November 12, 2019

Is FOSS Viable for Creative Professionals

I’m an advocate for the adoption of Free and Open-Source Software (“FOSS”) among creative professionals. I’ve written about why creatives should choose software with better licenses. I’ve spoken at software conferences about how FOSS projects can attract more creative professionals. My creative agency uses these alternatives to Adobe and Autodesk software in our work for Amazon, Skullcandy, and many other brands. But it turns out a lot of people think that what we’re doing disqualifies us from being professionals. When I get on the internet I often read some variation of the argument “FOSS is not viable for real creative professionals because it lacks [insert feature here].”

Open Source Software Has Problems

These internet people are right about one thing, the freedom-respecting, free-of-charge alternative to your favorite commercial tool is, at best, going to behave differently than what you’re used to. It is certainly going to have bugs and lack features. The interface may even harm your aesthetically sensitive eyes. Like any software, Free and Open-Source Software is not perfect. But does that make it nonviable for creative professionals?

That Favorite Feature of Yours is Overrated

If you remember the times when all effects in Photoshop were destructive or when GPU acceleration wasn’t a thing yet, then congratulations. You are old like me. If you remember those times, you probably also remember that you were making things, possibly amazing things, even without these later features and performance improvements. No matter how old you are, if you go back 10 years, 20 years, 100 years, you are going to find people selling things, telling stories, and expressing themselves in amazing ways. How? Because creativity comes from within people.

Creativity Thrives on Constraints

I consider myself a creative person, but when my wife asks me what we should have for dinner I immediately draw a blank. However, if she says “I have some chicken in the fridge, what can we make that’s quick” I immediately have ideas. Creatives don’t just look for rules to break because they are rebels, they need rules to break in order to function. A blank canvas is often more daunting than dozens of constraints. A missing feature is going to impose a constraint, but in almost all cases that is strictly a limitation of workflow, not an inhibitor of creativity. I’ve yet to meet a limitation that could not be remedied with FOSS. In many cases these limitations have inspired creative work that stands apart from those using common tools.

What About Efficiency?

There is no doubt that advances in software and tools bring about gains in productivity and efficiency. This matters in a professional environment where hourly billing and urgent deadlines are the norm. In some cases FOSS will be less efficient than commercial tools. However, in some cases it is strictly a matter of familiarity and workflows. In other cases, FOSS is more efficient and even opens up new workflows long before they exist in the commercial realm. For example, before Adobe was adding 3D rendering capabilities into their software, Blender was freely available to download and employ in any number of creative ways by graphic designers, artists, and others. Arguments of efficiency are often biased by our perspective and tainted by our natural aversion to change.

Embrace Your Creativity

Free and Open-Source Software is going to have problems and lack specific features people know and love–like all software. These missing features are rarely necessary to create amazing work and may even present opportunities for innovation. Even innovations in efficiency are possible when a whole new suite of tools are available freely. So, consider embracing the uncertainty of this new world as you would the uncertainty you face at the beginning of any new project. You may just find, in doing so, that those missing features matter a lot less than you thought and that FOSS is viable for a creative professional. You may also find that the dormant potential and absolute freedom these tools offer will take you to new creative heights. I have.

© Ryan Gorley 2019