Open Design

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= Open design is the application of Open Source methods to the creation of physical products, machines and systems.


By the Open Hardware Foundation:

"Open Design hardware is hardware in which enough detailed documentation is provided that a functionally compatible device could be created by a third party. It is not at all uncommon for the programmer's guides for a microcontroller to have complete instruction encoding formats, memory maps, block diagrams of the processor core, and other technical details that would make it possible to reproduce a compatible microcontroller. Open Design hardware allows you to see what was implemented and what it should do, but still keeps the finer details of how it was implemented closed." (

By designer Ronen Kadushin:

"The idea is to find a new logical method how design could be working, using open source software as a working model. His designs are two dimensional "cutout" represented as digital information. It relies on the internet's communication resources, to publish, distribute, and copy the designs under a CreativeCommons deed. Coupled with the flexibility of CNC production methods and their broad availability due to new enablers like, all technically conforming designs are continuously available for production, in any number, with no tooling investment, anywhere and by anyone." (


From the Wikipedia article at

"Open Design is a term that applies to the investigation and potential of open source and the collaborative nature of the internet to create physical objects. People apply their skills and time to projects for the common good, perhaps where funding or commercial interest is lacking.

The Open Design Movement is currently fairly nascent but holds great potential for the future in developing products and physical systems. There are certain barriers to overcome for open design when compared to software development where there are mature and widely used tools available and the duplication and distribution of code cost next to nothing. Creating, testing and modifying physical designs is not quite so straightforward because of the effort and time required to create the physical artifact."


What exactly is Open Design?

Aurelie Ghalim, in her study, Fabbing Practices:

"Researchers Kerstin Kalka, Christina Raasch and Cornelius Herstaat attempt to give the first statistical analysis of open design projects .

Draw on a comparison to open source software; they observe strong similarities between OSS and OD:

- We indicated that, in open design communities, tangible objects can be developed in very similar fashion to software; one could even say that people treat design as source code to a physical object and change the object via changing the source. This suggest the practical applicability of transferring the ‘Open Source model’ to different industries beyond software

However, they also observe that openness of software components is more important than openness of hardware components. Nonetheless, they also notice that the phenomenon of open design is rapidly evolving and a growing number of physical artefacts start being designed collaboratively via the Internet . We find more and more advocates of open design who wish “that the same principles of distributed creativity and free cooperation which free software development builds on will also come to define material production” .

Bas van Abel - co-founder of Waag Society’s Fab Lab and the Instructable Restaurant (an open source restaurant) – is a firmly believer in open design principles. He is at the head of Waag Society’s Open Design Lab and also co-editor of Open Design Now, the first book entirely dedicated to this field. Abel pleads to open source products in the same line of Free Software and Open source movement.

How to define open design? Some describe open design as “design whose creators allow it to be freely distributed and documented and condone modifications and derivations of it” or “CAD information published online under a CC license to be downloaded, produced, copied and modified. An Open Design is produced directly from file by CNC and without special tooling” . Others define open design as “a new economic model for design that distributes power among creative professionals and local manufacturers, rather concentrating it in centralized industrial brands” .

Open design is closely related to participatory design already introduced by some progressive designers during the 1970s. Users were asked to participate in the design process in order to improve the functionality a product. The term itself first appeared at the end of the last century with the founding of Open Design Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks “to promote an alternative method for designing and developing technology, based on the free exchange of comprehensive design information” .

Some designer such as Tord Boontje already distributed the digital design of his chair in the early 1990s. At the end of 1990s, Reinoud Lambers launched the Open Design Circuits, a website at Delf University of Technology for the purpose of creating open source hardware and its community in the spirit of free software. The idea of open design is therefore, closely related to these initiatives launched in the last decade of the 20th century.

Among professionals, open design practices are approaches to openness. Some designers choose to engage with openness on only specific steps in their work and others such as Jens Dyvik are called “Open-Source designer” for publishing all design steps and inviting users to modify their creations.

Israeli industrial designer and design educator, Ronan Kadushin wrote the Open Design Manifesto stating that:

- A revolution in product development, production and distribution is imminent due to the Internet’s disruptive nature and the easy access to CNC machines. Open Design is a proposal to make this happen. It’s aim is to shift Industrial Design to become relevant in a globally networked information society Therefore, certain designers prefer to do open design due to ever-growing new technologies. They perceive their approach as a necessity in today’s designing process. However, open design is also part of a political agenda that advocates for more transparency in our products. This is the mission of Open Design Lab of Waag Society that aims to empower people to make and understand products and processes, for more transparency . In the same line of open data’s promises seeking greater transparency, the agenda of open design is to increase transparency in the production chain.

In asking the question, “Why should we be able to open up the products we own?” , Abel points out the necessity to move from closed systems to opened systems. Based on the Maker’s Bill of Rights , Abel developed a political statement against closed systems, which is summarized in one phrase: if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.

This idea to open source products pledges to reveal what Finnish designer Dan Hill called the “dark matter”:

- The notion of ‘dark matter’ – just like in the universe, in the civic sphere there is dark matter – points to the systems and processes that make things happen but that we cannot see and only know about because of the effect on how things are done […] The only way that dark matter can be perceived is by implication, through its effect on other things. With a product, service or artifact, the user is rarely aware of the organizational context that produced it, yet the outcome is directly affected by it

Abel argues that the invisible -the dark matter- represents the organizational context that produces a product. In our current economical system, invisible hands design our goods. It is the connection of these invisible hands that makes it possible to be surrounded by mass production design. Here, open design disrupts traditional design in making the invisible visible. Circuit bending and hacking practices are inscribed in the same line, willing to open up the black box and make the computer reappears itself.

According to Menichelli, not only economic but also design theories are gradually showing more interests in local dimensions as designers want to provide sustainable solutions, which is at the opposite of the mass production design and economies of scale . John Thackara, the founder and Director of The Doors of Perception who organizes events in which, grassroots innovators are connected to designers and technology innovators, even states: “Openness is more than a commercial and cultural issue. It’s a matter of survival”.

A matter of survival - Thackara and other advocates of open design invoke the need to make social design. Responsibility and sustainability are important features and the actual end users must be involved in the process:

=- As a purely creative exercise, open design promotes the unprecedented sharing of knowledge between the professional and amateur designer, breaking down unnecessary barriers. When carried out for the common good rather than for capital gain or profit, open design allows the sharing of creative skills between developed and undeveloped nations for humanitarian benefit, countering the ramifications of global product consumerism

Finally, open design blurs the distinction between professionals and amateurs. This trend that has been largely discussed in this thesis is also something taken into account by professional designers such as Paul Atkinson who explains how DIY activities act as a democratizing agency . In other words, non-professionals who dedicate their leisure time to create their own things can gain freedom from designers and professional helps. On the same line, designers themselves can gain freedom in practicing open source design, which implies a strong emphasis on ‘free’ access and sharing and ultimately, the need to opt for copyleft licences such as Creative Commons. Intellectual property rights - copyrights and patents - that highly privatize public knowledge and creativity, beneficiate only to the corporate world and to a few-best selling artists ."


  1. Open Design Foundation,, Accessed August 17, 2012.
  2. Kadushin, R, Open Design Manifesto. Presented at Mestakes and Manifestos (M&M), curated by Daniel Charny, Anti Design Festival, London, 18-21 September 2010.
  3. Open Design Lab, Waag Society,, Accessed August 17, 2012.
  4. Van Abel, B., "If you can't open it, you don't own it - Guimarães 2012, Open City Project", Watershed, July 2012,, Accessed August 17, 2012.
  5. The Maker’s Bill Of Rights, Makezine,, Accessed August 17, 2012.
  6. Massimo Menichelli, openp2pdesign.org_1.1. Design for Complexity, p. 13, 2008
#Atkinson, P (Ed.) Do-It-Yourself: Democracy and Design, Special Issue of the Journal of Design History, 19(1): 2006, p. 5. 


  1. Global Village Construction Set
  2. Open Micromanufacturing and Nanomanufacturing Equipment
  3. Whirlwind Wheelchair
  4. Instructables
  5. Design Break
  6. Open Design
  7. Open Source Velomobile
  8. The OSCar] open source car project
  9. OSGV
  10. Ronja
  11. Design 21
  12. Anansi Spaceworks is applying the principles of open source to the colonisation of space.

More Information

The Open Design FAQ is at

Open collaborative design page at

For related concepts, see Open Hardware, Open Source Hardware, Open Cores, Open P2P Communities, Open Peer to Peer Design.


The Open Design Foundation is at

Open Design organisations: ThinkCycle, DesignBreak, Open Design Alliance


Massimo Menichinelli's Italian Master's thesis is translated serially on the Open P2P Design blog.

Episodes of Collective Invention, by Peter B. Meyer, August 2003: An article on several historical examples of what could be called "open design.


The Open Design tag at Delicious, maintained by Sam Rose, at