Is free to be and not be still on the table? – by “Hank H”

As a graphic designer, I work in a medium where the artwork I create at some point has to either be made digitally or translated into a digital format. What this means is using software such as Adobe Creative Suite that contains licensed software for illustrating, editing photographs, creating layout, and developing media design (web and mobile). The price for Adobe software–which has become industry standard so there is really no way around it–is no small investment. Currently, for Adobe Creative Suite 4 Design Premium (a little better than Adobe CS 4 Standard but a step down from the Master’s Collection), the price for a full version is $1799.00, upgrade from $499.00. Did I forget to mention that they release a whole new CS every year or so?

Until recently, except for a (very tiny and shrinking even still) handful of other design software, Adobe was really the main, if not only option in terms of creating digital artwork. In addition, from a production point of view, artwork needed to be received in a standard format to to go to press or to upload online. There are benefits and drawbacks towards this set up. One clear benefit is that by having everyone operate in one file format, it makes it much easier in terms of compatibility across platforms. However, from the creative standpoint, what one finds is that how you operate in the creative space is largely determined and constrained by the digital tools available.

In a recent article in The New York Book Review by Garry Kasparov, The Chess Master and Computer, Kasparov raises the difference of how computers play chess and how humans play chess. Further, he notes that as the use of computers has pushed the game of chess into a new arena and by our use of them to train and play, “humans today are starting to play more like computers.” I raise this point because his observation can be carried over to the design world, where designers, too, with the computer and more to the point, with Adobe CS 4 as our only digital tool, our way of ‘playing’ has been deeply effected. In fact, it is no coincidence that the colors of the default swatch will be perhaps the most common colors you will see used in print and media design.

Adobe Illustrator CS3 Color swatch

Recent advertisements

So in recent years it has been very interesting for me to see free / open-source software, namely Processing ( and indexhibit (, edge their way to becoming a serious platform for creative expression in the digital domain.

Processing was created by Ben Fry and Casey Reas while completing their graduate studies at MIT. It is a java-based program that is open source, and was created initially to serve as a digital sketch book for artists and those interested in experimenting and creating visual programs. As such, it has been the prefect playground for non-progammers and programmers to explore, develop, and create digital works that range from mobile device applications to dynamic and interactive physical installations. A recent visible example is the identity software for COP15 the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen 2009.

COP15 Generative Identity Software – Evolutions Light from okdeluxe on Vimeo.

In the hands of the designer, the applications or sketches give way to new shapes and forms. In essence, they become creative means for developing designed pieces that no longer have to take place only within the Adobe CS world. As a result, designers, in this newly given context of open-source software, are designing their own tools–and this is what I find both fascinating and empowering with free software, in that it positions users to rethink the way that they might engage or even see software (free and restricted), and in turn, it redefines the role and creative practice of the user, opening areas of creative endeavors and development. Still, an interesting note is that some of the language used to describe code recalls to visual examples of what most designers would be familiar with in a typical Adobe CS program. (Perhaps Kasparov’s observation is not so easy to escape afterall.)

When hard pressed, it is difficult to rule out one (free) over the other (licensed) simply because invariably to commit to open-source software alone is to take faith and rely on everybody and nobody–not to mention the skills, time, and availability to do so. At the same time, there is an uncanny fixture in having severe restrictions with what you can and can’t do with something that you have fully purchased and for all intents and purposes have the right to claim as your possession. This is not to say this debate is impossible, rather this is to say that perhaps integral to the health of both free and licensed software is the existence or duality of both.

As technologies continue to open new platforms, namely the soon to be released iPad, It will be interesting to see how the role of free software will continue to evolve and shape our interaction and experience with soft/hard ware.

5 thoughts on “Is free to be and not be still on the table? – by “Hank H”

  1. I found the ‘color swatch’ example fascinating. All tools influence and shape how they are used, open source or prohibitively expensive. However, the introduction of choice in design software may allow for divergent paths of expression. Designers will still be bound by the limits of their software, but design camps may split, following different standards.

    The issue of a standard file format is relevant though. Having everyone in the industry on the same page will continue to be a struggle.


  2. In reading Kate’s comment, I realized that I failed to mention one component of Processing (and other like-minded software), which is that the strength of Processing is that it is fully compatible and exportable to formats that are native (and even editable) in the Adobe CS and other media / motion / programming environments. This means that programs like Processing do not take away from Adobe’s and other design software companies’ efforts. Instead, Processing builds upon what has become industry standard. Initially, when Ben Fry and Casey Reas created Processing it was intended to serve as a digital ‘sketchbook’ to quickly comp out rough ideas before dedicating a serious amount of time in a program or programming language. However, as the community of users and the development of Processing grew (all through volunteers, of course) Processing was developed to export to all channels of creative expression, from print, motion, media, and film. Thus, a new digital ecology was born. The question then, becomes how are Adobe’s (and other design software companies) role evolving? Are they being positioned to be a digital design ‘gate keeper’ of sorts?


  3. I also thought your observation of default palette colors was intriguing! I’m guilty of sometimes hastily starting new design work with them. How we work against this to foster ingenuity with all software and hardware is an important question. Specifically regarding graphic design ‘though, this reminds me of a great article by David Reinfurt:


  4. I think the notion of a digital “sketchbook” is very compelling. A lot of digital tools seem ill-designed to support the drafting and sketching process. Professor Julie Dorsey studied architecture as an undergraduate and noticed this tendency in architecture design. Most architecture students use CAD programs for 3D design, but those programs require precise input and result in rigid models. Professor Dorsey developed Mental Canvas, a program that allows users to make 3D drawings that are actually composed of individual 2-D drawings. The result is that users can “sketch” in 3D. Professor Dorsey’s program allows users to render in 3D with out the precision and specificity required by CAD programs. It seems like Open Source tools would support this kind of innovation that has the potential to fundamentally challenge the way we approach digital design.


  5. Like everyone else, I found the idea of designers for these big companies using the default colors quite amusing. I’m not a graphic designer, but I’ve developed a love of photography since starting college a few years back, and the situation is the same for me. Although I don’t need the whole Creative Suite to pursue this hobby, I naturally became interested in Photoshop about three years ago due to its ubiquity as the industry standard. With the new Photoshop CS5 (available in May) costing $700, I would also love to have some viable open-source alternatives that are similar to Photoshop in power (from what I’ve heard, GIMP doesn’t cut it). However, I realize that this is a lot to ask, considering how much work has gone into each iteration of Photoshop over the years to make it was it is today. Looking here, it seems like the first version of Photoshop back in 1990 was about as powerful as Microsoft Paint is today. So, it’s difficult to image an open-source program suddenly popping up due to the sheer amount of man-hours necessary to make something like Photoshop. Still, I’m hopeful that one day, GIMP can get close enough to Photoshop that it becomes a good alternative for hobbyists like me.


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