.) The guy is a bit of a nomad who designs some serious internet for a living. He works on some gnarly projects at Automattic and is a WordPress contributor in his free time. When he’s not moving pixels around on a bunch of screens, Michael is probably playing in the mud with his dog, hiking, biking, skiing, enjoying scifi, making CSS do backflips, or playing pinball in an arcade.

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Posted by Michael Arestad

I design at Automattic.