After an inspirational few days at the Software Freedom Day in Mumbai and Hamara conference in Pune, I got into some very interesting discussions with some incredible people, which truly changed my view on open source software.

One such person was the inspiring Krishnakant Mane – an entrepreneur who has helped to develop many projects, runs his own GNUKhata, works at the Indian Institute for Technology, gives talks on objects around the world, and happens to be blind. You can watch his TEDx Talk here.

So as a self-confessed ‘Mac Daddy’, I’d like to offer a bit on my background and my views on how we can contribute further to Hamara and open source projects to help grow the communities. I have to admit I was a bit resistant at first, I was interested but not convinced. I am not from a developer or IT background, though I was comfortable enough doing some basic tinkering under the hood of my Mac. It wasn’t until I saw the whole movement around FOSS and Hamara in particular that I saw the bigger picture and how important it was to switch people onto a different, community way of thinking. So here we go:

Like a large percent of the UK population, I grew up using PCs from school; the model was, that if you use a computer, the only option in schools is a PC running Windows. It wasn’t until leaving school and furthering my interest in graphic design, I discovered the iMac.

Apple have been innovators in a lot of areas (though, they have stolen a lot of ideas too – Xerox are one of the main originators in question!), but one thing they really picked up on is packaging it for the average consumer. Typically in the early days, computers were created, owned and used by people who could build and develop them. The parts were sold separately and the user would build them themselves, tweaking and refining to suit their own purpose, often with just a bespoke wooden or plastic box to contain them. Steve Jobs had a passion for computers looking as aesthetically pleasing on the inside as they are on the inside. The engineer should open up the box and see neat rows of components, every joint perfectly sealed and all screws unobtrusive.

What this meant, is that complicated computers appeared to be easy. Appealing in not only physical appearance, but in the UX and UI. Basic OS components such as windows, icons and buttons of the GUI simplified a lot of common tasks and made users more comfortable using the machines. Not only that, but the products and and packaging are so desirable, people are prepared to pay a lot more for a machine that has the same spec as a cheaper machine.

So, after many years using Apple Mac and Adobe software, my design skills grew and I became obsessed with perfection and aesthetics, and thought to achieve this you needed the defacto proprietary software. Of course, they have invested millions of dollars not only into the development of the software, but also in the look and feel, and of course the marketing of it. In global markets, Adobe have dominated design software. Just like Hoover, Xerox and Google, it is now common for people to ‘Photoshop’ an image, which has become the term for modifying an image, regardless of the tool used. In a commercial environment, just as Word and Excel are what office workers use by default, Adobe is the same for designers.

When I was approached by Vik to work on the Hamara branding, I discovered more about open source software and became fascinated with the project. Having known Vik for a few years I have always admired not only his business acumen, but his ethical approach; which I believe are crucial traits in any community, but especially the open source community.

After some initial sketches for the logo with my primitive pen and paper, I instinctively turned to Adobe Illustrator to bring it to life. Why? Because it was what I knew. It was advanced. It was easy to use and it felt slick too. As a design tool, it needs to appeal to designers. Plus, I didn’t think there was anything else available (because Adobe bought out most of their rivals…). Not only that, but on most commercial projects, the clients often ask for the raw files, so they can pass them on or edit themselves. But fundamentally, it is the finished file type that is required (eps, svg, tiff, jpeg, pdf) rather than the native file (ai, psd). I was aware of tools such as GIMP from design blogs, as well as other design tools which weren’t free (such as the brilliant Sketch), but were a fraction of the cost of the Adobe tools.

I then looked into alternatives to Illustrator and InDesign, in the form of Inkscape and Scribus respectively. But sadly, they weren’t as advanced. Why was this? Mostly because they weren’t nearly so well known (without huge marketing budgets), the development came from much smaller communities who were contributing for free and whilst the basic tools themselves functioned well, the UI and UX was not great – the primary purpose was achieving graphic results, which it delivered. But as a designer, I was frustrated that a great tool had a poor UI, which caused great inner conflicts – I wanted to explore it further but struggled with the bevelled buttons and unnecessary clip-art icons. I realise that this is because those styles were en vogue a few years ago, but the generous people contributing to these projects don’t always have the time to keep up with trends and often come from a development background rather than a design background.

Another difficulty I faced was having to install other applications (X11) which required some code in Terminal – scary, if you’re not familiar with it! Yes – there is an argument that you should embrace getting your hands dirty with code, but not everyone wants to (I have since, and realised I had nothing to worry about). Just this weekend I was looking for some open source animation software to install on my son’s laptop, and found some great software, but sadly it relied on entering calculations, rather than a nice GUI to control the animated elements. Which to many people, is very off-putting. I have since been shown Blender, which looks very promising, and offers a lot more than just animation.

On the flip side, have recently been using a great tool called Sozi, which draws inspiration from the Flash-based (and expensive) Prezi software. Very simple – and produces the same results as Prezi. Yes, the UI could do with some work, but the balance was right. The first version I tried needed a lot of work to install it, but the beta version I am using now is packaged beautifully to install with a double click. Perfect!

Inspired by the Hamara project and a quote from the excellent Tim Ferris podcast:

‘Stop complaining about problems and start solving them’

– I wanted to contribute to the projects. Become part of the movement. There are some great tools out there, and with a bit of UI crafting could really make some waves.

So what are we doing about it? We are currently looking at a completely revamped UI for Hamara, and are hoping to start work soon on other projects. I am currently mapping the icons required, and will post another update with our list, which I hope to spread across the Open Source and design communities to pool the resource. And for Hamara itself we’d love to have any designers contributions – wallpapers, icons, app UI / graphics – as a community we can make this happen and help to improve the awareness and usability of open source technology, which I think is key to opening it up to a wider audience.