The fifth annual Libre Graphics Meeting (LGM) took place May 27-30 in Brussels, Belgium, bringing together the developers of the open source creative application suite: GIMP, Krita, Inkscape, Scribus, Rawstudio, Blender, and a dozen other related projects, such as the Open Font Library and Open Clip Art Library. As is tradition, most of the projects gave update presentations, and both time and meeting space was set aside for teams to work and make plans.
But apart from that, one of the most interesting facets of this year's
LGM was the emphasis placed on professional graphics users in the program.
Artists and designers from every part of the globe were there, not just to
listen, but to present — fully 20 of the 51 sessions were given by
creative professionals (though some, naturally, are developers as well), in
addition to the BOF meetings and interactive workshops. The result is that
LGM helps narrow the gap that sometimes grows between project teams and end
users, a goal that other open source communities could emulate.
Open source in the real world
For example, Ana Carvalho talked about Porto, Portugal-based Plana Press, a low-volume publisher
specializing in art and independent comic books. Plana's first two books
were laid out in Photoshop, but the company has been transitioning to an
entirely open-source production pipeline ever since. Carvalho discussed
the steps involved in taking a book from hand-drawn artwork to final print
production, including those steps still not covered by free software, such
as imposition, the
process of arranging multiple pages together onto large format paper to
facilitate high-speed professional printing.
Markus Holland-Moritz also discussed book production in his talk, which
outlined the self-publishing of his photographic book about traveling
through New Zealand. Holland-Moritz's book is primarily images; in the
process of developing it he used Perl to custom-process several repetitive
tasks and produced useful patches to Scribus that have since been
integrated in the project's trunk. One is an image cache, which reduced
the sixteen-minute wait he initially experienced when opening the
2.6-gigabyte Scribus file down to 20 seconds. The other is per-image
compression settings; previously Scribus allowed document creators to
select a lossy or lossless image compression when producing PDF output, but
Holland-Moritz needed to specify different settings for his photography and
graphical images. The process also led him to develop a custom text markup
language based on TeX and an accompanying Scribus import filter.
Christopher Adams presented a publisher's perspective on the need for high-quality open fonts, such as those developed under the Open Font License. He first described common restrictions placed on commercially-produced fonts, even for publishers, such as the inability to embed some fonts in a PDF, and the inability to extend a font to cover special characters or accent marks needed for a particular project. He then took a tour through the open font landscape, showing off what he considered to be the highest quality open fonts, and showed the differences between them in practical terms — character set coverage, suitability for print versus screen display, the availability of different weights and widths in the same font for visual consistency, and so forth.
Professional publishing is always a big topic at LGM, but it is not the only source of feedback from design professionals. Several talks focused on using open source in the classroom, such as Lila Pagola's discussion of her experiences and occasional frustrations working open source software into her graphic design and photography curriculum for art students in Córdoba, Argentina. Despite the assumption on some people's part that Adobe has a stranglehold on art students' lab time, Pagola has successfully taught students with free software alongside proprietary tools.
Others presented talks detailing their use of open source graphics in
disparate fields and contacts. New Zealand's Helen Varley Jamieson
showcased interactive, multi-user performance art with UpStage, and led a live demonstration during the workshop hours. UpStage is a unique combination of shared whiteboard, avatar-based interaction, and live text-and-audio communication channel.
A bit closer to the typical open source developer, Novell's Jakub Steiner presented an in-depth look at the icon design process he uses for GNOME, SUSE Studio, and other projects, and how it has changed over the years, from the need to hand-produce individual sizes of thousands of raster icon files, to the more streamlined workflow available today using vector graphics. He also pointed out areas that still need work, such as the incomplete scriptability of Inkscape. Steiner and other designers generally build sets of related icons in a single Inkscape file (such as all of the folder-based icons for a desktop icon set); this allows them to define a single color or gradient and reuse it in every icon through cloning, which makes adjusting all of the icons at once possible. But to produce the final output, external scripts are necessary, opening up the Inkscape file, selecting a particular icon by its SVG ID, and saving it at a particular size. It is a vast improvement over a decade ago, but still has a ways to go.
Open source in the abstract
The talks were not limited just to professional reports "from the field," however. Several of the most engaging and challenging sessions were more abstract, and came from artists discussing their work and software practices in principle. Mirko Tobias Schaefer discussed the changing metaphors used in technology (from how we describe computers and networks in terms of physical machines to icon imagery), and how they both push and pull on society as a whole — an area of particular value to open source software as it grapples with how to incorporate more input from interface and interaction designers in the development process. Eric Schrijver also touched on this theme, observing that graphic design as a practice ignored the web for years, focusing instead on traditional print media, and the result was years of bad design on the web, and a culture of design-by-programmers that allows it to persist.
Two talks related the culture of open source to other creative
communities. Barry Threw discussed his work in the music arts world,
including his technical projects aimed at recapturing
audience-performer-composer interaction that was common in centuries past,
but was lost as music developed into a prepackaged, "read only" medium.
Threw's projects include the K-Bow, a Bluetooth-equipped
string bow that captures a wealth of live performance information from the
violin or cello — pressure, acceleration, twist, and more —
beyond recorded sound. The result is a richer record of the performance
event, which opens up more possibilities for the listener to study and
reproduce the technique, and for programmers to tweak and manipulate the
recording. The value of capturing this richer experience, which is more
than what is contained in
the final recording, has analogs for the visual artist as well, he said.
Artist Pete Ippel presented an overview of his recent work exploring the visual design patterns that arise naturally in the open source and open culture movements (such as through Etsy, Instructables, and Make), and how they relate to folk art traditions found in every society for thousands of years. Folk art, he said, is just art created "by the people," and reflects the community that creates in. In the same way, open source software is developed by the people, consequently the sense of community found in folk art through the centuries resonates with the open source movement today, and trends in programming are analogous to trends in folk design.
Several talks offered the open source community more than simple
feedback from the user base, but went so far as to present a challenge to
the community. Denis Jacquerye, widely known from his work with the DejaVu fonts, discussed font design and
features for African languages, encouraging the community to build more
such fonts. African languages, even those based on Latin scripts, have
distinct orthographies and few have adequate coverage in open fonts.
Jacquerye went over the design challenges, but also emphasized the
importance of free open fonts for education, freedom of the press, and
information access in Africa. He noted that African language support can
seem intimidating at first, given that there are more than 2000 languages
spoken on the continent, but observed that half of the population is
covered by just the top 25 of those languages, which makes it a much more
manageable goal for open source projects.
Designer Ginger Coons introduced the Open Colour Standard (with a "u," she emphasized to a round of applause) project, a new effort to standardize a color definition model not controlled by a corporate entity such as an ink manufacturer. The goal is to produce color definitions than can be easily translated to real-world physical output formulas just as easily as on-screen digital images, from printer inks to fabric dyes to any other format. The process is just starting, and looking for interested participants.
Susan Spencer put out a call for open source developers interested in working on fashion design and sewing software, which is currently completely unserved. Fashion design software is a niche dominated by expensive proprietary applications — she mentioned some that retailed in the $3000-$4000 per seat range, and even then came with a limited set of models that cannot be extended by the user. This closed and expensive software niche locks out many young and un-funded designers, in addition to limiting what those with creativity can do. She outlined the basic needs of fashion design software, from pattern-making to integration with fabric cutters, and listed several interesting possibilities that an open source programmer could tackle that the proprietary vendors will not. One example is extending a pattern to a different size — the process involves complex transformations along key seams, often in non-straightforward ways. The methods to perform such pattern resizing are centuries old, but they have never been implemented in software. Spencer's talk elicited enough of a response that a BOF session to discuss it further was added to the program.
The usual suspects
The artist and design-led talks were not the only dishes on the menu, of course. Representatives from the different projects also showcased new developments in their applications, as is tradition. Peter Sikking showed off early designs for a new interface model in the upcoming GEGL-based branch of GIMP. GEGL, the generic graphics library, is a graph-based image processing library that will become the new core of GIMP. Because GEGL represents all image editing as a connected series of operations ("nodes") on a graph, this will mean two important changes for the editor. First, it will make completely lossless editing possible; the existing .XCF file format will go away and be replaced by a format that simply stores the GEGL operations graph. Second, though, this new paradigm of image editing will require rethinking the user interface. Since all operations are undo-able, and because all operations are (in a sense) equal, Sikking is working on a new interface that represents them as a stack of individual operations that can be individually activated, deactivated, or hidden — much like raw photo editors use today.
Jasper van de Gronde presented a new drawing tool for Inkscape, diffusion curves. Diffusion curves are "free-form gradients" that let color emanate in smooth gradients outward from a spline, with user-controllable parameters. They permit artists to draw complex, painting-like images with very few curves and control points. As with GIMP's new features, though, the user interface is still under construction. Hin-Tak Leung spoke about color management and other new features in Ghostscript, Lukáš Tvrdý showed off Krita's new brush engines, and Peter Linnell gave a preview of the next release of Scribus.
The Open Font Library's (OFL) new site was launched at the beginning of the conference, showcasing new features such as Web Open Font Format (WOFF) previews, and OFL members Dave Crossland and Nicolas Spalinger presented talks on font design. Jon Phillips of Open Clip Art showed off the project's new site and the special framework written to support it, Aiki. Finally, the Blender Institute held an evening session that took audience members through the workflow involved in creating a 3-D animated film, from character design to modeling, rigging, animation, lighting, and final rendering. The team used real examples from its upcoming open movie project Sintel and the in-progress Blender 2.5 code base, marking the world debut of the footage.
Crossland also led a hands-on font design workshop centered around an
interactive game called "A, B, C" — one of several workshop sessions
spread out over the four days of the event. Some were centered around
projects planning for their next development cycle, others were more
tutorial-driven. One of the most important for the future of open graphics
development was the OpenRaster
session, led by Krita's Boudewijn Rempt. OpenRaster is cross-application
standard that several projects are collaborating on under the Freedesktop.org Create banner. The goal is to create a flexible raster image format that will be documented and well-supported by all of the tools. The need for such a format comes from the reality that no one application works in isolation in a creative workflow; with a common format, Krita, MyPaint, GIMP, and a host of other programs can all be used together depending on whichever has the right tool for the moment.
The far out
As always, LGM's program also featured several talks that debuted new and unusual applications or developments. Photographer Alexandre Prokoudine demonstrated Darktable, a new photographic workflow tool. Darktable incorporates image management, batch operations, and geotagging, and is plug-in driven, so it can be modified and extended to fit any photographer's process.
The most widely-celebrated session of the entire conference, though, was Tom Lechner's Laidout. Lechner is an independent cartoonist who has been self-publishing his own books for years, and is evidently a gifted programmer to boot. Laidout is a tool he developed entirely on his own to simplify the task of impositioning his books (as referenced above, a feature not yet found in any other open source application). Rather than simply allow repositioning of pages on a larger canvas, though, Lechner has extended the layout engine in a swath of new and surprising ways as he takes on new projects.
Laidout can imposition images on non-rectangular pages, including on Möbius strips and unfolded 3-D polyhedra. It can also arbitrarily
rotate and deform images, manipulate them with meshes, and can edit mesh
gradients (i.e., gradients defined across a 2-D grid of points that can be
individually moved and warped, rather than gradients defined along a
straight line) in place, arbitrarily subdividing them for further
refinement. Lechner performed a live demo of mapping a 360-degree
spherical panoramic photo onto a triangle-based polyhedron model, which he
then unwrapped into a flat, printable shape by selecting the triangular
faces at will. The applause from the audience lasted nearly a minute.
When asked during the subsequent Q&A what interface toolkit Laidout was
written in, Lechner casually replied, "oh, I wrote it myself."
Pushing conferences in a different direction
LGM has always placed more of an emphasis on connecting users and developers than other open source conferences, but this year the difference that emphasis made was more noticeable. It was not perfect; several artists and designers mentioned informally that they would liked to have had more direct discussions with the development teams about the future of the projects, but did not find the opportunity. Finding a way to do that, and to make it easier for users to get involved with the projects themselves is a possibility for next year, according to organizer Louis Desjardin.
But LGM is distinct for putting the users of the software behind the
podium to talk about what they do, how the projects help them, and where
the projects hinder them. Too many other, general open source conferences
draw a line between users and developers — they are viewed as
complementary sets, which ultimately can lead to the mistake of
underestimating the user set and treating it generically as
those-people-who-don't-understand-how-to-program. It would not appear, for
example, that any sessions will be given by users (i.e. those not
involved in the developing the software) at this year's
or Akademy conferences, even
though several of them are ostensibly about "connecting with users." Is it
any wonder, then, when open source projects often struggle with building user experiences? Perhaps all of the conferences could take a page from LGM's book and carve out time in the schedule to listen to what users are actually doing on a day-to-day basis with the software in question.
After all, open source is about creating the tools that allow people to build and do creative things. This year's LGM showcased how well that works, which ought to reinforce its value to all of the developers who were there, and the feedback ought to help ensure that the next round of development empowers that user base even more.
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