Closed by Design?

At last year’s OSCON, one of the themes was the influence of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) on other areas – broadening the definition of “open source” to include scientific research, for example, or creative works (see creative commons).

The distinction between closed approaches and open approaches is clearly demonstrated by an article in Fast Company about the Los Angeles public transit system, and the recent announcement by Architecture for Humanity, a “charitable organization founded in 1999 to promote architectural and design solutions to global, social and humanitarian crises,” that they will be launching the Open Architecture Network.

[The Network] will be a gathering place for community designers and all those interested in improving the built environment. Here designers of all persuasions can post their projects, browse projects posted by others, comment and review projects, discuss relevant topics, contribute to shared resources, collaborate with each other and access project management tools to support their work.

We imagine a site that not only helps create, support and implement ideas, but also a place that fosters sustainable, replicable, adaptable and scalable design solutions. The network has a simple mission: to generate design opportunities that will improve living standards for all.

The network will open March 8th 2007 – I look forward to seeing it and wish them success

The Fact Company article, “L.A. Goes Public,” is a lauditory piece about the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transite Authority and their “countywide campaign . . . to shift public perception” through design:

Now working closely with manufacturers, Metro has pushed for the same extreme customization at all consumer touch points, creating a shiny new identity completely unique to Los Angeles. Metro’s creative director, Michael Lejeune, says the transformation was necessary, but not just to get Angelenos out of their BMWs. “Our goal is to employ design to attract discretionary riders–those who have a choice–by giving Metro a distinct style,” he says. “At the same time, we’re giving those who are transit-dependent–those who don’t have a choice–a system they can be proud of.”

You should check out the full article, with photos – it is a great example of how design and marketing can have an impact and improve environmental conditions rather than just contribute to more consumption.

The part which gives me pause, though, is in the captions to several of the photos (and the ones I’m pointing to here are not in the online version). First, there’s a caption on a photo of a set of bicycle lockers:

Metro’s designers collaborated with manufacturers to create bays of private bike lockers for commuters. The design was so successful that the firm wanted to offer it to other transit companies. Metro said no, keep it unique to Los Angeles.

Another caption at the bottom of the same page describes the machines which sell Metro tickets:

To avoid a generic “off the shelf” feel, Metro designers customized the ticket machines, even using the systemwide typefaces Scala and Din. Again, the manufacturers wanted to market the design elsewhere–and were denied.

Metro said no?

Deliberately witholding from other markets – which don’t, in any normal sense of the word, compete with Metro – a design innovation which might encourage a broader set of people to use public transit? I’m all for using design to differentiate, but to prevent sharing of innovation (on a publicly funded project nonetheless) seems borderline criminal.

Now, it’s entirely possible that the only “design” covered in both cases is the look & feel – typefaces, colors, icons. But what would the harm be in allowing other transit companies to leverage the fundamental design, perhaps with some caveats about required changes?

I can understand the need to prohibit look & feel copying in competitive markets – Apple’s desire to protect the iPod, designers’ needs to limit the impact of knock-offs, etc. But in an arena in which the other players are more accurately seen as colleagues attempting to improve transit in other markets (with geographically distinct coverage areas) why be closed by design?