The Libre Designer (020200727)

27th August 2021 at 11:59pm
Word Count: 5674

(or; why designer's don't f/los)

live on youtube 202007271900: <>

MICAGD Summer Camp; LIBRE GRAPHICS with Kristian Bjornard

20200724 Update: My plan to use the F/LOS video conferencing platform JitSi Meet is not quite working out, so we will be switcing to a zoom call!? And just a heads up incase it wasn't clear, this is less a "workshop" or "demo" and more of a lecture/walkthrough w/ Q&A and discussion.

A general outline for things I'll be trying to talk about and touch upon can be found on GitHub: <>. And I'll also be trying to maintain an up to date document as things transpire during our time together Monday evening on EtherPad; this will be a way other than just zoom chat that links can be shared and questions can be co-authored or expanded upon in real time: <>.

Optional Homework: If you are totally new to the ideas of Free/Libre and Open Source, here is a great quick intro as to "what is open source" <> . You could look into the Free Software Foundation's definition of free software: <>.

So, I look forward to seeing you all on Monday on Zoom [zoom link?]

Tired of giving over all your money, attention, and energy to our Neo-liberal capitalist oligarchs? While to get paid you still might have to design for them; you do not have to use the software and computers made by them! Come on a tour of wild world of Free/Libre and Open Source Software available for Graphic Designing. (Inkscape, ImageMagick, Nodebox, Blender, etc.). There will be time for Q&A.

Requirements: ~A Chromium (like Chrome) based browser; access to;~ Now on Zoom, but still, you need the desire to liberate culture.

July 27, 7–9pm

For the 20200727 MICA GD Summer Camp version I'll be live streaming on youtube & there will be a live, dynamic document/chat up on etherpad: <>

Twitch: <>

The realm of Free/Libre Open Source (F/LOS) offers deisgners not only a pragmatic approach reviving how sociocultural artifacts have historically been created, but also a critical approach that, through utilizing ideologically based software and tools (and having far more easy of access to software and tools) intentionally positions itself as antidote to status-quo capitalism. A designer will find more ways to make; less obstructions to their creative vision; and the ability to learn from and to give back to a community.

I am writing this as a sort of lecture/essay – but I will first be giving this as a series of live streams on Twitch (I hope); then as a "virtual workshop;" then perhaps as a presentation at a small DrupalCon...

Anyway, the goal here is to point out simple to complex opportunities for a designer to start to integrate the practice and ideology of open source into their practice.


My name is Kristian Bjornard. I teach a variety of Graphic Design classes at the Maryland Institute College of art – mainly open studios for the seniors where they work on their capstone design projects, and then some web and motion and interactivity related courses for sophmores and juniors, and the occasional elective dealin

Some Brief Background

I first got into Free/Libre Open Source back in 2006. My first real, intentional entry into this world was using Drupal, a then novel content management system, to build websites. It seemed too good to be true – tons of people all over the world collaborating together to make a family of modules for doing all kinds of complex web things! Here was this amazing thing and it was free to download and free to use for whatever and however I chose? At the time I could never do too much more than occasionally participate in discussions around theming... but! Woah!

I ended up druapaling for a while... and then when I started getting much more into thinking about how design might be more sustainable, I was thikning about vernacular buildings[How buildings learn by Stewart Brand] and then how open source software like drupal evolved over time and adapted much like vernacular biuldings... and bam! I thought, oh, maybe something about f/los was more sustainable? I was also thinking that something like a typeface was important to make more accessible to more people for the purposes of sustainablity – ... and again, Libre type accomplished this...

The last sort of other path that helped lead me to "Libre designing" was being a publication designer and having a lot of projects with little to no art budget. So, let's say you're told you have basically $0 extra dollars for stock photos or hiring your own photographer, what are you going to do? Well, its another space I found – public domain and creative commons licensed images out among the piles of the internet... We'll get directly into this soon, but I just wanted to mention that my actual deisgn practice, mitigating the constraints of low budget projects, aslo accidentally led me to the ideas in the presentation...

So I've dabbled off and on with libre fonts, OS tools like Drupal, and then the occasional creative commons and public domain licesnsed imagery, etc.

This really got to be part of my practice when I ran a class about "Open Source Design" in 2018? (foot note class? footnote AIGA conference? footnote essay about the class?)

(anything else????)

Now, onto the libre designing.

An Introduction

For this array of ideas, I'm first going to introduce you to F/LOS if you haven't really had much of an introduction to it in the past. Then I'll try to outline from simple to complex how a designer "liberates" their practice. At the end, and throughout, I'll point out reasons that perhaps this isn't more mainstream incase you're not already thinking that...

Some Content Warnings:

  • - I will be derogatory towards neoliberalism
  • - I will probably mention Marx, Communism, Henry George, Mutual Aid, Peter Kroptopkin, and other socialist, anarchist and libertarian thinkers
  • - I will probably bring up issues of classism, structural racism, and sexism

Hopefully you know what you're here for!

The foundations to the Free/Libre Open Source arena has several interesting connections to the greater domain of Graphic Design. As such, I continue to be surprised how little our discipline seems to know about and partake in this world – outside of web design.

I will talk too long about the foundations for F/LOS if I get into it, so I'll skip over some backstory for now – but! the start of free/libre open source is partially related to graphic deisgning.

There is a great anecdote about Donald Knuth and being so offended by the bad typesetting of his computer programming books that he decides to invent a typesetting/layout program and magical font to draw all other fonts; this becomes TeX and Metafont, super great ideas that you can still use today ... And then the origins of freesoftware and GNU are that Richard Stallman is so upset that Xerox won't share the firmware code for a printer that isn't working right, he flies into an ideological, libertarian rage, quits his job, and vows never to make or use non-free software...

If you want to investigate this all more; I highly recommend finding out more about Donald Knuth – he is just an amazing person – and Tex and MetaFont – or even trying to use TeX (MacTex, LaTex, ConTeXt or some other fork)... If you like HTML and CSS you'll probably like "designing" documents in TeX. > check out Overleaf <>. There are some cool old videos of him showing people how to use computers in the 80s...

You can also read all sorts of history and foundational information from, by, and about the Free Software foundation (<>) and GNU (<>)...

Oh, And then there is "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" by Eric Raymond, which does a good job outlining how Linus Torvalds created his world of distributed hackers to rapidly build and improve upon the Linux Kernel as it evolved... This is also a foundational text for how "Free/Libre" became "Open Source"... And can be useful for thinking about how or why "Open Source" is so pervasive in web design...

FYI: The history of intellectual property (at least in Europe/USA) is largely one of those in power trying to control things; not the less powerful trying being protected. (1556 establishment of the Stationers’ Company’s monopoly in England was largely intended to help limit the Protestant Reformation movement's power. By putting the entire printing industry in the control of this company, the government and church could prevent the dissemination of ideas. (from <>))

Some examples to get things framed correctly right away?

- What sorts of common technolgy? what kinds of more general examples can I give them? - 1974 & 1979 AIGA/USDOT Pictograms/Symbol Signs (<> & <> & <>) - The Idea of a RECIPE. - Any other tie ins with sustainability or anything else?

Libre Not Gratis / Free as in Freedom

Okay, so we'll be talkinga about Free, Libre, Open Source – let's make sure we define F/LOS!.

What is Libre Graphics?

When I say "Libre Graphics" I am linking to the Free/Libre part of Free/Libre Open Source.

(this is where Stallman goes!?) Printer anecdote? His ideas of "freedom" > FSF/GNU

When "free" software st arted it was about the freedom to do with software as you pleased.

[stallman golden rule slide?]

FSF 4 freedoms.

Free as in Freedom, not as in price! (Libre not Gratis) You can still charge money for F/LOS; the point is to not stop someone from doing what they want with a thing (like when you buy physical objects). The point is not to give everyting away and go broke and die destitute in the gutter. I'll try to point out as we go why this is useful.

So, what is the libre designer

I say "libre design" instead of "free design" for the same reason – we don't want people to think that this design shouldn't cost anything; that it should be free to have done or to use; but that it should be about increasing people's freedoms, increasing liberty; not locking someone into a software or design ecosystem. Not prohibiting someone from doing what they need to do or want to do with a design tool; with a design.

Basically I mean that the recipe for any design should be shared for anyone to use; and the software, tools, or equipment should be as shareable and attainable too (like you might still have to buy equipment; but ideally its "open" as well so that you can hack and customize and control physical and digital equipment the way you need to while executing the recipe the way you want as well).

I'm interested in this for a few reasons:

  • - from a sustainability angle, many of the status quos ideals and practices are not useful; endlessly upgrading computers and software; intentional obsolescence...
  • - If we are decentering, decolonzing, anti-racisting design; well then we can't use white supremacist computers, software, tools.
  • - Historically culture is created using processes F/LOS is often recreating
  • - If you are speculating other futures, and you want to get away from the "possible" and into the probable, preferrable, or impossible, well, agian, why use the regular, everyday tools?
  • - I am bothered by the hegemonic sameness of so much design, is part of that because we are all using the same computers and programs?

The libre designer is a utopian device; a character as in any story; to show you another way, to be emblematic of other ideals. The libre designer stands for design tools and outputs that help return cultural production

There's so much to talk about :)

A note on licenses

There are so many... we can dive into this more at the end if anyone cares; but in general there are truely free/libre licenses like GPL, CC share alikes, Apache; and then there are permissive license, MIT being the most used/known one. Basically, the libre licenses say that if you want to use this, great, but whatever you use it in also has to be open and shared in the same way. the permissive licenses say you can use this, and all you have to do is try to make it clear that you used this in your program or code somehwere; you _do not_ have to share your code the way I've shared mine... One is viral; one is isn't...

So! how to get started as a Libre Designer

We'll start from the most clear and concrete things and end with the big, abstract, blurry ways to liberate your designing.

Liberated Imagery! Tragedy of the commons

The easiest way to get started on this adventure is to change the photos, illustrations, icons, etc. that you might use in a project. This is easiest for several reasons:

  1. 1. You don't need to change OS or software – any "free" image works with any tools you are already using. Nothing to install; turn on; reconfigure...
  2. 2. You don't need to ask permission; you're probably already finding these things for projects and clients anyway...
  3. 3. You sometimes don't even have to look in new places; just change the way you search/look...
  4. 4. You also actually solve a bunch of potential copyright/contract issues by finding "free" imagery

Okay! so what does F/LOS mean to imageS?

So what we're looking for when we are looking for F/LOS imagery is imagery that is somehow licensed for anyone to do with it as they want. This often takes the form of "public domain" or "creative commons" or sometimes the "free art" or "libre art" license.

Add some things from Copy This book here? or at least reference it? or say if you want to learn a lot more about copyright and how these ideas fit togeter with contract law for traditioanl practice ou might like this book?

  • - Public Domain
  • - Creative Commons 0 (CC0)
  • - CC Share Alike (and its variants)
  • - GPL?
  • - Libre Art?
  • - MIT
  • - UnLicense
  • - Anything else? (what does undraw use?)

Good places to get started finding this stuff...

Libre Fonts

Once you have liberated your imagery and graphics, the next level is your fonts. Almost everything will work still with your existing hardware and software, but it is a magnitude harder to find, download and install some of the F/LOS fonts compared to just images...

There are some open source fonts already installed on the average computer; and adobe fonts brings in some of the google font library; so you can just turn a few on there to get started super easily


Google fonts is doing a lot of cool new stuff. They're hitting this variable font thing pretty hard, and part of that means that almost any newer typeface is being converted to a variable font. This also means that almost all the newer google fonts have the full 9 weights + italics, so getting a font from google fonts these days doesn't really mean its limited in glyphs, weights, quality, whatever


Eli Heuer?

I dig velvetyne, who are french, and then this italian foundry, (TK), and the League of Moveable Type...

A cool aspect of these fonts then is also you can not only get the fonts to use on your machine(s), share them with your clients and printers and friends and colleagues witout worry... you can also for the most part find and download the acutal source files used to to make th fonts. Does the F/LOS typeface you like not have a certain character or weight? well download the UFOs and edit it! Do you want to make a custom typeface for a client as part of their identity? find the thing closest to your vision from the F/LOS world and tweak it!

Quality of Fonts

The universe of F/LOS fonts can sometimes feel limited... and can sometimes feel less-than in terms of quality. I would say that in general, while you might not end up with as many typographic nicities; real small caps, different styles of numbers, etc. this isn't always the case. Many of these F/LOS fonts are designed to serve populations, users, audiences, etc. historically not served. SIL for example, an organization who has done a lot for Libre Fonts (<>) has many fonts with huge character sets so they could set their materials in as many languages as possible (they provide language tools to all manner of commnunites)...

Often over time F/LOS fonts evolve to have more features just like software, etc. Raleway for exmaple was launched w/ one thin weight by TLOMT (<>); but was forked and the incarnation that lives on google fonts has 9 weights, and italics, and even an extra display version, raleway dots. <> & <>

Font Management

Font management is both easy and terrible with F/LOS offerings and on Linux in general. As far as applications for font management go, there's not a lot, and the one good-ish one upkept by a designery person is no longer maintained... So you're stuck manually putting things in the right places. The good part of that is that, well, using MacOS depending on what you're useing you can just use whatever font manager you're already using... Some of the F/LOS tools however, they just don't know to look for fonts anywhere except the main system folder... This is hard to add/delete fonts from if you're a regular computer user... but in Linux, there is pretty much only the sytem repo for fonts, so thus the bias/seemingly annoying "feature" (or "bug" depending on your view)

Now for someting completely different

Programs!? How do you start switching your tools and programs and software!!??

Your images and your typefaces are now liberated. Not its time for all your software. This is the biggest leap; the largest jump; the hardest mental chasm to bridge so far. For somethings its a no brainer; for others its a nightmare. Let's try to navigate a small amount of this more complicated territory. Think of this as a partial; an incoplete map; of a terrain...

Now, today is a good day to try and find and use some of this stuff – there have never been so many easy to install and decent to use graphics tools. For the most part, most of this stuff now has mac/windows installers now – this was a big problem in the past; running a program in an emulator or virtual machine; having to download/install from the command line...

You could start with programs that only exist as F/LOS – things like Drawbot, OBS, Nodebox, Processing – there aren't adobe nor native mac programs that really do these generative design things, or are rad for video streaming/screen recording...

Once you start building up your library of F/LOS tools, to do cool things you wouldn't be able to do otherwise, you can graduate to starting to replace some of your proproietary software...

An incomplete list of all the libre graphics software you might want to try.

There are things like ImageMagick and GhostScript that are basically background applications – you can run them from the terminal and other programs actually rely on them to do key things. Imagemagick lets you manipulate images, pdfs, etc. from the command line... (here, let me turn this PDF into a folder of jpgs) Ghostscript is a terminal based PDF creating/editing tool!?

If you only remember one thing

The key to all of this is to properly mentally frame this for yourself. Try to think of everything I show you or talk about today not as direct replacements for your regular processes or tools; but as reasonable alternatives – they might do things differently; but you'll be able to end up at the same final result: well designed graphic objects...

File Formats

If you've gotten this far, you might start to think about file formats – how can i still share or fix things if I for some reason don't have access to what I need?? file formats are way more universal; standard in the F/LOS world.

For example, .SVG is a standard, open file format for web AND print. Illustrator can also read it. So can Sketch. So can Figma. SVG is really an XML document, so you can even read/edit SVGs with textedit or whatever coding IDE you like.

This is true across the F/LOS ecosystem. Usually, whatever file formats are used are open; or if not, then they try to be some sort of plaintext (XML or other sort of text doc) to try and make readability even without the right tool, possible... Scribus documents are also really just XMl files, look you can see more or less what's happening here in VSCode; and I can even edit the file here, save it, and when I reopen it in Scribus my document will have a new page. Here's what happens when you try to open an illustrator file in VSCode...

Time for an Operating System Update

So you think you want to try GNU/Linux?

If you have been able to ditch Adobe; if you see all this and say, hell yes, liberate me from my technocratic overlords; then you can probably try ditching Apple, Microsoft, Google, etc. You should give GNU/Linux a try.

And then besides figuring out what distro works for you there is the ecosystem of front ends too!

This starts to make way more sense even then designing software – the way your computer looks, works, etc. – shouldn't a designer weild some control over how a tool works? how their main "studio" is setup – how it acts, behaves, interfaces??? You can actually desing your interfaces; design your own icons; pick whatever typefaces you want to display wherever you want – It's way more of a design dream!

New (old) Machines

Most of the GNU/Linux OS world is meant to run on MANY kinds of computers; from tiny internet of things chipsets to big mainframes and everything in between. That means that its a lot easier to get a basic install of GNU/Linux running on whatever you have laying around than MacOS or Windows... You also have sizeable control over what GUI you use; os you can preserve resources for running software or rendering 4D graphics over giving all your finder windows dropshadows and animated effects.

An advantage of all this is that you might et more life out of an old machine; you might get more life out of an underpowered machine...

You should be able to fix your computer if it breaks; you should be able to customize your computers if you desire; increasingly this is getting impossible – it was already hard with Apples, but now most manufacturers are heading this route, especially for laptops. Using older or more liberated computer workstations means you have many more options for customization;

I mean if you want to be hardcore...

You can also look on they link directly to fully liberated computer sellers.

Time for (your) practice

So, you've changed image sources; you've changed fonts; you liberated your tools and your computer and OS... how to liberate your works?

As you start down this path you will find and see so many more opportunities... (like jitsi meet instead of zoom)

Now, your software, and maybe even your hardware, are liberated. You can use images, fonts, and programs that may be bent to your whims and will and flight of fancy. Great. How do you do something with them now that embraces all the same ideals as a process for producing work and future works?

How can you make your making liberated too?

How to apply F/LOS to designing?

Why Share more

- If we are open and share our designs, whatever, it is easier as a novice to learn how something is done; you can partake in freedom 1 – studying, etc. - Can we adapt to changes or different workflows more easily and quickly? - More collisions of ideas? - iterate design solutions instead of creating new ones all the time? - it's fun?

Version Control

To help share more; to make it clear

What else? (braithwaite OS design vid)

If designers participate this way what does it look like? Garth Braithwaite: <>

1. Share your process just be more open about what you are doing (if you are able!?). Share what you are going through, success and failures – maybe it is more important to share your failures frankly. Mention who inspired you or that you built off of. Be more transparent about who your mentors, inspirations, etc. were. This builds community; shows the interconnected nature of work and ideas.

2. Share your Source Files If you can, share your files. I mean it is even better if you could always write a tutorial or documentation; but just sharing your files with libre licensing allows others to learn from how you've made things by just opening them up and poking around.

3. Whenever possible use text-editable Code (XML, HTML, JS, Python, plaintext, MD, Whatever) It is the easiest thing to work with on any system with any tools one desires. It is also easiest to version control. AND if you are designing for the web and you try to design with HTML/CSS you can easily preview it on the real systems that you're designing for.

4. Collaborate. Design is frequently not a "hey lets get together and make some stuff" discipline. Its often about being a singular design visionary; a design hero; and this is partially the fault of design history...

5. Donate!? If you make something things that don't end up being needed for a project, can you just donate them to the public domain? or with a CC license that allows sharing and remixing?

6. Contribute Can you design for the community in some way? how can you offer design skills back to other open projects? if you like a libre font, can you make sure to contribute design work you've made with it as examples for the type designers? build a webpage for an open project that needs a website? mockup alternative interface ideas for a tool? share tempaltes for Scribus? or Inkscape? Just submit issues, or go through issues related to design stuff and then try to answer other people's questions?

Why don't designers F/LOS

  • - Won't get credit
  • - Pride
  • - Unreasonable Greed. I don't want to give this away cause it might make me money!
  • - don't want to be judged for how the sausage is made
  • - file formats
  • - tooling
  • - fear of "design by committee"
  • - lack of desire

It is not just that designers CAN open source; but the benefits are so good; we're foolish not to be more open. And there are some designers trying out these methods... but as an industry we're still just really tied to.

What's hard? What's Bad? What's not easy

In general; this stuff isn't easy. It's hard to just set out and do all of this – even the imagery and fonts stuff because there is expectation that designer's use certain type from certain places; you might be asked specifically to go to certian photographers or certain stock photo sites or be given aready unfree things to work with. Choosing to abandon adobe and apple... well, you probably can't do that if you have any sort of normal design job... ????


In general; the main thing keeping us from this is the desire of the status quo not to change. Neoliberalism works best when we all do what it wants. "free markets" not "free software".

The goal of this isn't actually full F/LOS adoption. I mean, my libre designer character I like to play, that's their goal; but in my own actual work, it isn't always possible to abandon everything every one else is using and doing. Clients will need you sometimes to make a book in InDesign; you might need to work in AfterEffects to work on your team... Instead of taking the extreme view, think of this really as a way to do more; to have more tools; to have more ways of doing things; to be able to make every more formal experiments; to better tie formal choices

How might this help you remove bias? what other kinds of interfaces might you now see and experience? What other kinds of interfaces and systems and opinions will you run into???

Designers are supposed to be designing fabulous interfaces. But! almost all of us use the same software on the same computers and so have an incredibly limited range of ideas for what makes an interface; for what makes a good interface; for what makes an accesible interfaces...

Think about this: the way desktop publising works on a computer, it was designed by a handful of people in the 80s, specifically to be done on a tiny mac at the know like 8 key people decided a direction and a bunch of semiotic symbols for how to do things, for what features and icons and whatever else exist in these places... How much has changed since then? how much the same are these programs and ecosystems? Can steve jobs, Warnock, and (Page maker dude)'s ideas and decisions they made leading up to 1984 still be the right ones in the present we find ourselves in? Maybe some of these other tools grasp that ???

There are tools here that don't exist on a mac or windows machine; that's rad!

Other Resources:


Sentences, Paragraphs and More on Sustainability, Open Source, Design, and how Everything is Connected in general.