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Figma design tool adds internet-scale sharing, community building site

It's like how Github helps open-source programmers share, cooperate and show off -- but for designers building illustrations and apps.

Figma's editor works through its app or web interface.
Figma's editor works through its app or web interface.

Figma, an online service that lets designers and design teams work together on projects such as mobile apps, is now letting people share their work publicly for others to scrutinize and modify. The idea behind the Figma Community site is to let people connect to and learn from one another while showing off their own work.

Giving work away for free may sound bizarre when digital designers are in high demand, but a similar phenomenon happened with GitHub, a site where programmers can share open-source code they've written. It serves as a collaboration tool, a resume and a public resource. Microsoft acquired GitHub for $7.5 billion in 2018.

"We're trying to bring more open source to design," said Figma Chief Executive and co-founder Dylan Field.

With the Figma Community, designers will be able to set up profile pages and peer into others' designs to see how they were done. And though "there are a lot of noneconomic reasons to contribute to a community," Figma Community fits in with some financial motivations to share, too, Field said. For example, companies can show off their projects to attract designers, and designers can promote themselves to would-be employers.

Just as happened with open-source software, the Figma Community site inverts decades-old intellectual property restrictions.

Although open-source software matured from countercultural movement to mainstream programming method over the last two decades, embraced by everybody from Google to former foe Microsoft, it's not clear whether design will follow a similar trajectory. There are open-source fonts and freely available illustrations, but plenty of companies don't want to see others copying their aesthetic.

Designs commonly are protected by copyright and trademark restrictions, but the Figma Community uses the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license that explicitly permits you to reuse a work, even for commercial purposes, as long as you attribute the work to the original creator.

Figma lets people design the look of apps and websites and create prototypes that show how users will move through them -- for example, how clicking on a button will take them to a different screen. It's free for individuals and students, but companies have to pay for Figma beyond lightweight use. That opens up new collaborative abilities like "multiplayer," in which several designers can simultaneously work on the same project, similar to cloud-based tools like Google Docs.

Customers include Microsoft, Slack, Dropbox, Uber, and the city of Chicago.

It's a strong start, but Figma has competition to reckon with. In addition to independent tools like Sketch, there's the creative tools juggernaut, Adobe, which now offers a direct competitor called XD.