Design and the Open Knowledge Movement

Posted by Saumyaa Naidu at Mar 31, 2019 12:40 PM |
With the objective of connecting the open knowledge movement with design, the Access to Knowledge team at the Centre for Internet and Society co-organised the Wikigraphists Bootcamp India 2018 with the Wikimedia Foundation during September 28-30, 2018 in New Delhi. The event was held at the School of Design at Ambedkar University Delhi. As part of the bootcamp, a panel discussion was held in order to bring together design practitioners, educators, open knowledge contributors, and design students to explore how design and open knowledge communities can engage with each other. In this post, Saumyaa Naidu shares the learnings from the panel discussion aimed at exploring the potential collaborations between design and the open knowledge movement.



Exchange between Design Academics and Open Knowledge

Potential Means of Engagement with Open Knowledge in Design Practice

Applications of Open Knowledge in Design Education



Design has historically been functioning in a closed paradigm, both with regard to practice and education. The design process, resources, and products are largely proprietary and limit who can access them. On the other hand, increased use of digital technology offers the potential for greater access and knowledge sharing. In this setting, a dialogue on design and openness becomes essential. There is a need to build sensitivity among designers towards open knowledge and open access practices. Such an exchange can not only allow for design resources and products to be available in the open domain, but also help designers build an extensive shared knowledge base.

With the objective of connecting the open knowledge movement with design, the Access to Knowledge team at the Centre for Internet and Society co-organised the Wikigraphists Bootcamp India 2018 with the Wikimedia Foundation from 28th to 30th September, 2018 in New Delhi. The event was held at the School of Design at Ambedkar University Delhi. As part of the bootcamp, a panel discussion was held in order to bring together design practitioners, educators, open knowledge contributors, and design students to explore how design and open knowledge communities can engage with each other.

The discussion was preceded by an introduction to the open knowledge movement and its potential in creating access and inclusion, by Satdeep Gill. Satdeep is a community outreach coordinator for India at the Wikimedia Foundation. He is also one of the founding members of Punjabi Wikimedians User Group. Satdeep was the programme leader for the Wikiconference India in 2016. The introduction provided a brief history of copyrights and the beginning of the copyleft movement. It discussed creative commons licensing and the role of Wikipedia in the open knowledge movement.

The panel included Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan, Pooja Saxena, and Shyamal. Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan is the dean at the School of Design in Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD). Her research has been on multiple areas such as history of craft and design, and design education in India. Her practice focuses on social communication design. Pooja Saxena is a typeface and graphic designer whose work centres on multi-script design. She has designed an Ol Chiki typeface for Santali language which is available for free and open use. Pooja also teaches typography at several design schools including Pearl Academy, National Institute of Design, and Srishti school of Art, Design, and Technology. Shyamal is an independent researcher and an ornithologist. He has been contributing to Wikipedia for over fifteen years now. In addition to his contributions about the biodiversity of birds, he has also created several illustrations relating to the same. The panel was moderated by Saumyaa Naidu, a designer and researcher at the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS).

The discussion was aimed at addressing three primary questions around design and the open knowledge movement; how academic materials in design inform unstructured or open knowledge spaces and in what ways do these unstructured spaces come back into design education?, what are the potential means of engagement with open knowledge in design practice?, and in what ways can it be applied in design education?

Exchange between Design Academics and Open Knowledge

The discussion began with an enquiry into the challenges faced in the design of knowledge production and the knowledge production of design. It was directed at understanding the various ways in which design education and academia interact with open knowledge. Prof. Suchitra responded by saying that it is still early days for such an interaction to take place as the discipline of design itself is very proprietary in its approach. The work created in different areas of design is often guarded. Locating the discussion at the School of Design in AUD, she suggested that the Social Design course, which looks at the social application of design, believes in socially produced knowledge and contributing to it. However, the university is constrained by the academic environment which does not facilitate the open exchange of knowledge. There is a culture of copyright and protection of work in academia, and heavy funding is required for journal subscriptions. There is an imbalanced gatekeeping of knowledge as countries like India, which have weaker currencies, cannot access this knowledge or contribute to it. The social design community, a small community yet, is interested in making this knowledge freely accessible, in community participation, in co-designing, and in challenge the idea of one ‘super-designer’ who gets all the credit.

Open knowledge spaces such as Wikipedia often make their way into classrooms when students use these resources for assignments. It was pointed out by Prof. Suchitra that there is a lack of regard among students for giving due attribution to material taken from such platforms. Social Sciences universities also consider Wikipedia as an unreliable source, and discourage its use. There is a need to build the culture of knowledge sharing, borrowing, and contribution. She believes that this should be initiated at the level of school education, and not just design schools, so it is internalised at an early stage. She also shared an epistemological concern regarding such a cultural shift in design as it is commonly believed that the knowledge designers produce belongs to them and their livelihoods are connected to it. Hence, open knowledge and open source are antithetical to the profession. This means that the profession itself has to be imagined differently. The social design programme, in this regard, is trying to ensure that when students create work based on interactions with a community, also go back and present it to the community. This is to say that the work produced cannot be exclusively owned by the designers.

The open knowledge movement in India is closely tied to accessibility of information in Indian languages. The availability of a design knowledge base in Indian languages was discussed in this context. Prof. Suchitra explained that most design education in India is in English and is borrowed from another cultural and geographical setting. Design is a discipline of making, and making has its own language. In that sense, the act and content of design transcends language. But, it is the pedagogy which is held by language. The act of making, which is ubiquitous, and is done naturally by everybody, gets held back when it comes to the transmission in different languages. There can be sanskritised words for design terminology, but the vocabulary of everyday use should be applied to represent this knowledge. The School of Design is looking for ways in which important and more provocative texts in design can be made available in other Indian languages. When students are exploring a career in design and they want to learn about it, the information about courses, programmes, and universities should also be available in their language.

The students at AUD recently demanded that education at the university be provided in multiple languages. Since AUD is funded by the Delhi state government, the students want the medium of instruction to include languages of the state (Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi) apart from English. However, in order to accomplish this, the university would require multilingual teachers. At a personal level, Prof. Suchitra feels that the medium of instruction cannot be monolingual, and that it is good to be multilingual. There is also the conflict that it doesn’t do justice to either languages, and there is no neat answer yet. She believes that technology provides some answers in the sense that students can access the material through translations in whichever language they prefer. Being located in Delhi, the university attracts students from all parts of the country, so it needs to be multilingual in different ways. Technology can intervene and provide a layer by which access can be given in the language of one’s choice. She inferred that this is not a question of one or two languages, but of languages everywhere.

Potential Means of Engagement with Open Knowledge in Design Practice

Presently, there is limited participation from design practitioners on open knowledge platforms. From the perspective of a design practitioner and educator, Pooja Saxena explained that apart from Wikipedia, designers use The Noun Project, which offers both free and paid ways to use icons. She mentioned how students also use this platform but it appears that they are not as interested in contributing to it. They are guarded about the work they create but are fine with using someone else’s work that is available for free. Pooja suggested a much needed change in the understanding that open knowledge simply means that it is open for use. It must be seen as a community which one needs to engage with in whichever capacity and give back to. Agreeing with Prof. Suchitra, Pooja also observed that students fail to give fair attribution when any work is available for free. There is a lack of training and communication around attribution among designers. Regarding open source softwares meant for image making and creating illustrations, Pooja said that despite her several attempts of using them, she has always gone back to proprietary softwares. She believes that there are not enough people contributing to making these open source applications better to work with. A middle path she recommended for designers is creating work in formats which can be edited across applications, so that the work created can be built upon in any application, and is not bound by a proprietary software.

As an experienced Wikipedian, Shyamal also stressed upon the idea of finding ways to productively give back to the open knowledge community. He talked about the opportunities that design students have in terms of creating quality images and graphics, and making them available for public use. An example of such an opportunity could be creating clipart or icons that can be used for roadside signages or other such public resources. Another possibility he proposed was publishing rough drafts or discarded work on platforms like Wikipedia, so it can be refined and used by others. It is not well known that aside from the textual part of Wikipedia, there exists a larger environment which includes projects like Wikidata, which is a semantic database, and Wikimedia Commons, which is meant for a variety of media such as images, video, audio, and even 3D models now. This offers a variety of options to designers to make their work available for open use. Another aspect that Shyamal brought attention to in this regard is to make the work available in a way that it can be easily found by others, by effectively using metadata and writing appropriate descriptions.

A relevant example of engagement of design with the open knowledge community was shared by Pooja through her type design project. This included designing a typeface family for the Ol Chiki script, which is used to write in the Santhali language. The project was initiated by Subhashish Panigrahi at CIS in order to set up the Santhali Wikipedia. But, at the time there were no unicode compliant fonts available for Ol Chiki. This was a clear example of how a design intervention in the form of a typeface could lead to knowledge being shared and possibly even created in the future. The project was then funded by the Access to Knowledge programme at CIS. Pooja described the process of designing the typeface. She mentioned that even though the Santhali language is spoken by over 6 million people, Ol Chiki is not a commonly used script. The script itself was invented less than a hundred years ago, which meant that there is little documentation available of the script to look at. The team then engaged with the community to understand how they would like the letters to look like, and whether the letters in the font were correct. This was done through comprehensive feedback forms to test the letters and ask specific questions around their form and placement. The exercise was repeated a number of times to get accurate letters.

Through this process, Pooja made a key observation on perfection. Designers are often trained to share or show their work only when they think it is perfect. But, in the case of the typeface, it was impossible to achieve something even close to being finished without showing it and seeking help from the community. The project also led to inspiring a design student from the National Institute of Design, who belongs to the Santhal community, to create letters in Ol Chiki script as part of the ‘36 days of type’ challenge on Instagram. The typeface thus, can contribute towards such projects as well. Pooja concluded that the typeface being available for free can also lead to students making a version of it that serves their purpose better.

Further on open typefaces for Indian languages, Shyamal spoke about the several issues regarding the use of Indian languages, specific to Wikipedia and in general as well. He correlated the lack of academic disciplines in Indian languages with the lack of vocabulary of technical terms. Several people also oppose borrowing words from other languages. In an example of needing to translate the labels of an illustration of a four-stroke engine into an Indian language, the engineer would not know the terms in that language, and the language expert will not know enough about engineering. Shyamal suggested transliterating English words as a first step, so that somebody who doesn’t know English can understand what the word sounds like. Another technical concern is the use of open source fonts of Indian languages for better compatibility on Wikimedia Commons. The platform replaces proprietary fonts with equivalent open source ones during the process of uploading. This changes the typesetting in the illustration in terms of spacing between the letters and sentences, and the resulting design can end up looking different from the intended one. Hence, it is important to include identification and use of open source fonts as part of the learning process in design.

Shyamal further talked about the need to create more awareness about copyright. He explained that the fact that anything we create is automatically copyrighted is not really understood by most people. People posting images on Facebook and Instagram would allow others to use their work when asked, but would hesitate to give a written permission. It would be useful to license out the work. This lack of copyright awareness hinders the creation of a vast visual database on Wikimedia Commons. There is little visual information available online about objects, monuments, maps, places, etc. in India. The advantage of using systems like Wikipedia is that you can geotag places, you can semantically describe them so that people who speak other languages can find that content. The value of availability of such content online for an outsider is not well understood yet. As a practice, when learning something new, Shyamal himself tries to add it on Wikipedia or on related projects, so that it can be of use to anyone else looking for it as well.

On encouraging designers to contribute to open knowledge, Pooja advised that designers can contribute through side projects or self-initiated projects as they are not looking to make any money from them to begin with, and would be able to share the work for free. These side projects can take the form of resources or tools that other people can use to build something else. She also pointed out that it is not necessary that designers cannot get paid to do open work, and shared the example of the Ol Chiki typeface, which was paid for by a patron. There are also organisations that commission projects which are supposed to be available for free use because those organisations need that product to be available for free. Google fonts for example, commissions the typefaces to designers which are eventually available as free and open fonts. It is important for designers to be aware that such opportunities exist, and that they need to be sought.

Applications of Open Knowledge in Design Education

The discussion led to several suggestions on involving design students in the open knowledge movement. Pooja recommended that students can be encouraged to make their assignments available on Wikimedia Commons. Design students are often expected to work on projects that address problems that exist in the real world. In most cases, these projects remain with the students and not get implemented in the real world. If such projects were available on open platforms like Wikimedia Commons, they can be taken forward by others who are tackling the same concerns. It is also something that design students would benefit from because their work will be publicly available.

In order to address the disregard for attributions pointed out earlier, Prof. Suchitra stressed upon the need to build a culture among design students to attribute fairly. This would allow for acceptable acknowledgement to someone who has produced work and contributed it to the open domain. She added that this is being initiated in other design spaces such as the Decolonise Design group, which some design faculties are a part of. The group looks at ways of finding different cultural anchors for design. One such project is where design faculties have gotten together to share design assignments, in order to see what kind of assignments we set in the classroom for teaching various kinds of concepts in design. The faculties are trying to form an international platform where teaching methods can be shared and a bank of design assignments can be created. These methods and assignments are otherwise considered proprietary.

Prof. Suchitra also talked about the onus on public funded educational institutions to make their work available on open platforms, at least in projects which have a larger use. The Industrial Design Centre (IDC), Powai already has a portal on which design related educational material is available for anyone who is interested. They offer an online course in design which anyone can register for and attend. It is only for the certification at the end of the course, that one needs to pay to take an exam. Design courses otherwise tend to be quite expensive. She mentioned that the School of Design at AUD has been contemplating sharing the thesis work that students produce on Academia, a platform for academics to share research papers, where it can be downloaded for free. This allows for the work to be viewed by people outside the school, which is a significant step for young designers. Design as a profession fundamentally does not allow sharing, and this certainly needs to change. She gave the example of textiles, where the traditional artworks and motifs are picked up from different sources and placed on fabrics. Such reuse borders on unethical practice. Therefore, we need to identify the boundaries of open source. The ethical aspects of it need to be opened up and discussed, otherwise it can lead to asymmetrical knowledge practices. The attribution or acknowledgement that the work individually or culturally belongs to somebody, needs to be recognised.

On the learning by doing approach in design education, Pooja raised the concern that there is a lack of attention towards ‘learning by reading’. Design related reading materials are not available on open platforms and in different languages. She suggested that even if the readings are available in English, it is also useful for them to be available in a vocabulary that is more acceptable for someone for whom it is not their first language. Further, the ‘doing’ is also framed by a certain perspective, and often that perspective is quite closed. It does not take into account where the students is coming from. For example, a branding assignment for a product for new mothers does not consider how eighteen year old students would understand the product without any interaction with the users. It doesn’t ask why does it have to be branding to begin with. It also limits the objective to ‘selling something’ while there are other ways in which design can intervene. In the assignments where students engage with a community, there is often a clear asymmetry between the students and the people they are designing for. There is a vast gap in the knowledge and experience shared by the two. Consequently, students are forced to either assert themselves in this community or misrepresent themselves. This also takes away from students wanting to share their work on open platforms. Pooja recommended that they would be more willing to put the work out in the open when they are working with their own community because they can then see how it affects people in a much more direct way.


The discussion brought forward various intersections in design and open knowledge, and the possible ways in which the two can lend to each other. Broader interventions such as a cultural shift in design around sharing work and discussing its ethical aspects, availability of academic material in design on open platforms and in different Indian languages, sensitivity around fair attribution and copyrights among designers, and designers seeking out or self initiating projects that contribute to the open domain were discussed. In terms of specific steps, ideas including design practitioners creating works in formats which are editable on open applications, adding more visual content on platforms like Wikimedia Commons, creating and using more open typefaces in Indian languages, and students sharing their assignments on open platforms were considered. Other ways of engagement with design education could be through internships and workshops that demonstrate the need for open knowledge systems.

During the interaction with the audience, another key concern was brought up by Govind Sivan, a student at the School of Design at AUD. He spoke about the prevalent approach in design schools of giving primary importance to originality. Students work towards thinking of unique ideas and any similarity between their own and a classmate’s assignment is seen as a failure of creativity. Such an approach goes on to curb shared knowledge and collaborative working, and needs to be changed in order to make way for openness in design. Prof. Suchitra also advised that there is more value to design in thinking of it as a collaborative project.

Design is also gradually opening up its process to include the people being designed for through open research methods such as co-design and participatory design. All aspects of a design process such as need identification, data gathering, and the end product can be conceptualised for openness. These directions can be explored by both designers and the open knowledge community for the creation of a greater and more accessible knowledge base.


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