Why open source is under-utilised in graphics

Designers would benefit from collaborative development, says Neil McAllister

There’s no shortage of open source programmers out there. According to a recent study of 5,000 developers by research firm IDC, 71% say they have used open source software, and half reported that use of open source is increasing within their organisations.

Outside of coding, however, few fields of endeavour have embraced open source practices on their own. Recently, I mentioned how Sun and others have begun experimenting with open source practices for chip design, but if you stray from the realm of computing, you’ll be hard-pressed to find examples of similar principles in practice.

Graphic artists and designers, in particular, seem resistant to the idea of community collaboration. Sure, there are Creative Commons licences available, but I haven’t seen many examples of them in action among the graphic arts community. Where they are employed, they’re usually applied to complete works by a single author.

But what about the other more mundane applications of graphic design? Think about the icons, wizards, menus, templates and other graphic elements that go into the applications you use every day. Nobody wins any accolades for drawing the picture of a globe that you click on when you want to add a hyperlink to your word processor document. And yet, today’s GUI applications need these kinds of contributions almost as much as they need the program code underneath.

The Firefox web browser is one of the most popular open-source applications in use today, in addition to being one of the best funded and best marketed. However, even Firefox has struggled to add graphic polish to its menus and widgets.

For a while, the default user interface theme for Firefox was a set of icons called Qute, designed by Arvid Axelsson. When the Firefox team was unable to reach agreement with Axelsson about licensing terms for his copyrighted artwork, however, Qute was withdrawn and replaced with a different (and arguably less appealing) default.

Similarly, the licensing terms of Jon Hicks’ familiar “fox around the globe” Firefox logo do not permit the logo’s use in versions of the browser built from a modified source code tree. For this reason, many “strictly free” Linux distributions, such as Ubuntu, omit the logo in favour of a more generic alternative. If they didn’t, the logo would effectively limit how they could make use of the open-source Firefox code.

What’s the problem? It’s tempting to assume that programmers must be inherently more altruistic than graphics designers, and that’s why so much more code than graphics is available under free software licences, but I doubt that’s the case. In my experience, developers are often every bit as ego-driven as modern art painters.

Rather, I suspect that the reason more graphic designers don’t contribute their own talents to open-source projects is much more mundane. Simply put, graphic designers don’t use open-source software.

Have you seen the GIMP? While it’s often billed as the “open-source Photoshop”, it lacks many of the tools that professional graphic designers need for print production. Even worse, its UI is about as handsome and user-friendly as a piranha.

The maintainers of OpenOffice.org have come up with one potential solution to the open-source graphics drought. They’re sponsoring a contest to come up with the best free document templates and clip art to be bundled with the open source office suite. But this is only a partial solution at best.

Unless the community can attract a broader audience to open-source software — including graphic professionals and other non-developers — we’ll never escape the catch-22 of open-source UIs. Until open-source applications can appeal to an audience with sophisticated aesthetic tastes, they will always look and feel like exactly what they are: software developed and designed by engineers.

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