Here we are, four years after the launch of studio ponnuki! We are still going strong, and business has changed a lot since its inception. One thing to which I’ve stayed true is my commitment to use only open source tools. It may become the new ‘vegan’ for computer users, but I feel there are a lot of benefits to using only open source software.
To maximize my productivity and creativity, I must create a delicate balance between the tools I use and what I want to express. For this balancing act, I need tools that are powerful and flexible. Tools must adapt to the way that I want to create. It isn’t only the creative software that needs flexibility, but also the complete stack, from the BIOS to the mouse pointer.
The open source tool set has infinite possibilities of customization. That plasticity, in turn, improves my productivity and creativity.
A few years back I wrote an article about open source tools for graphic design. I now feel that it is time to revisit and expand upon this notion. I’ve divided this article into three main parts: Creative Tools, Production Tools and On the Road Tools.
This is not an exhaustive list of all the open source tools and resources you can use in your project, but simply my own work flow. If you would like to read more, a good starting point is Open Source Design site!
Inkscape is still at the center of my toolkit. From posters to web graphics, it’s a lean tool working solely with Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG’s). Although it doesn’t output projects in CMYK, I’ve balanced the color I see on my screen to the color I get back from the printer so closely that there is no surprise on the print materials I create. And when I absolutely need CMYK, I export my work to Scribus.
From books to brochures, to maps and guides, I’ve produced a lot in Scribus. I used to do most of my typesetting in Inkscape for posters and fliers but in the last couple years, I’ve come to enjoy the higher precision I get with Scribus for this task.
I’ve had the pleasure to use FontForge for a few projects. The interface is a bit rough at a first, but it’s a powerful and complete tool. I’ve mostly worked on smaller projects and not with a complete font creation process, but FontForge inspires me to get to that stage for font design.
A new contender in the font design tool, is BirdFont. With a well-polished interface, the font editing is more enjoyable, although it seems limited.
One tool that I have grown fond of is DarkTable. It’s been one of the tools that I’ve used a lot more in the last year or so. I’ve been shooting more raw photo because of DarkTable, but it will also edit, crop, balance and do all the leveling you need in a photo.
QGis has become one important tool in my workflow as I was asked to work on a trail map for the region. The learning curve for such a task wasn’t too steep and now I can gather GPS information and display it on maps and other graphics. There is a lot that I don’t know about QGis, but I’ve enjoyed the ride so far. The project seems really active and improves on a weekly basis.
FreeCad has been my tool of choice when I need to create 3D objects in CAD. It’s a simple tool that creates results quite rapidly. It is precise and ouputs schematics and plans quite easily. From creating a model for 3D printing, to sketching plans for a project, it even has an export to web page in three.js where you can move around your creation and publish it on the web. Would that fit into a simple minimal WebVr workflow? I might or might not be exploring this at the moment.
I have been a little discouraged with open source video editing in the last few months. Kdenlive, which was quite stable, has been less than productive, maybe due to the lack of GPU in my new machine. I’ve tried a few other tools, but while some of them were simple to use, they lacked stability in bigger projects. I then tried to use Blender video capabilities. To my amazement, the video editor in there is actually quite solid and flexible. Plus, I got to hang out in Blender more often.
Although you might not be interested in 3D animation, Blender is a valuable tool for designers and creative. On a few occasions, creating a 3D model and scene was the only way to attain what I needed. On one project, I needed a background filled at random with a vast number of pills. I started to draw and play around with photos, but nothing worked. I then created a simple model of a pill, duplicated it hundreds of time and created a small physical simulation of these pills falling on a plane and taking a snapshot at the right time to render the scene. All these tasks were relatively simple to learn, and the result was precisely what I needed.
Command Line Creative Tools
Command line tools for the web and graphic designer? Yes, a lot of time CLI tools are the best solution you have.
ImageMagick, FFmpeg, Ghostscript and Bash would be on top of my list, with ImageMagick being the de facto tool for resizing and modifying images. It is such a huge tool! It can do everything with images – everything. Sprinkle a bit of Bash magic, and you get yourself a powerful set of tools.
As an example, I have a client that needs her painting to be resized in two formats, thumbnail and web sizing. The image must be placed in a certain folder. So, I’ve created a script just for that client that would take any image as input and export it not only in the right size but with the right naming and in the right folder.
FFmpeg is a similar tool for movies. Think about the web video format. With a one line call you can convert any format to what you need, and add that into a script for later use. Ghostscript would deal with PDF’s and post script documents the same way. Although I have to say that I find this program a lot more cryptic to learn.
And then you have Bash. This is the general toolkit to use a computer. You can save yourself hours of work when you know the proper looping and scripting of Bash. It’s a very powerful scripting language. It doesn’t need to be Bash script, there is Perl, Python and other scripting languages, but Bash is also your shell, so it makes sense to be quite familiar with it.
And then, there is, of course, Vim. I use Vim all the time, for everything. From email to coding (html, js, css and php mostly), you can also have a plugin in your browser to use Vim in any text box. The more I use it, the more I learn, and the more efficient I become with it. It is my main tool for creative writing.
Productivity starts with booting your computer. How long does it take to start your computer? The question should be re-framed to how much time do you waste before you can start working? These might be details but all these details add up and it’s important to have a solid foundation. I don’t want to go into detail of my whole system, but in short, I use arch Linux with i3 tiling window manager, no desktop, no notification bar and no recycle bin.
From there I built a complete production stack:
- Mutt for my email client (abook for contact, vim for editing)
- Task Warrior and Time Warrior for task and time management (available as a server)
- Synthing to keep my working files in sync (and a fair load of rsync for backup and other deployment of site)
- VimWiki to keep track of ideas (which can be exported as a wiki page for sharing with the community)
- Irssi – I lurk around IRC a lot on Inkscape/Scribus/WordPress and Design channels to help others and myself. And of course, there is a channel for Mutt, Task Warrior and many other tools that I use.
- Mocp just for music
- rTorrent for downloading
- Bash for its own powerful logical toolset and scripting
- Rsync/ssh/scp wget curl for many things
- Node.js for scripting language. With many, many script trough npm that are useful for productivity.
As you can see, most of my productivity tools are on the command line. I find the command line interface perfect to tone down the visual impact of a tool, while keeping it lean and powerful (and you get to choose what font you use for these tools).
Other productivity tools I use are Freemind for mind mapping and Invoice Plane for invoicing. From LibreOffice Calc we run our book keeping and other administration. LibreOffice Draw has been quite useful in times of needing a quick edit of a pdf. PoEdit is used for translation of projects.
ON THE ROAD TOOLS
We are not yet there with a fully open source phones. But, for the moment I use Lineage OS for my Android phone and a stack of open source tools.
I use K9 for emails, Firefox for browser, and VLC for media playing. Open Camera is a great photo tool with a lot of manuals settings, it even support raw format if your phone supports it. Task Warrior and Syncthing work on there as well. I use Termux to connect back to my server on the road or to do quick web design tweak and Open Note Scanner to scan artwork and other documents. There are also a few other tools that aren’t directly related to creativity and productivity.
One tool set I use a lot is to take photos with Open Camera and have it synced directly with my computer through Syncthing. This is a method I use a lot for hand lettering and other illustrations. I typically start the creative process in an analog fashion and ease the transfer to the digital world.
I feel that technology and creativity aren’t always compatible. Technology often gets in the way with its own agenda. With open source technologies there is a layer of limitations that are lifted which unlock a more creative environment.
I am not here to say that everyone should use open source technology, simply that it’s possible to do so and run a creative business. If you also run your whole creative business on open source, say hi!