Should We Embrace An Open Design Process?

This article is written by guest author Oliver Reynolds-Duffy, UI/UX Designer at mporium

There are countless articles and books written about design and services that are focused on the user. With the introduction of ‘agile’ and ‘lean’ processes, we are no longer waiting for months to receive feedback on our products and services, but rarely is this the case with branding. Designing for a user requires constantly relating back to who it is made for and why. Any anchor points, such as personas, preferences and experience with the product or company become the foundations designers build on in the development process. In an open design process the doors are opened to involve as many interested people as possible throughout all of the stages.

This breaks away from the traditional method of presenting a surprise finalised design at the end, and could become a future pathway for design processes. In this article, we will look at some recent examples of open processes and how we can safely embrace them.

Mozilla: An Open Rebrand

Established in 1998, Mozilla is a global, non profit organisation dedicated to making the web better by creating open source products, the most well known being the Firefox browser. Mozilla recently unveiled its new brand identity, designed by Johnson Banks, after ten months of development in an open design process.

Each stage of the project was published online, in the open, and anyone who was interested was allowed to comment and watch the process evolve from start to finish. This approach stemmed from Mozilla’s company ethos of open source code, but also as an experiment to a new way of branding.

Mozilla's view was that – if they are an open-source software company, why not do the same for their rebrand?

Michael Johnson, Strategy and Creative Director of Johnson Banks

On the blog Mozilla Open Design, Johnson Banks and Mozilla worked together to create a transparent window into the rebrand. By doing this, they not only enforced their brand values of creating open sourced products and open standards, but included all of their product users on the journey. This is similar to what we see in ‘lean’ user experience design, which constantly incorporates the voice of the customer throughout the project cycle, resulting in a product the user wants.

The timeline used by Mozilla and Johnson Banks to display how far along in the rebrand journey they are, keeping users/contributors informed.

If there's anything that's been learnt from the successful ‘lean’ and ‘agile’ process, it is that any individual with some knowledge of the product or company can have a valuable input, seeing things from a different angle or without tunnel visioned thinking. Involving users and customers often results in them liking the product more.

When people see that their own thoughts are reflected in the final product, they are more likely to embrace it.

As companies increasingly open up their marketing, products and services to include customers’ preferences and input, branding seems to be one aspect that's still not embracing it. Sometimes the goal is keeping it quiet and showing the customers the end result, such as the Google rebrand, which while disliked by some, has generally been well received. However, this was not the case in 2010 for Gap, who out of nowhere, rolled out their new logo: uploaded to its website amusingly as newlogo.png.

The Gap rebrand was estimated to have cost them $100 million.

People were used to Gap’s logo and the presented changes were not well received. The addition of a blue gradient to the re-scaled square and changing of font to Helvetica was seen as amateurish. As a result, Gap pulled its ‘newlogo.png’ and eventually lost the blue box altogether, listening to the consumer feedback. Perhaps Gap could have avoided this by including its customers on the journey, like Mozilla.

However, even open processes have their drawbacks. The Mozilla rebrand was carried out in the open, with countless design routes, thousands of blog comments and hundreds of video conferences. Despite this, people involved in the process still didn’t like the chosen design. It seems you just can’t please some people and perhaps this is why more companies don’t bother involving the user in the branding process.

Although, these people might be the same people who don’t like a product created through a lean, customer focused process, and simply just don’t like change. So should anyone bother embracing open design and is it always relevant to every company and brief?

“But my company isn’t an open source community…”

Mozilla is an organisation with over a thousand employees and a vast global community of volunteers who know Mozilla far better than us. It is far more reciprocal to involve and to listen, rather than to command and to tell once a decision has been made.

Strategy and Creative Director of Johnson Banks

A company doesn’t have to have a massive audience or user base to implement an open design process. The same way a ‘lean’ process can test its ideas on small groups and user bases for new products, these principles can be applied to a brand that affects a small community or users of the product

Can we trust the users or wider community to help shape branding?

In May last year, the British Natural Environment Research Council launched a competition to name its newest research vessel. Over 200 million votes were cast in favour of the winning name: BoatyMcBoatface. This open-to-all approach to naming the vessel turned out to fall victim to schoolboy humour and internet trolling. The vote was overturned and the chosen name became ‘Sir Richard Attenborough’. So what went wrong? After all, the community voted.

Meritocracy over Democracy

It's clear that for this process to work, the user as a final vote isn’t going to work. That power should be given to a group of people with deep experience and knowledge in branding and the brief to synthesise the input: people who can sift through the ideas and bring the best ones to the surface. If the project is set up this way from the start, and makes clear that the user’s input provides inspiration and input, rather than representing the final, binding decision, then together the project can be steered, by experienced and relevant people, towards a sensible and collaborative end result.

Just remember to credit any of the original sources of inspiration

Open design processes are successful in methods such as ‘lean’ and ‘agile’ as they allow for greater insight, collaboration and creativity. As with any new process, it takes time for the bumps to be ironed out and foundational principles set. Mozilla and Johnson Barks took a big leap believing in it, paving the way for future projects to follow.

The hope for many branding experts is that people will embrace this open process and it becomes an accepted industry standard principle, like ‘lean’. There will always be someone who doesn’t like the outcome, or a designer who wants to be a hero, but by empowering the community of users, including them in the process, and preparing them for a new product or rebrand, we can gain trust and connectivity.

Is an open design process a positive or even necessary step forward for branding? Let us know your thoughts @FastWebMedia

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