Designers: GIMP is Not the Answer

Just as I did a while ago with Desktop Publishing programs, I’ve started a search for a low-priced or freeware alternative to Photoshop with which both Mac and Windows users can do effective graphic design work without having to pay an outrageous price. By my calculation, if you bought Photoshop and kept it up to date over the course of the last three years you would have paid well over $1000 not including the additional hundreds of dollars to get essential state of the art plugins. Not every graphic designer works for a huge advertising or prepress company and that kind of expense is something most of us would have to think twice about. Photoshop is a great program, but as I discovered when I went looking for cheap programs to replace to InDesign and Quark, there are viable alternatives available at a reasonable price. Sadly, after considerable testing, I have had to conclude that despite promising qualities, GIMP (downloadable from is not one of them.

GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation System, and it was originally designed to be part of the GNU package of free, opensource software applications to go with the GNU operating system. For wider dissemination it has also been made available for Windows and for any Unix operating system, including Linux and Mac OSX. That’s a very cool, techie kind of origin which gives one the feeling that you’re using a kind of insurgent software designed to challenge “The Man” who takes the form of Adobe in the DTP world. Plus it’s free and various people have hacked modifications for it, and it comes with a lot of plugins and the potential for considerable expansion.

That all sounds appealing, but the reality is quite a bit more frustrating. First off, just the installation process renders GIMP totally unacceptable for the average Mac or Windows user. Having done a lot of customer support, I know for a certainty that 80% of our customers will get too ticked off and frustrated trying to install GIMP to ever use it. The installation is reminiscent of installing applications on a Linux system. You don’t just click on an icon and answer a few questions, which has become the expectation of most end users. On the Mac you have to install the latest X11 Windows driver which has to be downloaded separately direct from Apple (downloadable from and is not regularly updated as part of the OS. Then you have to download one of several different versions of the program depending on which version of OSX you have and which processor you have. Then it’s very touchy about where you install the primary file so if you don’t do it right it may not work at all. Installation is similarly difficult for Windows.

Once you get the program installed and running there are a couple of essential and very basic things which it just will not do.

First, just opening a file is a nightmare. Unless your source graphic happens to be located on your desktop or in your user directory, good luck opening it from the GIMP menus. When I tried using it nothing I could do would get GIMP to recognize the existence of my external portable drive. The only way I was able to open a file up was to right-click on the file and then select GIMP as the program to open it in. That’s not so bad on a Windows computer, but for Mac users who may not even have right and left mouse buttons and don’t know the secret of conrol-click it may be nearly impossible.

Second, GIMP comes with fonts. That’s great, but it also can only access the fonts it comes with. It has no mechanism for accessing your installed system fonts. For those of us who work in the font business or anyone who just wants to use more than the most boring possible fonts, that’s a pretty major problem. What’s more, the fonts are in a unique format (.conf), so you can’t just open up the APP file and drop them in the (hidden 2 levels deep) font folder. Hell, most Mac users don’t even know that you CAN open the APP file up at all (again, it requires a right mouse click). To use your regular fonts, you have to download a separate application called Fontconfig (downloadable from, which allows you to put your fonts in a separate directlory so that GIMP can then access them.

At this point 97% of potential users have given up. But not me, by god. I’m not an uberhacker or anything, but I’ve been writing programs, scripts, applets or whatever since the days before computers could fit on your desktop. Hell, I wrote a MMORPG that ran on the Commodore 64. I can do anything. But it’s not 1982. I shouldn’t HAVE to do this kind of stuff just to use a graphics program. So I got GIMP running.

GIMP is nothing like Adobe Photoshop. The tool layout, some of the tool icons, the menus, the pallettes and how various things actually work is radically different. To give full credit, in some cases it’s considerably better, but most people trying to compete with a market dominating package like Photoshop will try to clone the look and feel. Zero effort to do that was applied with GIMP. Now, there is yet another separate program you can get which will make GIMP look and work more like Photoshop. It’s called GIMPshop (downloadable from, but it’s hardly worth the effort. It does make the menus more like Photoshop Menus and it changes the behavior of the mouse and adjusts the names of things to match what they’re called in Photoshop. But it’s not compatible with any version of OSX later than 10.4 and it’s also not compatible with the latest version of GIMP or X11. I had dig out my backup laptop running 10.3 just to see if GIMPshop worked and it’s even more of a pain in the ass to install than GIMP is and crashed 3 times before I got it working right. Then once it was working it wasn’t really all that much of an improvement over GIMP which I had already figured out enough to get over the initial unfamiliarity.

Now to be fair, GIMP does everything Photoshop does and does it very well. It’s considerably faster and uses less memory than Photoshop on a relatively slow machine. It also comes with a great selection of filters, though like any filters they take some getting used to. It’s a good thing it comes with lots of filters because (not surprisingly) unlike most other graphics programs it isn’t compatible with Photoshop plugins. I like the layout of the tools and the selection of tools. It also has very nice pop-up labels on all the tools that tell you exactly what they do, and you don’t have to flip the tools to find more tools the way you do in Photoshop CS+. The tools are also duplicated in the menus if you prefer that approach. The palette system looks different, but works as well as it does in Photoshop. Some of the palette designs are better than in Photoshop, particularly the color wheel, swatches and color sliders. It just takes some getting used to. Also unfamiliar is the mouse behavior. It requires a double click instead of a single click to access tools, which can be kind of disorienting, but you adjust. Similiarly, it has ‘sticky’ menus which many Mac users are not used to. One other thing I liked a lot is that you can right-click on the screen and bring up a hierarchical version of the menus. Very convenient, unless you’re a Mac user with only one button, of course.

So once I got it running, despite the wasted hours of my life, the program was pretty good. If I didn’t already own Photoshop I could probably use it with little dismay, but only because I have the experience to figure out how to get it to work and the patience to put up with some of the inconveniences. What I couldn’t handle was something I discovered towards the end of playing with it, the fact that it can’t use CMYK colors, which makes it almost completely useless for pre-press work. It also doesn’t offer a Pantone color chart which is another must-have for serious print design. No one is going to go through this much hassle for a program which is only good for doing web graphics or stuff you print on your inkjet.

In the end, GIMP just didn’t cut it. It’s got some nice features and a cool indy/techie anti-establishment vibe going for it, but for most users it’s just too much of a pain in the ass and too different from what they’re used to for them to mess with, even for free. By the time I was done working with it I was ready to pay $159 to upgrade my Photoshop to CS3.

Fear not, cheapskate designers, there are other options and I’ll keep looking.


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