The importance of free software to enable collective design process

Transcript of the talk I gave at  LGM 2012 Meeting,
the 3rd May 2012, Vienna, Austria.

It’s not a long time I’ve started to know the Free Software movement and I’m so enthusiastic about it. So I’ve decided to participate to LGM meeting to learn more about free graphic software and to share my considerations about the incredible amount of things we can do with it.
As I red on the Free Software Manifesto at GNU.org the free software community has a great and laudable ambition, that is to be a social movement.
I see this aim as realistic and so interesting: it’s not just a matter of software but of possibilities of action these free softwares give to the whole community.
This simple but key-concept of empowering people is at the base of my research and work, but it’s not at all easy to match it with the mainstream thought about design, work and life. Fortunately a lot of literature supports this idea, and a lot of people, as you all, work everyday to make it possible.
I want to share with you some authors’ concepts I found out during these years of research on participative design that I consider enlightening on this topic. None of them is a designer, the first one is an educational philosopher of the early nineteenth century, Joseph Jacotot.
Jacotot wrote a lot about the concept of emancipation: for human beings, the first step through emancipation is the human awareness of his nature of intellectual subject.
It is the opposite of Descartes’ I think so I am, it is much more something like, I am human so I think. There are not two or more intelligences, all human works are practical results of the same intelligence. For emancipated subjects it’s important to share the awareness of the power of intelligence.
In this conference room we have an example of a group of emancipated subjects: your communities combine members skills to create a collective intelligence. Henry Jenkins wrote a lot about this concept in his Convergence Culture.
In all these communities there is a mutual knowledge production that is finally shared also outside the community. Everyone can participate in the software design or in the use of the final edited software and give his feedback.
It’s not the knowledge process what makes collective intelligence so strong, but the social process of knowledge acquisition as it is dynamic and participative as Peter Walsh underlines.
The two workshops I want to describe you, are extremely based on the concept of empowering people, giving them the awareness that it’s always a matter of language, the same language all human intelligences can learn, that we are all able to speak . You just need to learn the fundamentals; maybe thought the six steps proposed by the Universal education model of Jacotot:
1. Learn
2. Repeat
3. Imitate
4. Translate
5. Decompose
6. Reset

1° Workshop:
Basic design procedures
By Lorenzo Bravi
& the IUAV Basic Design students

The workshop, called Basic design procedures and designed by Lorenzo Bravi, is about coding, so it is clearly about language. Mathematics, contemporary art and coding have a common characteristic: you need to learn their language to say something about it. So the most used sentence to refer to each of these three subjects is: I can’t understand anything about it. Here is a simple form about the workshop specifications.
The workshop was first experimented with the students from the Basic design course held by Giovanni Anceschi while I was his assistant at IUAV University in Venice in 2011. The class was at its first semester of the first year of university so young and fresh minds with no digital graphic skills.
After a brief introduction on Processing and its open source nature, students were asked to sketch simple exercises repeating easy commands.
Here we have the proposed slides. The final output was an interactive mask that changed its appearance with the mouse movements. The sound variable was finally added by the tutor Lorenzo Bravo who also created a downloadable application of it.
When the interaction was made public, we took care to show the source code next to the mask, to make the process visible.
I think these students have been lucky because I first heard about Processing in my 4th year of University. The same is for free softwares: it’s not frequent their use in public schools or universities in Italy even if these institutions could take advantage by investing all the money they spend for private software license fees in software development research.


2° Workshop:

Editorial co-design Lab
By Silvia Schiaulini & the San Gaspare Bertoni High School students and professors

When this year I was asked to design the layout of a private school magazine, I was happy to know about the existence and efficiency of Scribus.
My proposal was to codesign the magazine layout together with teachers, students and employees. In that way I could work together with directly involved readers and writers of the magazine, so the final layout should respond more to user needs.
As Robert Jungk in 1972 wrote, participation may be an educational approach both for designers and users.
People with a lack of knowledge may be able to look at things in a more original, more creative, way. So I think that people who are experts should go to people with a lack of knowledge and say: We can help you with our knowledge, but you can help us by the way you see things when your view is not clouded by all our knowledge of feasibility, of procedures, and so on.
Here a simple form about the workshop specification.
The process is still ongoing in these months and we are following the universal teaching method we proposed before, so we are in the learn and observe phase. The program:
- Group presentation, outline of the group’s expectations and magazine imagination
- During the first part of observation, participants work on the layout of existing magazines: they are asked to describe what they see in a single double spread and in the whole magazine layout: in that way, the group will autonomously point out the constitutive elements of a magazine layout.
- Then the group proceeds with the comparative analysis of elements by studying them in different magazines. The visual research follows an introduction about specifics rules for each elements. The most interesting solutions are cut and pasted in a self made workbook whose chapters are:
- grid
- typography, font family
- typography, font weight and style
- text formatting and alignment
- running header and footer
- cover and header
- book dummy
The end up of the Learn and observe phase point is the book dummy we have to fill with our contents.
In the design phase participants have to go over each section of the workbook and suggest a solution for each element they need for the magazine. Proposals will be sketched by pencil and then developed on the computer.
The easy Scribus interface will help in this moment.
Participants have to submit a proposal for each element and then the team will vote democratically the most interesting solutions, taking into account the typographical rules they learn during the workshop. In that way each problematic is collectively solved by choosing the most effective solution not the most tasty one.
When the layout design is ready participants will start layout on Scribus whose basic functions will be explained in a frontal lecture.
Each one will work on a double spread page, to shorter the work.
Finally we will assemble the exported pdf in a ready to print file.
At the end of this process both the designer and participants will have learned something new about graphic design rules and perception, so the rules and application of a new language.
The laboratory experience is particularly useful because it develops both personal subjectivity and social relations.
Participants will have felt and practiced their decisional power and their potential of action. Through learning a new language we will have new emancipated subjects.
The exchange between experts and amateur will enrich the workshop dialogue and the final artifact itself.

3° Co-design project:
Le Mur Mur de Larris
by Atelier Formes Vives
& the inhabitants of Larris in Fontenay-sous-Bois

The last project I want to show you is born from the will of a group of inhabitants of Fontenay-sous-Bois who ask to Atelier form Vives to help them in finding a way to communicate the initiatives already in place in this particular city district.
The final output has been a monthly wallpaper, initially layout by the designers and fulfilled by the inhabitants and finally completely managed by the residents themselves.
As Adrien Zammit writes: the layout has been done in cyber cafe Intergenerational space, so it was not conceivable to work on an InDesign layout . We thus converted to Scribus, an open source software layout (with properties similar to Xpress or InDesign). Gilles, host of the internet café, has installed the software on the positions and proposed two introductory sessions, while on our side we designed and delivered a simple layout and pre-filled.
Another collaboration between amateurs and professionals made possible by an open source tool.
These were three simple experiences that couldn’t be possible without free software for an important reason.
Certainly the absence of license fees gives the possibility to non professionals to access to professional software, but what I see as more important is that these experiences represent a continuum of free software philosophy, the human awareness of the beauty of making.
The importance of a new revaluation of the craft activities are one of Richard Sennett’s main concepts, as he wrote:
Making is thinking [...] we can achieve a more human material
life, if only we better understand the making of things.

I see coding as the current language that speaks more about contemporary, and the community of volunteers working on that codesign projects as one of the most amazing realty of our time.
Spreading collaborative practices through workshops in the schools and diffusing the free movement philosophy, it’s my way of taking part in this project.

References

Jenkins, Henry (2006), Convergence culture: Where old and new media collide, New York, New York University Press.

Cross, Niegel (Ed.) (1972), Design Participation / Proceedings of the Design Research Society’s Conference, London, Academy Editions.

Himanen, Pekka (2001), The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, New York, Random House.

Rancière, Jacques (1991), The ignorant schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation, Stanford, Stanford University Press (orig. ed. Le Maître ignorant : Cinq leçons sur l’émancipation intellectuelle, Fayard, Paris 1987).

Sanders, Elizabeth B.-N., Stappers, Pieter Jan (2008), Co-creation and the new landscapes of design, “CoDesign”, Volume 4, Issue 1 March, pp. 5-18.

Sennet, Richard (2008), The Craftsman, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Wals, Peter (2003), Theat Withered Paradigm: The Web, the Expert and the Information Hegemony, in Jenckins and Thorburn (eds.), “Democracy and new media”, Cambridge (Mass), MIT Press.