What Is Open Source & How Does It Relate To Graphic Design?

Open Source: What is it? How to use it?

Chances are you have heard of Open Source, and if you haven’t you will have used it in some form or another. But what does the term “open source” actually mean? An open source program is one who’s source code can be accessed, improved and redistributed by one and all. If many hands make light work, then many coders make open source programs possible. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) states ‘Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer.’ The FSF has some pretty tight criteria for what complies as open source and what doesn’t. You can check those out here.

Many still think of it in terms of “Free Beer” (who doesn’t love free beer?), “Free Code” or the “Open sharing of Knowledge”. If we talk in terms of beer as a metaphor for Open Source. Open Source is essentially a worldwide community of brewers that can add their dose of yeast, sugar or water to the beer to better it’s final outcome, and unlike certain industry tycoons that we wont mention here (cough Bill Gates) no one has a claim, there is no ugly monopoly, licensing is shared and distribution to all mankind is advocated. Sounds like more beer for all.

How is it Applied?

Commonly Open Source is applied to software, however, open source is spanning across other products and services. You can find open source hardware, books, products, journalism and films such as the now infamous Big Buck Bunny. You can even find the recipe to cola through OpenCola. In an age where we seem less and less divided by geographic and economic barriers the cyber age has gone all ‘hippy’ on us and more and more we are sharing code, ideas, music, words, inspiration and most importantly all working towards a common goal. If you would like to read a bit more about how it all got started (quite a scandalous story) see at the end of the article.

So enough of the ideals! How does it apply to design students and what can I get for free?

Many Open Source software projects were either started in colleges or started by recent college graduates. Whether it’s a coincidence or not, a lot of the available open source software is ideal for college students.

Free and Open Source Software Tools for Students

With the widespread use of the Internet and the growth of web-based applications, there are also a lot of hybrid forms of software available – free software with APIs (Application Programmer Interfaces) but not truly open source. The following list covers some of the best free and open source software from an average student’s perspective. Note: The list is arranged by software category, with recommended applications and the occasional short list of alternative or supplemental apps.

Visualisation, Graphics, Photo editing and Diagramming Tools

This is a fairly broad category that includes vector and raster graphics editors, 3D graphics programs, and diagramming tools. **Recommendations for Design Work **

  • Inkscape a graphics editor, with capabilities similar to Illustrator, CorelDraw, or Xara X, using the W3C standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file format.

  • Gimp, an Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed piece of software for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring with capabilities similar to Photoshop.

  • Scribus professional page layout program. with capabilities similar to InDesign.

  • Blender, a 3D content creation suite, available for all major operating systems under the GNU General Public License.

  • Gliffy a diagram creation software, you can easily create professional-quality flowcharts, diagrams, floor plans, technical drawings, and more. At The Graphic Design School students have the choice of learning in Adobe and Open Source softwares in our online course. Not because we believe that tomorrows Graphic Design industry will suddenly dump Adobe as software standards, but because we believe in affordable access to creativity and education for all.

Web Browsers

So you need a good browser. TGDS recommends: Mozilla Firefox. This is hands down one of the best web browsers available regardless of what your major is. There are many hundreds of useful add-ons for writing, researching as well web development and design. Alternatives: Google Chrome, Opera, Safari.


There’s no one software tool that will satisfy all your research needs, but start with some of the following

Learning and Brainstorming

Research is useless if you’re not actually learning anything. An ideal way to learn new material is by using concept mapping or mind mapping – which are similar but not exactly the same. TGDS recommended: XMind and FreeMind. Alternatives: Mindomo, Mindmeister, Cmap, Comapping. (Comapping offers real-time mind map editing from multiple users, which is ideal for virtual team brainstorming.)

Document Editing and Management

There probably aren’t many students who don’t have to write a term paper or essay. This is pretty much a given for most students. When it’s time to aggregate all that research you’ve done in the library (or online), you have numerous software options for writing and producing a finished paper. OpenOffice suite, includes a word processor, spreadsheet and presentation tool, which it’s also compatible with MS Office. Get all your assignments completed in no time. And it even converts documents to Adobe PDF format for when you have to submit term papers. Alternatives: Google Docs + Spreadsheets, Zoho. Supplemental: PDF Creator to produce a finished document that you can email or upload to your TGDS tutor.

Presentation Tools

If you need alternatives to MS PowerPoint, pick from either OpenOffice, Google or ZohoShow presentation tools, or you could embed your presentations into a web page with SlideShare.

FTP/ File Transfer/ File Storage

Need to share those documents and presentations with your study/ project team? You can FTP (upload) to a team website or use a filesharing service. TGDS recommended FTP: FileZilla. Alternatives: FireFTP (runs in the Firefox browser as an addon). Filesharing: There are far too many services to make a recommendation. However, if you have a Google Mail (GMail) account, you can save files online by attaching them to a draft email.

Programming/ Coding/ Web Development

If you don’t already know it, the Linux operating system is the breeding ground of an immense number of open source projects – having taken the mantle from its predecessor UNIX. If you want to take full advantage of the numerous open source coding tools, you might have to install Linux on your computer. (Or you can install the cygwin environment for MS Windows, but you miss out on a lot of true Linux features.) Even if you don’t want to/ can’t use Linux, you have a number of options for coding and web development: Perl, PHP, Python, Ruby and Ruby on Rails – all of which are good for relatively fast prototyping of code. If you need an open source IDE (Integrated Development Environment) for code development and testing, try Eclipse, which has components that cover Java and many of the languages above. If you’re using Java only, you can also try Ingres Cafe. If you want a multi-platform web authoring tool comparable to FrontPage or Dreamweaver, try NVu. Finally, Microsoft’s Dreamspark program also allows students to download and use their developer and design tools for no charge.

Forums/ Social Networks

Need a custom social network for team/ class/ department projects? BuddyPress gives you that ability by installing over a WordPress Multi-User (WPMU) installation. Alternative: BBPress or Vanilla forums.

A Word on Donations

It’s good practise and great karma to donate to an open source project. You can often find a Paypal donation symbol on Open Source websites. There is a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into Open Source projects by the individuals that inspire and run them. If you are using an Open Source program that you couldn’t live without, then show your gratitude by donating some short change. A few bucks a piece makes a big difference to the life blood of an Open Source collaborative. Perhaps you can consider that it’s your turn to shout the ‘free beer’.

The early days

The story begins in the 1970s, when software invariably came supplied (or bundled) with purchased hardware. Vendors made their money from hardware purchases, and the software was seen as a low value item that would need to be customised by the individual user. Consequently, when the software was supplied to customers it was accompanied by its source code and a licence that permitted modifications. This all took place before the arrival of the personal computer and free and open source licensing model.

In February 1976, Bill Gates, then a 20-year-old founding partner of Microsoft, wrote an open letter to early personal computer hobbyists, taking issue with the ‘theft’ of personal computer software within the hobbyist community. He asked: ‘Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share […] Is this fair?’ Although many hundreds of people had used his Altair BASIC software, Gates estimated that only 10 per cent had actually paid for it. He was of the opinion that software should be sold, regardless of whether it was bundled with hardware. Reaction to the Gates’ open letter was strong and varied, with many arguing for alternatives. For example, Jim Warren, then editor of Dr. Dobb’s Journal, wrote in the July 1976 ACM Programming Language newsletter “There is a viable alternative to the problems raised by Bill Gates in his irate letter to computer hobbyists concerning ‘ripping off’ software. When software is free, or so inexpensive that it’s easier to pay for it than to duplicate it, then it won’t be ‘stolen’.”

The birth of FOSS (Free Open Source Software)

Almost a decade later, 1984 saw the start of GNU Emacs , a project created by Richard Stallman. This was the first free software application. Shortly afterwards, in 1985, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was founded. The foundation is committed to the freedom of software users. The FSF outlines and maintains the Free Software Definition : ‘Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer.’ The definition also refers to four kinds of freedom; if users have all of these freedoms, a program is free software.

Some years later, in the late 1990s, Eric Raymond presented and published ‘The Cathedral and the Bazaar’ , an essay based on his experiences managing an open source project, fetchmail . Two distinct models of software development are presented and compared: the ‘cathedral’ model and the ‘bazaar’ model. In the cathedral model software is developed by a restricted group of software developers while source code is not made generally available between releases. In the bazzaar model software is developed via the Internet in view of the public who have access to the source code in development. Raymond credits Linus Torvalds, the creator of the Linux Kernel project, as the inventor of the bazaar model.

In 1998 Netscape, the most widely used browser before the browser wars of the 1990s, was released as free software. It later became Firefox, the key product of the Mozilla Foundation, which is also responsible for the Thunderbird email client, and many other web related technologies and products.

References Used

If you’re looking for more Open Source desktop software, visit the Sourceforge repository. Just search with a suitable keyword, and browse through the options. You can also check the following references, which were used in building the list of free and open source tools above.

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