The Digital Agency for International Development

Move over microsoft: Design's going open source

By Jay Alvarez on 19 May 2011

I’ve been designing websites since 1999 but switching from Microsoft Windows to Ubuntu has been one of those pivotal experiences worth sharing. Joining Aptivate as the in-house designer recently has given me the opportunity to challenge some pretty old work-flows and move towards a totally open source design practice.

Aptivate work almost exclusively with open source software so it seems a great idea to give Microsoft the push, and frankly I’d had enough of waiting 9 minutes for my laptop to reboot. That’s enough time for making 6 people a cup of tea, water the plants and rearrange the desk; all good things ONCE a day not 5 times when the PC crashes. 3 years of filling up with junk makes a Windows PC very very sluggish and an unhappy designer with a tidy workspace.

Changing over - a gradual process

Leaving Microsoft was never going to a straight switch. Leaving a web platform if you are dependent on it for your income is a scary thing.

Since i cut my design teeth on Apple Macs and Adobe software in 1995, I have moved gradually to Windows in a bid to be one step closer to the end user who on the whole use this platform. I was still, however heavily dependent on Adobe products, primarily Fireworks and Dreamweaver for interface design and development, but also Illustrator for vector graphics and Photoshop for photo editing. I know they are good, but really? couldn’t I achieve a good web result without them?

Open source alternatives within Windows.

Going back a bit to before the anger towards the laptop really kicked in. Finding open source alternatives was an exciting challenge. These were readily available for Windows so I didn’t have to switch, just try them out. I found a really useful website which helps you to find open source alternatives to commercial software.

Web development - Aptana 2

Essentially I wanted an html/css editor with code completion, ftp client and project manager.. I tried Amaya, Bluefish KompoZer and Mozilla SeaMonkey which all had great features, but none of them did ALL the things I wanted together and I really was a bit spoilt by having them all rolled into one with Dreamweaver. Finally I found Aptana 2 which whilst a bit fiddly to get started with seemed to have everything I needed, hurray!
  • Best thing about Aptana - has to be the available plugin support for different types of project such as php, python/django, javascript, svn and git. It’s very comprehensive.
  • What I miss the most from Dreamweaver - nothing... had I still been dependent on the WYSIWYG editor in Dreamweaver then I could argue that this would be a bit deal, but since most of my work is now with dynamic database driven sites, I tend to use Firebug to make visual tweaks before committing them to code.

Web design - Inkscape

A key part of my work involves developing brand assets, icons and other vector graphics for both web and print design. For this I had depended on Illustrator. Quite quickly however I discovered Inkscape . What an amazing product! it’s a bit clunky but it lets me do 90% of the key design tasks I did in Illustrator and 60% of tasks I used to do in Fireworks. Essentially it is the easiest transition I have made on this journey and means that I now only use Inkscape for designing for the web.
  • Best thing about Inkscape - The ability to export 32 bit png files from any selection, the page or object. The other best bit is all the native SVG features I have yet to discover!
  • What I miss the most from Illustrator - nothing worth mentioning.
  • What I miss the most from Fireworks - Image optimisation - no image editing software that I’m aware of does a better job of compressing and optimising all nature of image files than Fireworks. It creates an 8 bit alpha png with a tiny size and smooth, edging where transparent bits kick in. This for me is the single most important missing feature of any open source alternative. Inkscape needs a good image optimising tool.

Photo editing - Gimp

Scaling, cropping, optimising photos; that’s a big part of creating photographic content for a website. Mainly I leave that to the end user but sometimes I create photo-based graphics too. Gimp seems the most logical choice, as it suggests so itself, but I’m not finding it intuitive and it seems to crash more often than not. Fireworks has a limited range of bitmap editing tools compared to Photoshop but integrates really well within the context of creating an interface design as bitmap and vector graphic objects live happily on the same layer or multiple layers. Now there are several open source alternatives for this work such as but I’ll admit that I’m not finding a great solution and again it’s the optimisation issue that makes me frustrated.

Designing for Low Bandwidth

If we need to create websites with small file sizes for countries with low bandwidth then we need powerful optimisers. I found that Fireworks was great because of the high compression rates achievable which result in files more than half the size achievable using other programmes, open source or commercial. So here is a proposal for a future project for Aptivate - create an 8 bit Alpha transparency image optimiser that challenges Fireworks.

Switching to Ubuntu

A couple of months later I reformatted and partitioned the hard drive of my Dell Precision 9300 workstation. I still wanted access to Windows, so did a dual boot with an extra partition for shared files. Apart from my video card packing in unexpectedly (nothing to do with the installation I’m assured) , the installation went without a hitch. I was amazed by how intuitive the Ubuntu interface was. Using the software install centre, I was able to quickly and directly install all the applications I needed. Start up and shut down was a mere seconds and as I was in production mode within a couple of hours. I was more than happy to find Dropbox, Skype and Acrobat Reader were also available. All in all it was pain free, and... Ubuntu is actually graphically beautiful (not something I had anticipated at all).

The dreaded Terminal

Well it’s inevitable even for a designer. The WYSIWYG addicts worst fear, THE TERMINAL!!! agghh!! . A Baptism of code fire at Aptivate, no namby pamby intro here. I had pulled down the designer’s defence gate and in trickled (and sometimes poured) an endless stream of code, configuration files, settings, database fixtures, tables, smart tricks and speedy scripts, screen sharing and networking wizardry. Ah! then I had a cup of tea. I’ll be a terminal ninja one day.

Do I miss Windows?

I don’t miss windows. I booted into it shortly after installing Ubuntu, and found it an empty experience, like going back to a house I you’ve just moved out of but still have keys to. Can’t find the kettle to make a cup of tea so not staying. I recently installed virtual box and now run several different versions of Windows XP to help me cross-browser debug CSS.

Moving forward

Apart from using my new open source toolbox to help Aptivate refresh it’s current website, there are things I want to do. It would be great to contribute to the open source community and generally help to improve already great products such as Inkscape. I’ve already started submitting Inkscape icons to the Open Clip Art Library and it would be great if we developed the image optimiser I mentioned before. There is also a lot of potential in interactive svg’s which would be great to explore especially since Internet Explorer 9 supports them.. oh Microsoft you are never forgotten...

If you are designer reading this, and fancy getting involved with Aptivate’s open source efforts somehow, get in touch. If you are a developer and have a secret optimiser up your sleeve, please let us feed you and keep you amused because we want it!!!

May 19, 2011, 1:28 p.m. - Mark

Excellent story, Jay. Thanks for sharing.