Today’s holy triumvirate for graphic design is InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop, all produced by graphics software veteran Adobe. And having all been originally developed for the Mac platform, these programs feel wonderfully native and comfortable to the OS X user.
But what are the options for a Mac user who’d rather go open-source? If you’d prefer to skip making the investment into CS, consider these options for free Mac software — graphic design isn’t dependent on any particular brand of software, only on your talent and skill.
Scribus: Free Page Layout Software
Page layout software has always been the most difficult type of program to find a free alternative for. InDesign or Quark is where graphic design comes together: copy, images, and vector art are all brought together in one final package, and prepared for print. Until recently, free alternatives haven’t been able to supply the fine controls required for high-end printing.
Scribus, however, promises to change that. It supports all major font types — Type 1, OpenType, and TrueType — and comes with PostScript level 3 installed. Other printing-friendly features of Scribus include its PDF support. Scribus will write print-ready PDF/X-3 files. There are plans in place to support the popular PDF/X-1a format and PDF/X4 and beyond in upcoming versions.
Scribus also supports printing separations (else it wouldn’t be able to write those PDF/X-3 files), working with spot color, ICC profiles, and in-program scripting with the Python scripting language.
Caveat: Scribus does not support the use of Pantone (PMS) colors, which can be a make-or-break issue for serious designers. However, if you never use PMS colors, this may not be a problem for you.
Inkscape: Free Vector Graphics Software
When it comes to drawing programs, Inkscape is top of the open-source heap. Back in the olden days when there was more than one competitor for professional vector art software, you had Illustrator fans and FreeHand fans. You also had Corel Draw fans, but we called them "clueless newbies." Illustrator could do things FreeHand could not, and vice versa, and never the twain shall meet.
Or so we thought…because Inkscape combines the feature sets of both Illustrator and FreeHand in a free, open-source package. In addition to all of the basic drawing and shape tools, Inkscape allows embedding of bitmap files and clones. You can do all types of transformations — rotating, scaling, etc. — as well as work using highly customizable layers.
Inkscape uses the W3C standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file format, and can save in several formats, such as EPS, JPG, TIFF, PNG, BMP, and PostScript. Add in its complete set of text tools, comprehensive color tools including various gradients, and complex path operations, and you've found yourself a full-featured vector art program to draw everything from simple graphics and dingbats to full-blown painterly artworks.
GIMP: Free Image Editing Software
If you’ve heard of any of these open source programs, GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is probably the one. Virtually duplicating Photoshop’s feature set, GIMP is a great choice for free image editing software for Macs.
Some features of GIMP include a customizable interface and easy image corrections that are built in, such as correcting for perspective distortions (like when you take a photo of a tall building) and barrel distortions (these make straight lines look curved).
GIMP has a complete set of retouching tools, including a clone stamp and healing brush. As for external bits like graphics pads special mice, GIMP supports those too, so you don’t have to give up pressure-sensitive retouching tools.
You can save in a full range of file formats, from the standard print formats of PSD and TIFF to web formats like JPG, GIF, and PNG. On top of that, you can save in the crappy Windows format BMP as well as a plethora of minor formats used for icons and the like, such as TGA, XWD, XPM, and PIX.
I know several people who swear by GIMP. Granted, they’re Linux people, but we can forgive them their little peccadilloes. It’s an impressive, free program that will do the trick for your raster image manipulation needs.
There are a few downsides to these pieces of free Mac software. Graphic design using them isn’t entirely a "native" OS X experience. All of these programs run great, but Inkscape and GIMP run on X11, so you need to have that or Xquartz installed. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry; the documentation explains exactly how to go about it. Additionally, the user interfaces of these programs aren’t designed from the ground up with Macs in mind, so the look and feel may be a little more clunky and Windows-like than you’re used to.
Image credits: All screenshots are PR kit material.