How to work as a Graphic Designer without sleeping with Adobe

I am just now completing a certificate in graphic design at the online school, and although I have come to like the Adobe Creative suite tool (and mainly inDesign), I would rather be relying only on open source tools. Why? Well, there are many factors that steer my decision toward that.

If you want to read more about open source and creativity, I invite you to read FLOSS+Art which is a solid explanation of the relationship between open source and creativity/art. From the description:

“FLOSS+Art critically reflects on the growing relationship between Free Software ideology, open content and digital art. It provides a view onto the social, political and economic myths and realities linked to this phenomenon.”

This book has been a strong inspiration for me to embrace open source in all my creative projects.

Using open source instead of a licensed software is quite empowering and freeing. Even though I paid for Adobe Creative suite, I still don’t feel that I own the software, which influences the way I create and express myself. Even worse, when I used to download pirated software, my creativity would be hindered by a feeling of guilt. All that lead me towards using only open source tools and their advantages:

+ Free software – meaning you don’t pay for it (you still can donate what you want!)
+ The code is open, if you want your tools to do something different you are welcome to change it.
+ Solid community of users and developers to contact when in need
+ You can upgrade your software as many times you want (without paying more!)
+ Peace of mind for any copyright infringement or licenses / legal trouble with the tools you are using

There is a quality and peace of mind when using open source software that is hard to explain. It is often depicted as ‘If you can’t open it, you don’t own it’ – which is not to be taken literally but which gives an understanding of the technology we use. This freedom is priceless; hence for me creativity and open source is a perfect match.

If you are to become a professional Graphic Designer, you still need to be familiar with the industry default tools, the Adobe suite. But once you’re working on your own projects, personal ones or for clients, you can use the tools that fit your needs. Of course it’s not the tools that makes the designer, only your skill and creativity.

I’ll list here all the tools that I’ve been working with in the last few months, for school projects and professional contracts. I’ll restrain the list to simply graphic design at the moment and might expand it further into web design in a future post.

Photoshop replacement with GIMP

One thing I like about this open source program is that they don’t try to do everything. For example nowadays with Photoshop you can actually do pretty much all your design and illustration in there. But why is that? I personally prefer tools that do one thing, and one thing well. I guess that was the idea behind all the tools of the Adobe creative suite but the goal got lost in translation and now every tool tries to do everything.

GIMP is a great example of a tool that does what it does, and well! It’s a really solid image retouching and photo editing software. It’s a mature open source project with a huge community of users and developers. It’s intelligently built and can be extended with Scheme or Python script!

Illustrator replacement with Inkscape and MyPaint

I’ve been using Inkscape more and more lately and I have to say that I’m in love again! With the focus on keyboard shortcuts and simple tool navigation, Inkscape became second nature quite easily. It’s powerful and fast as well as quite flexible. It has a lot of the basic function of illustrator, but isn’t overloaded with bells and whistles.

One thing that Illustrator tries to do but fails at, is to be a painting software. With its brushes and the pressure sensitive drawing, it almost works, but I really can’t paint with illustrator. On the open source side of the world, the gap is well covered by MyPaint.

MyPaint is simple, elegant and to the point. It’s optimized for tablets, and uses a minimum of control to change color (with a palette), change brushes and move your canvas around. It’s the only tool that gives me the real feeling of drawing, and with the different paint brushes. You can easily create your own palette and your own brushes, or hack any brushes that came pre-installed.

InDesign replacement with Scribus

InDesign is a hard one to replace, maybe because I really enjoy working with it, or maybe because I haven’t played enough in the open source world to have completely let go. The main, mature page layout tool available now is Scribus, you will find a similar interface as InDesign and it doesn’t take long to get the basic commands. It’s a solid page layout software, to design a poster or a whole book. Since I haven’t designed any books with Scribus yet I can’t tell how good or bad it is, but having used it few time I can see that it’s a viable software.

I am also really interested in the development of CSS for designing books and print. Coming from a web design background it seems to make a lot more sense to code your style in CSS. You can read a really interesting experiment here on A List Apart.

Other useful tools

Gpick, a quite powerful color picker which will also help you create color scheme and even try out the palette. You can download Gpick here.

Another color management tool with Agave.

For font management in Linux: font-manager and fontforge.

Image batch processor Phatch.

I enjoy being able to measure what is on my screen and I can do that easily with ScreenRuler. It takes a few steps to install, but it’s worth the time investment.

Sometimes you need to write without Facebook, email and Skype disturbing you every second. In order to do that, I love to use PyRoom, a really simple distraction free writing tool.

One thing with open source is it’s maturing all the time, the community is growing and it’s the counter current of the huge software companies that are mainly preoccupied with profit. The difference between using open source software and paid software has quite an effect my creativity and I invite you to try it out, and observe how it feels!

75 Responses

    1. for cmyk it’s all good with scribus at the least – there is more and more printers out there that support scribus native file too 🙂

      1. thanks ! I’ll look into that – I haven familiarized too much with gimp at the point since I mainly retouch photo and then use inkscape or other tools. But the gimp seems to have a lot more potential than I know!

  1. Sounds easy enough if you only do “digital” art. But how about when you need to send your work to the print shop ? How you do prepress and such ? The biggest challenge for us to ditch the Adobe suite is printing. None of the printing houses we know use Open Source software, means it’s impossible to get something printed from there if it’s not in some Adobe format… maybe except for EPS and TIFF

    1. I agree that it’s the biggest hurdle – but I see more and more printer advertising scribus file which surprise me – of course it’s not common at all, but at the least something is starting.

      It’s quite hard to endure that omnipresence of adobe, of course I like using their tools and all but they seems to be on their own bubble, owning the whole market of graphic design, it’s a bit scary and limiting.

      At the end of the day I am not sure if Adobe is really fostering creativity –

      1. I have had no issues with file types and the printing houses I have used. I have never used Adobe Creative Suite due to its cost. I got tired of waiting to be able to afford it and went ahead and started using Open Source alternatives with the first Graphics job I took (I do that – jump in head first and learn on the job!). I have always been able to find a lossless way to either save in the Adobe file formats that the printers are used to seeing or had no issue convincing the printers that the filetype I am bringing to them will work just try it!

    2. I’ve been doing open source graphic design for several years now, using Inkscape, Gimp, Scribus and Blender.  I’ve generally not had any problems with sending to print.  Mostly I use Scribus to create PDFs. (scribus has one of the best PDF  creators I’ve worked with.  Great control and very intuitive).  Scribus used to be buggy for me, but lately it’s gotten very good.  

    1. I am not sure about web application – I think it’s getting more and more reliable, but there is something about not being online to do part of the work. But that might be a bit of an oldschool way of thinking – somehow I like the offline part of my creativity –

    1. Wow it seems quite solid indeed – I should have mention that I wrote that article from a linux user perspective. Although most of the software mention works on windows and mac as well a linux

  2. Just a quick point, you shouldn’t compare MyPaint to Illustrator since Illustrator is a vector-based editor and MyPaint is a raster-based editor. Illustrator was never designed to do painting. The better comparison is with Photoshop, since Photoshop is designed to do digital painting.

    1. It’s true, but I never used photoshop as a painting tool – I’ve tried to do painting with illustrator paint brushes and tools – which was never satisfying. I feel myPaint doesn’t have its equivalent in the adobe suite, yet it does its job quite nicely!

      thanks for the point !

      1. Appropriate comparison for Mypaint is Corel Painter/Artrage, its strictly draw/paint oriented tool and many very good artists use it as a scotching site before moving the work over to Gimp.



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    1. Get someone to vet your copy friend. The typos and misspellings are killing its credibility! Otherwise, you have an interesting and insightful article here.

  5. MyPaint works better with GIMP than Inkscape.  Also, it emulates the traditional tools of the artist, brushes, pencils, pens, watercolors, pastels, so some may find it easier to use.

  6. I haven’t used some of these tools recently, but I will say that from a coder’s perspective, speaking as a coder of course, there are many tools that I use and don’t mind when they don’t work quite right because when I am working as a coder I expect to have to jump in and handle it from time to time. However, when I am working as a graphics designer or audio engineer, that’s what I am working as and not anything else. Ideology aside, I like whatever works within the time lines, I must work within. It’s important to pull for all of these projects as diversity and competition often brings about better features and improvements. Hopefully opensource will increasingly reach mainstream acceptance, but it can only be with an understanding and appreciation for mainstream ease of use and mainstream reliability. It’s coming along, and I’m happy as I am a massive fan of Blender. Artist X is another live DVD compilation I’ve heard of with nearly every available GNU/Linux media tool. Check it out.

    1. Hey thanks for the comment – I do agree that sometime it’s hard to make the choice toward the open source, since it might mean a little more unstable. I do also use adobe tools in my work environment and advocate as much as possible open source on the ideology.

      I’ll check artist X since I’ve been using puredyne for a while now and quite like it!

    1. Ho I was just writing about tools that helps in graphic design, there is a lot of wonderful open source tools, and I am planing on starting a whole wiki about it, not only a bog post 😉 And all the live coding tools as well as processing, arduino and many many more tools !! That will be part of another post / project !

  7. Despite their popularity, I think Illustrator and Photoshop have terrible user interfaces. InDesign is better but there’s still room for improvement.

    I’m not wedded to Open Source solutions but there are excellent low-cost alternatives to the Adobe apps on Windows that have much better interfaces and are still feature-rich.

    Here are three that I’ve used and like, but there many others to choose from too.

    Xara ( – an excellent alternative to Illustrator with a far superior interface
    Serif DrawPlus ( – vector illustration
    Serif PagePlus (DTP)

  8. I’ll have to agree that it makes more sense to compare MyPaint to something like Corel Painter than Illustrator’s painting tools. Honestly, I can’t recall anything Inkscape can’t do that Illustrator could in my college courses. Maybe I’m missing something obvious, but it’s been very feature-full for my jobs.

    I used to be a bit upset with Scribus (a lot of it was probably because it used Qt3 – UGLY), but all the other things I had issues with, like support for bleeds and having a simplified layout were mostly corrected in the recent versions, soon to be released as stable. (many distributions will ship the unstable branch of Scribus alongside the stable since it’s been so long since a release came out)

    As support for SVG is getting pretty major these days in professional tools, and as Krita, MyPaint, and other raster programs have begun adopting ORA (as well as GIMP 2.7, soon to be GIMP 2.8), hopefully it will be much more common to mix applications based on which one does the job best in the workplace.

    Of course, consistency in program layout and design, as well as ubiquity is a big plus for Adobe CS in the market. Hopefully people learn to step a little outside the box and use more various tools in their work, though. And hopefully each of these tools continues to become better and easier to learn and work with (not very easy to pull off, honestly).

  9. You are blessed with great wisdom. I use all the fore mentioned softwares, produce art and show in a local gallery. The production of art is via software tools, it doesn’t matter what the tools are, unless there is a requirement of business compliance. Open Source art softwares are wonderful and without cost restrictions which would hinder me greatly especially if I wanted to teach digital art to an eager mob.

    Just ran across an art lesson project, it required each student pay $10 for iron-on transfer stuff and “teaching fees”, plus $99 for Photoshop Elements. I would have thrown in the GIMP, dispensed with Photoshop and charged $20 for the class. 

  10. thanks for this – article & comments very useful. I am a hobbyist that toys with the idea of freelancing and Adobe is priced way out of reach for me. I’ve been put off trials of Painter because of all the bugs (2 versions I trialled were very buggy).  I’ve noticed the Photoshop Elements that came with my tablet doesn’t do CMYK conversion – how deliberate of them.  

  11. this free online converter seems to have successfully converted an image with a transparent background that I made with photoshop elements.  Took just a few minutes.

    I tried another converter beforehand and it squashed my image (and didn’t keep transparency).  I attempted plugin with Gimp and it crashed (not sure if I set it up properly)

  12. Hi Damaru, I’m always pleased to see articles about replacing adobe products with Floss alternatives. 12 or so years ago when I was in college I was really pushing to find a method that could replace Adobe but also make Linux a stunning user experience. I worked with PCBSD, OpenBSD, and even contributed to various opensource projects. If you see a nice looking alternative logo for Apache, that’s mine. 🙂 I also designed logos for, Lighttpd, and whole bunch more. Anyway, long story short, after being in the industry as a print and product designer I can tell you that those applications you listed are a poor poor poor replacement for the power and ease you get with Adobe products. When it comes down to assessing what counts, purchasing the suite is worth the money considering it’s a minor overhead cost of what you make as a designer. 

    I tried to contribute and collaborate with the coders behind those projects but let me tell you, it isn’t easy. In fact they are xenophobic for the most part. Meaning that unless you have been with them for a long time they take virtually no suggestion from new comers or people that don’t already have some “cred” in the Floss community (which I even had). The apps don’t work together, many of the tools within them are ill placed or difficult to use. They don’t have a consistent layout or UI/design language between them. And frankly they are complicated in a way that just makes them annoying to use. Granted some have said “you are just used to the Adobe paradigm” and I argue “well then, you should model the product based on that fact.” None of the products have a proper product manager or product designer and therefore lose sight of what’s truly necessary for the app to succeed and therefore they haven’t succeeded. It’s been over 10 years since I started to use most of the apps you’ve mentioned and they haven’t done enough to bring me over EVEN AFTER 10 YEARS! They may be free alternatives for amateurs that need to tweak a photo but they aren’t serious tools for a professional who can afford a little overhead cost for a tested product. Also from a philosophical perspective even though Adobe may be concerned about profit that doesn’t make them evil, it makes them more concerned about delivering to me, the designer, an awesome product that I’m willing to invest in. Opensource apps haven’t done that. They have yet to deliver a truly compelling experience to the end user that is a satisfying replacement to non-opensource products.


    1. I see this opinion a lot (that OSS graphics design tools are harder to use than Adobe).  I also see the opinion that OSS programs should make their interfaces like the proprietary alternatives.  I must disagree strongly with both of these.

      First, I have taken several college courses that got into Adobe tools.  I run my laptop on Linux, so these were not an option.  Every time the professor showed us a new tool in the Adobe software, I was able to find the same tool in the OSS software very quickly.  In many cases, the OSS applications were organized better than Adobe, making it even easier to find.  On the occasions that I tried to use Adobe, I found it difficult to use an unintuitive.   Further, on several occasions I found functions in the OSS applications that did not exist in the Adobe ones, and only on one occasion did Adobe have something that the OSS alternative did not (and it was something of questionable usefulness anyhow).

      Second, OSS projects are not trying to replace proprietary software with free clones.  Typical good OSS improves upon proprietary designs.  In other words, if they changed GIMP to have an interface like Adobe, it would be backsliding.  I use OSS (in part) because I don’t like the proprietary software and the OSS quality and usability is better.  When OSS tries to clone proprietary software, you get buggy bloated software like KDE4 (which tried to copy the Vista interface).  If I wanted to use Adobe, I would use Adobe.

      As far as the familiarity aspect of Adobe, yes most graphic designers are more familiar with it.  Many professionals took at least a full college course learning it.  If you have extensive experience with Adobe and only a little with GIMP, Inkscape, or Scribus, you are totally unqualified to have an opinion on which is easier to use.  The reverse also applies (thus I am not exactly qualified either).  According to some graphic designers I know who have used both extensively (in professional and personal settings), both Adobe and the above alternatives have steep learning curves.  They say that in most cases, there is little usability difference, but the OSS is easier to use for some applications.

    2.  I missed something.  Being a for-profit business does not make them concerned with delivering an awesome product.  For-profit businesses, especially in software, tend to be concerned with delivering a product that is just good enough to make you feel you need it.  It makes them concerned with cutting costs, and if cutting costs means forgoing useful features that a majority of users do not need, they will typically do that.  I am not supporting the idea that for-profit is evil, but it is a amoral.  Most proprietary software is only as good as is needed to keep people buying it.  If an awesome new (and expensive to add) feature is added, it is because the business has predicted that adding that feature will increase sales enough to pay the cost of adding it, with an additional profit.

      OSS is totally different.  People who contribute typically do so because they want to use the product.  These people are not trying to get the most sales for the least amount of work.  They are trying to make a product that is good enough for them to use.  If they find an annoying bug, or some organizational thing that is unintuitive, they fix it.  If they find that they need a new feature, they add it.  They are not concerned with whether their time spent will generate enough additional profit to justify it.  When a quality problem is identified, they don’t hold a meeting to determine whether it is worth the cost to fix it.  They just do it.  For projects that are popular (GIMP, Inkscape, and Scribus are definitely in this category), this means that the programs evolve to improve quality and usability.  This process necessarily causes them to deviate from similar proprietary software that only evolves as much as is needed to keep revenue up.  When the software has a steep learning curve, this can make it difficult for those used to the proprietary software to learn the OSS.  If people will actually take the effort to learn it though, they will generally find it easier to use and more functional than the proprietary software.

      An example of this is Blender.  Blender has an incredibly steep learning curve.  On of its closest proprietary relatives is Maya.  Maya has a typical Windows menu system, which is easy to navigate and learn.  Blender has an insanely complex UI, and many of the functions can only be accessed with hotkeys.    Unfortunately for Maya, the people working on the Blender project found the easy to use menu system to also be slow and clunky.  3D animation is already very time consuming without a slow UI, so the Blender project aimed to do better with Blender.  The result was an unintuitive, difficult to learn interface that is extremely fast to use once you have learned it.  Some people complain that Blender should use an easy to learn traditional menu interface, because it is so hard to learn the current one.  People who have used Blender enough to be really familiar with it disagree.  Many of them use Blender not because it is free, but because it is truly superior to any proprietary alternative.  Do you think that Blender should lower its quality just because some people who are not willing to put the work into learning to use it as it is?

      This is the same for GIMP, Inkscape, and Scribus.  I have used the Adobe alternatives, albeit not as much.  I find the OSS applications easier to use.  Obviously the developers feel the same, otherwise they would change it.  Should we sacrifice our ease of use, because you are too lazy to learn to use these products effectively?  If we like the way these products work, and you prefer the way Adobe works, and we change the OSS ones to work like Adobe, then you get what you want, but we are forced to use the inferior product.  I am not willing to sacrifice my ease of use so that you can get what you want for free.  If you really like the inferior product better, then buy it.  If you are not willing to pay for it, then deal with learning how to use the superior OSS applications.  (Yes, I realize you do not think they are superior, but a vast majority of those who have taken the effort to learn to use them effectively do think they are superior, and I am inclined to side with them.)

      Lord Rybec

  13. Thanks for this article! I am a design student too, and am planning my thesis on the idea of “autonomous” design practices, which is just not possible if your using Adobe and Apple. 

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