Art production and the open source paradigm


Author: Jozsef Mak

Art production in an open source environment is more of a challenge than most people think. I know this from my experience in the Ubuntu interface design project in past few years. It has become clear to me that it is impossible to produce high quality visual content in an environment that is lacking coordination. That insight prompted me to investigate other models that could be adopted and used in the open source context. I found the commercial agency to be one of the most efficient and productive models that I can recommend for adaptation, thanks to one single factor — art direction. Art direction assures the unity and consistency that are the main characteristics of professional artwork.

Before I outline my suggestions regarding the changes I am promoting, let me discuss a few general issues relating to visual design. There is a misconception in the open source community that aesthetics is a matter of individual taste. You hear this opinion all the time in art-related discussions. If this were the case, art couldn’t be evaluated or taught objectively. If beauty were in the eye of the beholder, anything would go and we would have chaos (many artists suggest that this is already the case — “we are living the end of the idea of modern art,” says Octavio Paz) and there would be a complete halt to any meaningful creative process other than random improvisations.

But the truth is that we still can tell the inferior from the quality even if our inner sense on which this judgment is largely based is often vague and ambiguous. It is the unity or lack of unity that we first recognize in an artwork. The formal and personal styles often escape our senses, yet they are also essential components of the artwork. Cubism and abstract expressionism are formal styles; the personal style arises from the artist’s personality and is hard to describe, yet nonetheless each artwork has a personal signature.

In many ways design is like writing. Every good piece of writing has a distinct style that manifests itself in consistency and coherence. Think about Hemingway and Poe — two writers with two distinct styles, one simple and upfront and the other characterized by long ornamental sentences with lively metaphors — yet both are coherent and consistent within their own scope.

Likewise, good visual design has its own style and syntax that makes the artwork structured and meaningful. The grammar of a work of art manifests itself in form, color, layout, and so on. Each artwork has to have a center of interest that is based on the visual elements that unifies the composition.

The question is how we can apply the necessary principles when creating visual content in an open source environment.

With art production in a collaborative context, consistency is always a concern. Since all artists have their own skill levels, experience, and inherent style, their team effort often results in a patchwork. Even a less polished but unified design is preferable to a superior patchwork; patchwork has a crooked syntax.

To prevent this from happening, teams need to have strong leadership in place. An art director or a small team of artists could function as a leading force behind a collaborative effort. This arrangement could work essentially as a graphic agency.

How is a commercial agency is set up? In a studio environment, the design process begins with the client; initially, the art director’s job is to gather information about the product. This usually begins by interviewing the client and finding out what he has in mind regarding the product. Say he wants a full color ad; then the art-director would ask where the ad be published — in a newspaper, a magazine, or on the Web; also, what would be the format and the size of the product, what typefaces, colors, or layout are planned; and so on. When enough data is collected, the art team gets together for a brainstorming session where at least two and often more mock-ups are drawn. Then more meetings and consultations.

When the final version is decided upon, the contract is signed, but before the actual production begins the parameters of the product are specified right down to the smallest details. Features such as color, ink, dimension, layout, typeface, images, and paper stock are put down so that designers can follow the specifications as closely as possible. This also guaranties that the final product won’t deviate from the initial plan and will be stylistically consistent and unified.

In a studio environment the work process is structured around experts. The production process is broken down to different sub-projects that can be assigned to specialists. Some of these sub-projects may include layout design, image editing, or illustrations. When the job is small, often one artist does all the designing.

This, in a nutshell, is the setup and the working methods of a commercial agency. This model could be adopted in the open source context with little modification, and later changed as experience requires.

The open source model is a collaborative effort, and as such, it should have a superbly organized structure; only an arrangement like this can ensure that volunteering artists bring the most out of themselves and use their time and resources as economically as possible. To produce high quality content one needs both talent and time; this paradigm could ensure that the human and creative resources of the contributing artists are optimized to the fullest. The alternative is random improvisations lacking unity and consistency — the worst possible scenario, which the art community should avoid at all costs.

Jozsef Mak is a graphic designer who lives in the Montreal area. He has been involved with the Xubuntu/Ubuntu art projects since the release of Dapper, and is currently coordinating the Xubuntu artwork efforts.


  • Open Source