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A Designer’s Guide for Transitioning to Open-Source Software

I am sure there are numerous reasons why people choose to use free and open-source software over commercially available alternatives. For many I’m sure affordability is a huge factor. However, with Adobe, the staple provider of tools in the design trade and others like them, switching to a monthly subscription model, the barrier to entry for professional software is much lower. This shift is making the economical proposition for free and open-source much weaker. So why would I, a designer with decades of experience using tools from Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, and others, even attempt to transition to open-source? It’s complicated. I think it is in part the same allure of the American “Wild West” centuries ago, the opportunity to forge a new future uninhibited by borders and traditions, the chance to mingle with strange people, and the hope for personal growth through difficulty. But in other ways the open-source world is perhaps more like this Wild West analogy than I would like, figuratively absent all too often of flushing toilets. I am not sure whether I will survive, or run home to the comforts of the commercial tools I have grown up with, but this article will be a living document to help guide anyone else interested in following the same path, for whatever their reasons.



The mother of all open-source projects is Linux. It has been around for decades, it is the foundation for the popular mobile operating system Android, and it runs many of the servers that comprise the internet (including this website). While almost everyone benefits from Linux, as a consumer desktop operating system it has never gained the kind of mainstream adoption that even Mac OSX, its UNIX-based cousin, has. That doesn’t mean it is beyond the reach of the general public, especially those with a computer they don’t mind breaking, an internet connection, and good grasp of how to look for answers on Google.

To those unfamiliar with Linux one of the main things you’ll quickly discover is that unlike Windows or OSX, there are a number of different flavors of Linux called “distros”. Each represents a little different take on what a group of people think Linux should be. Some are very lean, some are focused on security and stability, and others are more consumer oriented. There is endless debate about which is best, however I have found Ubuntu to be the most approachable as a long-time Windows and OSX user. Because Ubuntu is one of the most widely adopted distros, there are a lot of people asking the same questions that you will find yourself asking, which makes it easier to find answers on the internet. Because Canonical, a commercial entity, is driving the Ubuntu roadmap, I find it a bit more current with things important to designers, like interface design. You can download Ubuntu for free.

You’re not going to master Linux in a day. I recommend installing it on a non-critical computer, or as a separate boot partition/drive of your day-to-day machine. If you’re coming straight from Windows it is going to be a more abrupt transition than if you’re comfortable with OSX. If you weren’t fortunate enough to live in the days of MS-DOS or you’re not a developer, then using the terminal is going to feel strange (perhaps strangely satisfying).

Ubuntu has a software center with a variety of applications approved for Ubuntu and installable with one click. Programs like WINE enable you to install some Windows applications directly on Linux. VirtualBox enables you to run Windows (performance constrained) as a virtual machine within Linux. The most important development, making Linux a viable alternative to Windows or OSX, is the migration of so many applications to the internet browser. In addition to spreadsheet and word processing applications, even Adobe is dabbling with running Photoshop in a browser. This trend in software delivery is just going to make the operating system less relevant. In the mean time, however, there are some great applications built to run on any desktop operating system that I’ll discuss below. As often as I am able I do my work in Linux because I find it challenging, educational and rewarding.



GIMP is the free and open-source application designed primarily for photo editing. It is relatively mature, has a number of good features, and is actively being developed (which is something you do have to take into account in the open source world). It is available on Windows, OSX, and Linux.

GIMP is comparable to Adobe Photoshop. And while there are a number of similarities, if you are used to working in Photoshop CS4 or newer, you will find transitioning to GIMP to be a frustrating experience. Don’t trust the claims by die-hard enthusiasts that GIMP is just as good as Photoshop, it is not. Many of the most significant improvements made to Photoshop in the last few releases, such as the full scope of non-destructive editing features, are just not in GIMP. Many of the features that are in GIMP are implemented in such a way as to make you scratch your head in confusion. To be fair, GIMP is continuing to improve and I am still trying to sort out which of these frustrations are the product of my many years learning to do things the Photoshop way, and which are just poor design. Either way, if you like Photoshop, for the immediate future be warned of the challenges you’ll face.

To not be entirely negative, there are moments when GIMP will surprise me with some capability absent in Photoshop, or some method for doing things that is clearly better. GIMP was undoubtedly put together with thoughtful consideration, and I cannot express enough gratitude for the people who have and continue to develop it. In spite of my criticism, it has proven capable of doing most of what I need done, if perhaps more slowly. I suspect that as I become more comfortable with it, and features are added, that this section will be edited to paint a more flattering portrait.

Try it out and draw your own conclusions by downloading GIMP here. I haven’t found a definitive source for tutorials yet, so if you know one, please leave it in the comments. Like any open source project, instead of whining about it (like I do in this article), you can always get involved to make it better.

A Designer’s Guide for Transitioning to Open-Source Software
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