The state of Linux graphic design tools in 2019

Can open source software pass a professional designer's test for work-readiness?
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10 ways the GIMP image editor changed my life

Alexandre Duret-Lutz from Paris, France (Recursive Daisy), CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Before I begin this test of Linux graphic design tools, I should admit two things up front. First, I am a designer, not a software developer. Second, although I try to incorporate open source methodologies and principles wherever I can, my field pretty much demands that I use Adobe software on a sticker-emblazoned MacBook Pro. (I know, hate me if you must.) For the purposes of this research project, however, I am running Fedora 29 on a repurposed Mac Mini.

The question I want to answer with this investigation isn't just how good is open source design software, but also could I use it to do my job every day?

What I expect from professional-grade design software

Design is more craft than art. Like a craftsperson, designers have to be flexible enough to accomplish a wide range of tasks, knowledgeable enough to know which tool is appropriate for which task, and thoughtful enough to leave space and breadcrumbs for the next worker down the line to make changes and perform maintenance without too much headache. Therefore, rather than ordering this list by title, let's segment the applications by task and see what open source design software works and what doesn't.

A good logo typically has three features: It's clean and not too visually complex, color variation is kept to a minimum so we're not mortgaging the company to print stickers later, and it's scalable enough to work just as well on a 16px favicon as it does on a 10-foot hanging banner.

Logos are almost always drawn as vectors. The clean lines and scalability of vector graphics lend themselves to the needs of logo designers so perfectly that on the few occasions where someone isn't using a vector-based application, they really should be. Thankfully, vector graphics are also very forgiving for new and non-designers. If a line doesn't quite look right, it doesn't have to be redrawn, it can simply be changed.


Grade: A- (92/100)

License: GPLv2

Inkscape holds a place of honor in my memory for being the very first vector software I ever used. Being able to access it for free and run it on any operating system gave me the opportunity to use it in my early days. I must say that Inkscape has matured extremely well in the past few years. It has a fairly intuitive interface and simple controls. I would like to see some improvements in the color palette system, but overall there is very little you could accomplish in proprietary software that can't be matched in Inkscape with a little bit of persistence and finesse.

LibreOffice Draw

Grade: C- (71/100)

LIcense: Mozilla Public License 2.0

I went into this assignment hopeful for a better result; maybe I didn't study enough? Maybe I skipped too many lectures? But when I sat down for the lab, I really felt a little lost. LibreOffice Draw seems to me like a clone of the LibreOffice Impress slideshow app with a few words changed here and there (the tool-tip for new layers even calls them "slides") and the toolbar relocated from the top of the frame to the left. This is not to say it is necessarily a bad approach for a "does-what-you-need" diagram-drawing application, which is precisely how I imagine most people would use it.

If your goal is to generate some easy-to-read, end-user-editable assets that you can copy and paste into other LibreOffice applications, Draw might be perfect for you. However, like most designers, I'm particular about the finer points of visual design, therefore I prefer to do all of my work in my daily-use design tools and export higher-quality products for consumption by colleagues and stakeholders.

Assignment 2: Design an ad

If logos are a designer's bread and butter, then web ads are our toast and jam. Web ads can be done in vector-based software, but more often than not, they incorporate some photographic elements that are better handled by raster graphics applications. The ability to non-destructively manipulate imagery through layered editing and use fine type controls are paramount for this kind of task.


Grade: A (96/100)

License: GPLv2

Much like Inkscape, GIMP was a foundational part of my exploration into digital visual arts. Up until my first experience with GIMP—on Mandrake Linux in the late '90s—my only experience with raster graphics had been with Microsoft Paint. Even then, GIMP was a more powerful tool then I fully understood, and although I still am not entirely clear on what exactly Wilber is, the software has definitely kept pace with other market-leading applications. GIMP is lacking some bleeding-edge features you'd find in other raster applications (like 3D modeling), but I'm not sure how many people use or need those things on a daily basis. If 3D modeling is necessary for a web ad, it's probably over-designed.

GIMP's interface is so thoughtfully laid out that moving from other applications shouldn't present too steep a learning curve. Good color tools, tight typography controls, and a comprehensive toolbar mean that GIMP is all aces in my book.

Assignment 3: Lay out a print publication

As time marches on, print design becomes more and more of a specialization for designers that requires its own set of tools. Desktop publishing is an understatement for everything involved with print design. Sure, we can throw down some paragraphs in 12pt Times New Roman and wrap them around some square images—and for the vast majority of people that is more than adequate. Print design is about unrelenting fastidiousness across a broad range of disciplines. A successful print designer understands typography (two full semesters of my college career alone), color theory, photography, illustration, human interaction (including reading and learning disabilities), and all the technologies and methodologies used by printers to bring their designs to life.

Dear reader, do you know that coder in your company who is kinda scary smart? The one who still remembers COBOL for some unknown reason and can spot your missing semicolon at a glance? You know the one who wrote a script to tell the coffee pot, which you didn't even know had a CPU let alone a network interface, to brew a fresh cup of coffee in the amount of time it takes to walk to the breakroom? If that person had gone to art school instead of Stanford, they would be the print designer.


Grade: A+ (98/100)

License: GPLv2 or later

This was my first experience with Scribus, so I wasn't sure what to expect, but I found myself pleasantly surprised. The self-described "open source desktop publishing" tool is deceptively complex and powerful. Full-featured typography controls including overflowing textboxes and image-sensitive wrapping allow for beautiful and unique type treatments. Native image cropping and shape tools make it possible to visually enhance your copy with an editorial narrative. Support for traditional CMYK profiles and spot colors gives designers total control over the outcome of the final product. The contributors to Scribus were even thoughtful enough to include tools for color-blindness testing to make sure every design can be as inclusive as possible.

I have to admit, I am seriously impressed with Scribus.

Assignment 4: Wireframe a prototype

Oof. This one really fell short for me. The world is digital now. Interactive web apps, websites, and mobile applications are such a massive part of our lives that I purchased in a PopSocket literally just so that I might stop dropping my phone on my face at night. My dentist approves, but my wife misses the comedy.

Before the introduction of wireframe and prototyping tools, mockups were usually designed in raster graphics tools like GIMP or Photoshop. And while I could probably go back to doing some of my job this way, I would quickly become less popular among my stakeholders and engineering colleagues.

I'm sure there are plenty of perfectly good games, apps, and websites that have been developed without wireframes, but today, doing something right requires careful, in-depth planning. That means UX design, UI design, and a big ol' pile of interconnected wireframes.

Wireframing and prototyping tools are necessary to create virtually kickable prototypes that are visually developed enough to not frighten project managers and interactive enough to collaborate with engineers without wasting too much of their very expensive time. In the proprietary world, this means tools like SketchApp, InVision Studio, and Adobe XD. I couldn't locate an open source application that fit this need.

The final grade: B+

The lack of available wireframing and prototyping applications really brought down the average, but I'd still call it a successful exercise. As I mentioned at the beginning, design is a craft and it relies on collaboration. All of the tools I looked at—Inkscape, LibreDraw, GIMP, and Scribus—can run just as well on Windows or MacOS as they do on any Linux distribution. The ability to create robust artwork and share editable files with stakeholders and colleagues on the platform of their choice means that a serious argument could be made that these tools are even more versatile than their proprietary counterparts.

On a personal note, not only are GIMP and Inkscape the first real design tools I got to play with unsupervised, they opened up my mind to the possibility that design was a real job I could do someday. Without these open source software applications and the community contributors behind them, I wouldn't have this job as a UX designer for Red Hat today and I never would have left Ohio. So, I offer heartfelt gratitude to all of them. Even if all of these applications aren't perfect all the time, they're enough to inspire people to make cool new things, and if you ask this designer, making cool things is what being human is all about.

Extra credit

But what about (cough) running Adobe on Wine? (cough)

Yeah, I'm sure you can do it. But this isn't about breaking end user license agreements. I'm not about that life. This is about the efficacy of real, open source, design software running available on open source platforms, right now.

Does ChromeOS Count?

No. No, it does not.

Jason Brock is a lovely fellow with a glorious beard and dark glasses. He wears a lot of plaid for some reason.
Jason Brock is an experience and visual designer based in Austin, Texas. As part of Red Hat’s Middleware Engineering Services team, he has developed branding systems and web experiences for many of Red Hat’s upstream community projects including WildFly Swarm, APIMan, & Arquillian Cube.


I run fedora 29 only on a MacBook Pro and i am using figma as a alternative for sketch/Adobe XD and its quite good.

This gives me the possibility of having a professional workflow on Linux.

There was a tool that I found quite interesting a sketch clone (Akira the Linux design tool) which unfortunately didn't get enough funding on its Kickstarter page so I don't know if it's going to be further develop or not, hope so because we need more design tools in the Linux world.

One of my main complaints in open source design tools is the lack of good UI design of the applications itself, they are not functional and really not visually appealing if you need to work all long with it, but nonetheless all the functionality is there and anyone can accomplish most of the tasks that you could with proprietary software with the expection of a wireframing tool as you mentioned.

That's a really interesting perspective, Helder. I didn't come across Akira in my searches but let's hope more tools like it surface and gain support.

My team has evaluated Figma as a possible alternative to Sketch / XD and found it to be a competent tool, but we couldn't justify the cost to ourselves since XD is already bundled into our CC Subscription price. And even though Figma is browser-based and therefore can run in an opensource environment, I chose not to include it in this article for the simple reason that Figma, itself, isn't an open source application.

In reply to by Helder Costa (not verified)

I use Blender for proto type objects and 3D model. Also use for animate 3D objects, create effects, composite video, etc.

Wireframe software: Figma.

I understand this is focused on the daily work on graphics...

But maybe you should include Darktable (as LightRoom Alternative) and so

Check out Krita. In my opinion it could really do good with raster and vector in the same program. It really does the trick for me.

I am not much of a designer but do the occasional job, mostly producing pdf documents. Unfortunately Scribus will not do document tagging which is needed to produce pdf documents accessible to screen reading software, something that my clients usually want.

Have you tried Gravit Designer for wireframing? Great for vector work as well.

There I was, wasting my time reading this article, then I saw your comment and now I think it was worth it all because of you, sir. Thank you!

In reply to by beat (not verified)

Awesome Jason, I've actually been curious for a while as to what pro designers think of open source alternatives to Adobe.

I've been very happy with GIMP myself, but as a blogger and web guy my needs are not at all sophisticated.

What about the fact that just the rest of your industry is using Adobe, and would be passing around projects in that file format? Does that happen a lot and is that a major pain point for open source?

I'm partial to Krita over GIMP when doing digital painting (replacing Illustrator / Corel Paint) - then again, I'm partial to KDE as a whole...

For Lightroom replacement, as said by some others, 'darktable' seems pretty competent.

Kdenlive is a decent alternative to Premiere, but certainly has it's quirks. It's closer to Vegas.

Another possibility for advertisement design would be Krita -

Glad to see a mostly positive reaction, but I am afraid the author is missing a very important point - interoperability.

Even as a freelancer, at some point you will have to work with other people who will need to be able to view or edit your work. And this is where things get gets hairy. No matter how capable Gimp, Inkscape, Scribus, etc. are in your hands, these are NOT the same software that your colleagues, partners, and customers are most likely to use.

It's really not a fair competition because it eventually boils down to how good Gimp is at being Photoshop, not how good of an image editor it is. As a Linux user you learn to work around things like that. You find clever ways to convert formats, use emulation, jedi mind tricks... But this is tedious. And I don't blame people for not wanting to go through all of this trouble.

That is why we really need one of the following things to happen:

1. Adobe to start supporting Linux, or
2. Using Adobe products to become such a pain that they will fade into obscurity AND the alternatives to become so much better than Adobe offerings that it would be silly not to make a switch.

Realistically I suspect that we will see 1 only after 2 has happened.

True: Proprietary reigns supreme in well-established companies due to life-cycle and need for SPEED.
I am glad there are open source options and I hope they succeed and flourish, but the seamless integration of Adobe products makes them tough to beat in a production environment...
It is great that there are open source options for individuals and companies that know how to use them, and they can have success with them.

In reply to by Linas (not verified)

Regarding running Adobe software on Linux via Wine, I think the biggest problem is that the versions that are well supported in Wine are very old, like over ten years, mostly from the pre-CS era. I am not sure about breaking the license agreement though. Does Adobe's EULA really state that it is not allowed to run the software on other platforms than Windows and MacOS?

Although these programs might not be state of the art, nor professional tools – same as LibreOffice Draw, I assume –, I would be curious about an experience with Krita and / or Pinta. (Just saw Krita being mentioned in this article:

So with Inkscape how do you work around the lack of an "attributes library", whereby a standard set of attributes could be saved and easily reused for future projects? That can be done manually (see but this seems needlessly tedious and requires the user to a library of objects on hand to do the manual copying.

Gravit or Figma work fine on Linux in the web browser, and they are both very capable wireframing and UI design tools.

Pencil Project is one of the open source projects to draw wireframes. Another project to do this job is Akira, but it is on dev time this days.

Use Wireframesketcher ( for wireframing. it's one of the best out there (cross-platform) and I have been using it on Linux for more than 5 years now. I believe Ubuntu team was using it a while back (not sure whether they still are)

It's a long time ago I'm waiting for a tool that can open complex heavy Corel Draw .cdr files without issues, I have tested all open source tools I could find and all fail even opening a quite basic CDR file, I have dozen of gigas of CDR files mainly developed in version 8 to 14 in the past 20+ years and neither Inkspace nor any of the several other opensource tools I have found can show these files properly, I cannot move to the opensource graphic design tools due to I need to check all the time old files made in Corel Draw for reediting and creating new ones, I don't understand how nobody have been able to "hack" completly the CDR file format in all these opensource tools, I understand for a new graphic designer who is starting all these opensource tools have tons of tools to work, the problem is importing and exporting from and to CDR formats, all my carton printers in asia ask me for the CDR files.

Gimp, InkScape and Scribus seem to be the standards for Linux Graphic Design.

For the KDE side Krita comes up, but what about Karbon for SVG?

I've tried Scribus but not with much luck. Unfortunately there are fewer alternatives for DTP than for image editing or creating it seems.

Just came across this website and great article and suggestions in the comments as well. Being a traditional artist and not at all a graphic designer I can really appreciate what you do. Trying to redesign my own website became a more challenging task.

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