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Designing in the open



It's totally an honour to be here and on this stage, because I've seen people before that have like, shaped the course of my life, like Stallman. So, the last year I've been thinking a lot about freedom and this is the first image that came to my mind, even though I'm not particularly an ocean person. I used to live in Hawaii and I hated it. But now I live in Iceland and I see the ocean again, so in Iceland I'm working on this project called Mailpile, and it's an encrypted, free, open source email programme that's aiming to make encryption easy for normal people who don't know anything about it.

Here's a little screenshot of what it looks like. That's it. A sharp interface. But the next slide I'm going to show you is not actually about software or nerd culture at all, but it's technically for me the first free software open source kind of project I ever did and it was a Folk in the Park music festival that I did in LA, where I got random people to come play, because there is no good platforms for independent, small artists to play music, and I mean I re-purposed things. I went to thrift shops and goodwills and bought random fabric and cut it and hand-stitched all by myself and I got a whole bunch of friends and it was the most inclusive and giving thing I'd ever done at that point in my life. I think I got my first girlfriend out of the experience, but I didn't go into it hoping to get that; it just happened, and I was like, oh my God, I finally have a girlfriend!

So it grew; I did about two or three of these and each time it grew by about a hundred per cent in the amount of people who attended. And it just left me with this amazing feeling that wow, this is what I should be doing with my life, but I ultimately stopped working on it. Why. Because I was scared. I remember this movie, Home Alone, when I was a kid and there's this moment where he goes, "don't get scared now". And I got scared and I quit working on it, mainly because I couldn't figure out how I would make money without compromising the ethics of what I wanted to be about. I didn't want to have ads and corporate sponsors or any of that crap; I just wanted to make a really cool music festival that was open to anybody.

So, shifting gears back to free software, why is it not the norm. Because the ideals about it are amazing and everybody agrees about that. Nobody's going to say, oh, free software, all those ideals are retarded, you know, it just doesn't work out and I think a lot of people are jaded about that, especially designers, which is the angle that I come from.

So the next question then is, why does free software have bad design. First thing, design school is really, really expensive. I went and I dropped out because I didn't want to be a hundred thousand dollars in debt; that's generally the average from all the friends that I know that go to art or design school, and it crushes their creativity once they finish, because all the job options that they have are ad agencies, interactive agencies, or working for VC start-ups. In the last five to ten years, start-ups have really got the hang of, oh we need to hire good designers out of school, so let's pay them a bunch of money and that'll help them pay off their debt. Too bad for the open source community, because there's no good designers.

This is an interesting thing that Google and a bunch of design schools just launched recently, and they branded it like it's an incubator for designers, but the weird hitch about it was is, you don't get money to work on your idea like going to Y Combinator or any of these other incubators; you have to pay them ten thousand dollars to participate, and that's like a weird shift and I don't really know why that is the cultural norm, but it is.

Another aspect is that design…I think a lot of people who come from design and physical arts, they come from this angle of scarcity and ownership. A friend of mine, she didn't want to give me this picture that she'd already uploaded to Facebook, even though I offered to pay her twenty pounds so I could email it to my friends; she wanted me to do a physical copy and I said no, look, I could just use the one you already have on Facebook, just like I didn't even need to tell you, I just want to pay you for the work, just let me do it, but she was so worried that it could be endlessly replicated and she would miss out on money. When I first started designing Mailpile, we were using this font called Museo; this is what it looks like and that's exactly copied from the bottom of their site. These three weights are absolutely free. Not so. You can't re-distribute it. The nature of their licence, they wouldn't allow it. We went back and forth with emails with the fontographer and the foundry; wouldn't budge. He was like: no, I need this for my living. So ultimately we decided we need to make our own font because I didn't want to re-do the branding and the interface to use a different font. It's coming along, you can see it kind of looks pretty similar. This is Mailpile, so no more Museo, and we're released it free and open so anybody can re-distribute it.

So, good designers are attracted to good design. This is a really important aspect. Good designers don't want to work on free software because they think it looks bad and why do they want to work on something that looks bad. That could be a challenge that a designer could be like, oh wow, I could really shine here, because I don't have to try that hard and it's going to be orders of magnitude better than what currently exists, and I think projects like IndiePhone, ownCloud, has really great design; it's near Dropbox level features for me in every way in the experience; it's easy to set up, easy to use, it's a little experimental idea we're working on with Mailpile to make the whole experience like Aral talks about.

Another aspect maybe is that there's different cultures. Maybe designers and coders are just fundamentally different. There's no way we can bridge this gap. I disagree with that. This is an artist workroom in Iceland. There's like paint everywhere and all sorts of little quirky things, and this is a code editor, Vim, doing CSS. It's almost identical. Little boxes and compartments that allow the creator to create.

So at the end of the day, software is tools, just like a paintbrush, just like a hammer, and tools are useful because they help human beings do things, especially when humans can own them. But if you had to buy a new hammer every month, like you do with Adobe, that limits your ability as a creator to create things.

So luckily we live in this brave new world where there are new possibilities out there, and my project, Mailpile, that's employed me for the last year is proof of this. The old models like media companies and software relied on funding, production, marketing, distribution and a lot of this was bound to the physical, real world, but nowadays we have crowd-funding to replace that. Home production, social media and digital distribution, so we really don’t' need any of these channels and the control that existed in the previous era.

Another great thing about open source is it combats income inequality. The last start-up I worked at before I started working on Mailpile was a start-up that this guy was the big investor, Mark Cuban(?) Great guy; really funny, quirky, says what he wants, doesn't care. But all I really did was help him get more rich at the end of the day. And yeah, I got a better salary than I do now but, whatever. Because the big problem is, I made him money, there's my work, but I'm not even allowed to see my work any more, because after I left the company, I got locked out of the app, and that sucks; as a creative person, put your creative blood into work, and then not be able to use it, see it, share it, show it to anybody, whereas with free software, you can; you just bring it with you. If I stop working on Mailpile next month, I can keep using it. I can keep improving it; I can do whatever I want with it. That's really awesome and it makes me feel like it's a gift to humanity, like that festival that I put on.

And there's a quote by Tom Robbins that I think fits: "Disbelief in magic can force a poor soul into believing in government and business." So, believe in magic, design, freedom.

And one little detail here is the QR code has my PGP key fingerprint and all the ways to contact me in it, and the next talk is going to explain about PGP keys and how we can make that easier to engage with, which is what we're doing in Mailpile, but he's going into the technical details of that.

Thank you.



Thank you, Brennan.