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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing: Open Source Graphic Design Apps

Throughout most of my 36-year career in graphic design, Apple Macintosh has been the gold standard for publication design. I have always been pleased with the software, from PageMaker to Quark to InDesign. But recent changes in pricing structure for Adobe applications such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign have potentially put these applications out of reach financially for a lot of people. They have gone from a one-time charge per application purchase (or for multiple applications in Creative Suite) to a subscription basis (per month/per year) of approximately $20 per month for one application or $50 per month for the entire design suite.

Subscription-Based Design Applications

I don’t want to disparage this shift, since it actually provides designers with a constant stream of up-to-the-minute software improvements. You can access any and all new software instantly (and download these software packages to your computer) within this subscription-based pricing model. For many designers, this is ideal.

Nevertheless, some designers don’t need all this functionality. Some produce an occasional newsletter or print book, and that’s it.

Also consider that a reasonable valuation for a software package is the prorated cost of the application over two years. That’s about average for many designers, who pay to upgrade their software on a two-year schedule due to improvements in application features.

Within this framework, you might want to multiply $50 for the suite or $20 for one application by 24 months (for a total of $1,200 and $480 respectively). If you’re doing a lot of design work and billing a lot of hours, this might be just a cost of doing business. After all, you get superb, ever-improving software for this price.

Alternatives to Creative Cloud

I have written about this new pricing model in prior blogs, including such options as purchasing used, older versions of the software that meet one’s needs but are not necessarily cutting edge (i.e., older versions bought on eBay). I have even suggested the option of buying only one Creative Cloud application (Adobe’s name for the new software distribution approach). After all, $480 a year for InDesign is cheaper than $1,200 a year for all Adobe design products. But which design application do you choose, and what do you do about the others you need?

What About Open Source?

My iMac recently died. Before my next big design project, a print book directory for a non-profit foundation, I must choose a replacement (or use my fiancee’s Mac Mini). Regardless, this has spurred my thinking about alternatives.

At the same time, I just bought a used Lenovo laptop running Ubuntu Linux, an open source operating system. Open source software is always being improved by software designers around the world. Not only is it always improving; it is also free. Based on my research, a used laptop running Linux is about $100 cheaper than a comparable Windows machine. Nonetheless, it’s not for everybody. I have been pleased by how speedy Ubuntu Linux is, how immediately accessible the functions I use have been (I don’t need to struggle to find things), and I think it’s cool to learn a new operating system. However, it does occasionally involve using some computer code (in its Terminal mode). Since I initially learned about computers in the 1980s with command-intensive operating systems such as CP/M and MS DOS running WordStar and Superalc, and since I started setting type on dedicated Compugraphic and Mergenthaler typesetting equipment, I kind of like entering computer code—now and then–when it speeds things up.

Granted—others, brought up using a GUI (graphic users interface)–may well feel very different.

That said, I thought I’d investigate open source options as I gradually decide which platform, operating system, and applications to use for future graphic design work.

Two Options for Images and Text: GIMP and Scribus

This is based on cursory research. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good starting point. It gives you some directions and options, but you need to match the capabilities to your needs. Free isn’t always free if the stress takes years off your life, or if you work for a graphic design studio that’s flush with cash.

Based on my reading, the best alternative to Photoshop is GIMP, and the best alternative to InDesign (or Quark, PageMaker, etc.) is Scribus. In both cases (particularly the latter), the best thing is that these programs are being continuously tweaked and improved based on feedback by actual users. Actual users. You can’t beat this. No profit motive. As the reseller who sold me the Lenovo laptop running Ubuntu Linux said, these IT professionals writing open source code do this for fun, for free, on weekends, while we’re out watching movies. God bless them.

A brief rundown on GIMP and Scribus would include the following: Both run on Linux and on other operating systems. GIMP is the most similar to Photoshop in terms of its comprehensive functions, everything from its brushes to its color management capabilities, selection options, and image enhancement capabilities. You can also process the same file format types as you can with Photoshop. Since GIMP is similar to, but not the same as, Photoshop, you might want to research GimPhoto, which is a version of GIMP that more closely resembles Photoshop.

I have not used this software. I have just started my research. However, it looks promising. It seems to be a real option for serious image manipulation in a professional design environment (as opposed to for doctoring a few images for uploading to Facebook).

Scribus seems to be a little less ready for prime time. It does not yet seem to match InDesign’s capabilities. The key word is “yet.” I think it may well get there. For now it seems better suited for smaller jobs like newsletters than for long print books. From reading the user forums, I have gleaned that font management (changing fonts within a design file) within Scribus seems to be less intuitive and harder to do than in InDesign.

Open Source developers traditionally listen to users. Therefore, I expect to see good things from Scribus in the not-too-distant future.

If I had to make a decision right now, I’d buy either a used (or older) version of InDesign on eBay and run it on my fiancee’s MacMini. Then I’d download GIMP and run it on Ubuntu Linux on my recently purchased, off-lease, reconditioned Lenovo laptop. In a year I might make a different decision.

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