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Eating our own dog food in open source

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Last month, after nearly two decades of using free and open source software, I attended my first conference: SELF. I even gave a little talk there, a kind of high-level overview of open source tools available to those of us who produce creative work (you can watch it on SELF's YouTube channel if you have an hour to kill).

The point of the presentation was that it's absolutely possible to go from concept to a deliverable creative product using only open source tools... and it's been that way for a while. However, in the discussions I had with people at the conference, I was amazed by how many people who came up to me and said, "I had no idea the tools had come this far." Even more incredible was the fact that some of these people were graphic designers working for companies with a commitment to open source as part of their missions.

I started asking around, "What did you design that banner with? Your flyer? The graphics for your T-shirts?" It was a small survey, but of the people who could actually answer that question, greater than half referenced closed, proprietary tools running on closed, proprietary operating systems.

How can this be?

The knee-jerk response is that open source tools simply aren't as capable as their proprietary counterparts. But where that stance may have held water 10-15 years ago, it's worn pretty thin in a modern context. I've grown weary of the "Program A is completely unusable because it doesn't have this one feature." More often than not, that statement is merely code for "I don't want to learn a different way of accomplishing the same task."

There's nothing wrong with that position; I just wish people would state it that way rather than laying out inaccurate blanket statements about a program's viability. If such statements were true, the Blender Institute wouldn't have been able to produce six impressive-looking open movie projects (and one game) over the last 10 years. Libre Graphics Magazine wouldn't have all of its graphics and layout created. And a growing number of creatives like  Duffy, Bassam Kurdali, David Revoy, and (if I may be so bold) myself wouldn't have been able to put food on our (and our families') tables for the last 10+ years.

And, really, all software is inadequate. I don't think I know a single artist or designer who's 100% satisfied with the way his or her tools work. You pick the inadequacies that you're willing to live with or work around. The great thing about open source software is that we have recourse. The source is there. Shortcomings can be overcome with time and effort... and perhaps sweet-talking a developer or two for sufficiently complex issues.

Another common excuse is that it's too difficult to find creatives who are well-versed in open source tools. That right there is a festering pile of equine digestive remaindering. The short list of examples I gave a couple paragraphs ago isn't the sum total of creatives who use free and open source tools. We're not that rare. We're not that strange (well, no stranger than any other creative person). Furthermore, sites like the Blender Network are making great strides in connecting creatives with people and companies who need our skills.

Creatives—all creatives, not just those that use open source programs—are more than the tools that we use. We're malleable. We adapt. We learn. We have strong foundational skills that transcend and transfer across the tools we use to create our work. With a little bit of time and training, any competent creative content producer could transfer skills and knowledge to an open source tool chain.

So, is it really just an awareness thing? Do folks really just not know what's available to us in the open ecosystem of tools? Maybe it's the artists' fault. Most of us are trained on specific, closed tool chains and rarely on open ones. We get complacent, unwilling to look outside of the realm where we're already comfortable, training ourselves to believe that open source tools are mere second-rate clones of their proprietary counterparts rather than mature tools with their own unique ways of engaging in the process of creating art. And for those of us who are using open source software for our work, we rarely speak up since we're... well, busy working.

What's the solution, then, Mr. Smartypants?

There are no guaranteed solutions, of course, but there are smart things we can do. One of the biggest is "eating our own dog food." If you're putting on an open source conference, there's no reason you can't use open source software to create the flyers, video promos, banners, T-shirt graphics, and the myriad of other pieces of content to run and promote the show. If you're working for a company that ostensibly has a commitment to open source, ask if your marketing material is being produced with open source software. If it isn't, then ask why not. And if you happen to be a creative at one of these companies, why aren't you?

That's not all, though. If you are producing creative work with open source tools (hooray!), it's not sufficient to put your head down and keep working. You've got to share that fact. Better still, share how you're doing it. You don't necessarily have to do full-blown tutorials (of course, that's always nice and appreciated). You could also do time-lapse screencasts of your work process, screenshots of works in progress, process tips and tricks you discover while working. The sad truth is that if you don't say what you made your great work in, folks are likely to assume that it was done with some closed package.

So yeah... as with most everything in open source, the solutions start with people—with us. If we don't believe in our tools, why would anyone else?


This article is part of the Open Art column by Jason van Gumster. Do you have an idea for a story about an open source art tool or project? Submit your article idea.

About the author

Jason van Gumster - Jason van Gumster mostly makes stuff up. He writes, animates, and occasionally teaches, all using open source tools. He's run a small, independent animation studio, wrote Blender For Dummies and GIMP Bible, and continues to blurt out his experiences during a [sometimes] weekly podcast, the Open Source Creative Podcast. Adventures (and lies) at @monsterjavaguns.