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Open source designer Ian ‘Izo’ Cylkowski talks tools, design tips and talent

Earlier this week Akshat took some time out to chat with open source user and talented designer Ian ‘Izo’ Cylkowski about his work, his tools, and his thoughts on designing in open source.

izoIf the name sounds familiar then it should. Ian is an active designer within the open source community – for example, he created the logo for the semantic app launch tool ‘Synapse’ and has been working with the Novacut team on creating a brand identity for the project.

Izo’s work has also been featured here on OMG! Ubuntu! numerous times. This ranges from us drooling over his wonderfully rich Natty wallpaper and achingly beautiful ‘Ubuntu Tablet Designs,’ to us helping spread word of his work with Dan Rabbit on creating a compressive guide detailing the capabilities of the Murrine theme engine.

So, tell us something about yourself.

The name’s Ian Cylkowski aka “Izo”. I’m 28, British, love simplicity and typography and have a rad beard. I run designbyIZO which is the home of my blog and design portfolio. I’m also an avid fan of FOSS and the Ubuntu operating system as well.

heading-out-WH-20110423_EDITED

When and how did you become interested in FOSS and Ubuntu?

About four years ago, I think. A friend of mine introduced me to Ubuntu on another forum I was on (he was called “Cookieninja, I believe). I was also extremely interested in computers and tech anyway, and had been venting my frustrations at a Windows XP system I was running that was slowly dying a painful and ugly death. He pointed me to a Linux operating system called “Ubuntu” (at the time, version 6.06 “Dapper Drake” had just been released).

Initially, I was rather weary, as my only knowledge of Linux was that a terminal was often required (I’ve never been a coder/programmer, all that black space terrifies me). He assured me that it was a lot simpler.

So, with practically nothing to lose, I downloaded the ISO, burnt it, booted it, installed it, fell in love with it and have been, bar a few forays with other distros, a consistent user of Ubuntu ever since.

Do you entirely use free software for your all design work?

Almost. In a typical logo and identity design project, for example, a lot of the development of the logo, typography and other design elements are done entirely in Inkscape, which, in some ways, I find much better than Adobe’s Illustrator (though Illustrator is still an excellent piece of software).

I will also break out GIMP when some form of web-safe image editing is required and use Scribus to design my documents, identity guidelines, brief questionnaires and more. It’s only when I absolutely must have Pantone colour system requirements that I then need to switch to either Windows or a Mac to load up Photoshop/Illustrator.

What are your biggest hurdles that stop you from going free software full time?

Mostly, colour management and that means having the software for things like the Spyder monitor calibrator, better colour management in GIMP (although I understand GIMP is currently struggling in terms of development as fundamental aspects of it are being rebuilt); GIMP, as it is, is pretty poor for IRL print-ready conditions.

inkscape-logoInkscape is pretty good for handling CMYK colour models but lacks better PDF exporting options, and Scribus is even better, but we really need to see in-built support for the Pantone CMS and the easy exporting of multiple strains of PDF formats.

To be honest, I’d love to see the day when the likes of GIMP, Inkscape and Scribus are all unified and integrated into one great FOSS graphic design suite, that would be bodacious, but whether this will happen or not is another question. Plus, Scribus really needs to get ported to GTK.

What motivates you to contribute to FOSS projects?

FOSS is very, very important and it has dramatically changed how software is developed, distributed and used in the last decade alone. It signified a powerful change of power from the companies developing the software to developers and users.

Nowadays, anyone is free to download a Linux-based OS, install it, modify it, share it, distribute it and more. This means the pace of development in the FOSS is staggeringly quick. Someone can download a piece of software, check out its source code and submit patches and improvements in a matter of minutes. In the corporate world, such a pace of development is hindered by checks, policy checks, and the wait for many nods of approval from various management positions.

So it’s easy to see how FOSS has changed the game and I think it’s very important that people now have the extremely viable option of running software on their computer that they are then completely free to modify and distribute without fear of retribution and legal punishment for massive global conglomerates… because sometimes just a single person can create something incredible that many millions of people can enjoy. FOSS has become a global community endeavour, sharing, reciprocating, collaborating… it’s a beautiful thing to see.

And, in my mind, one of FOSS’ greatest success stories has been Ubuntu.

When you took up the task of designing a brand identity for Novacut, what expectations did you have?

Well, before one of my blog commentators alerted me to the fact that Novacut required a complete visual identity system, I honestly had never heard of the project; though I think that’s largely down to me not really following the development of video editors.

As I got in touch the project leader, Jason DeRose, and his team, I began to realise that these guys meant business and were extremely ambitious with their goals and desires for Novacut.

It’s been extremely refreshing to see such a coordinated drive and determination in the project. Plus, the guys in Novacut place a strong priority on quality design; this is something I don’t often see in the FOSS world. There are many hundreds and thousands of incredible FOSS apps, but I can’t honestly say a lot of them are beautiful to look at and use. So it was nice to see the Novacut guys wanting to change this.

It has, so far, been an enlightened experience working for them.

What would you like to tell to the designers that are new to Free Software world/don’t know about it?

Largely, be patient, exciting stuff is appearing over the horizon.

GIMP is in the process of being rebuilt with GEGL as the foundation, so that images edited in GIMP can finally move beyond the 8-bit world. Inkscape is getting better all the time. Scribus is immensely powerful.

If you need a graphic design tool for Linux, ask around, there will be someone out there who has been using awesome graphic design apps for Linux that you had no idea existed.

When you first switched to Ubuntu, what were your biggest frustrations with the tools available at that time? Do you think they have progressed a lot since then?

When I first started using Ubuntu, a couple of exciting things were happening, one of which was desktop compositing. Compiz was in heavy development, which forked into Beryl and then the two merged again as Compiz Fusion. Being able to manipulate windows and menus with flashy animations and incredible effects was terribly exciting, especially considering that some of the effects you could do with Compiz were just not possible with the likes of Mac OS X or Windows (see the Cube Desktop Switch effect as just one example).

Of course, compositing required the use of 3D-enabled hardware acceleration drivers for your graphics card and they were very much in their infancy. I remember installing, with success, an nVidia graphics driver on my Dapper installation, installing and enabling Compiz, falling in love all over again and then being driven to despair when a kernel upgrade totally broke Xorg and my display. That was frustrating. Enabling MP3 playback, at that time, was also rather tricky, especially considering that their appeared to be hundreds of different ways to do it.

So yeah, it wasn’t an easy ride back then but the changes since have been incredible. MP3 playback can be enabled during the installation by clicking on a checkbox. A default Ubuntu new install, now, will seek out your graphics hardware and recommend 3D-enabled drivers for your discretion. Installation of these is painless. So these two elements in the Linux world has dramatically improved. And now, of course, we’re seeing open-source 3D-enabled drivers for the likes of ATi and nVidia, which has enabled the new GNOME3 and Shell desktop environment, as well as KDE4.x, to enable compositing by default.

Is there someone in design in free software world that you admire?

There are a few. Jakub Steiner, who is an incredible icon designer for GNOME and SuSE, was instrumental in how GNOME Shell now looks, and also has mad insane skills in web development and 3D modelling and animations.

There’s also Sean Wilson aka “half-left” on DeviantART, who’s taken on theming GNOME 3 and the new GNOME Shell by the horns ever since pre-beta. Dude has some rad skills.

I also love the work of Harno, who’s only 18 and already has incredible Inkscape and icon design skills; he was also instrumental in the identity design of Novacut.

What do you want to tell our wannabe-designer readers?

Learn the basics, I can’t stress that enough.

Jumping onto a cracked copy of Photoshop and applying some blending options on some text doesn’t make you a designer. Start reading. Find some books from the great design masters of the past. Read about typography and learn to distinguish your titles from your stress lines. Read about grid systems and how they’re immensely important in the essential structuring of information and legibility. Read about design masters from the past. Read about design movements. Read about design history. Keep things simple. Look up Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles of Good Design.

Be not concerned with learning how to create specific design objects but instead come to understand the design process, which is much more important.

Ask questions. Question questions. Question answers. Learn what the design rules are, because there’s centuries of design experience that discovered awesome design rules before you. Then break the rules. As long as it looks good. Keep things simple. Keep. Things. Simple.

Get excited about colours. See how past design can be applied to new design in the realms of the web. Try to identity typefaces in every day life. Try to make the world, in your own way, nicer to look at and easier to use.

Which open source projects do you think have good design and an intuitive interface?

In no specific order, just off the top of my head: Google’s Chromium is an excellent redesign of the web browser interface, their implementation of closing tabs, as an example, is inspired; Banshee looks nice and the recent inclusion of offering little avatars for the artist list is definitely an improvement; Amarok, I think, is beautiful; the new Ubuntu One Control Panel is a vast improvement; Ubuntu’s new shell, Unity, is stunning as is GNOME’s new shell, GNOME Shell (for the record, I think both have their good and bad points, and I can see where one should borrow ideas from the other, I need to make that into a post soon); the KDE4.x desktop environment is also totally stunning. It’s an exciting time for design in the FOSS world.

Which projects you have contributed to?

I was once asked quite some time ago by Seif Lotfy of Zeitgeist to design a new logo for the Zeitgeist Project, which I did and then submitted it to the rest of the team. I think that one kind of dwindled away though, there didn’t appear to be any real need for a new logo. Mr. Lotfy also asked me to design the logo and icon for the Synapse smart launcher, which is now currently in use.

synapse_CONTEXTPORTFOLIO_v2_FINAL

Of course, there’s the on-going work I’m producing for Novacut, and in the near future I may be working on the new logo and identity design for the Luz Live Visual Studio app, which looks pretty neat.

I’ve also contributed various wallpapers to Ubuntu and have produced some rather popular GTK and PekWM (a lightweight window manager) themes in the past.

What are some tips for a successful migration from Photoshop/other proprietary tools to GIMP etc.?

Patience, largely. You’ll need to get used to a different interface and, consequently, a different workflow. You’ll have to get used to different filter names in GIMP, for example, as well as generally different names for tools that may have used lots in the Creative Suite.

At this point, the internet is your friend so ask around, do a little Googling, plus Ubuntu has a magnificent community, someone will be able to help you.

With thanks to Ian.