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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 www.gimp.org) 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 www.gimp.com) 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 www.gimp.com), 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 www.gimpshop.com), 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.


15 Responses to “Designers: GIMP is Not the Answer”

  • Gimp does have a steeep learning curve but I now prefer it over photoshop. Especially when dealing with multiple layers. I had no problems at all with the install or with getting it to recognize my image files.

    I did get frustrated as hell at first trying to learn it and with the layout but after using it for so long I would not want to go back to photoshop.

  • DJH says:

    The problem with GIMP for Mac is that it’s an X11 app. X11 is not for the average user … its utility is best when, for example, you have some sort of legacy app you need for business reasons, and it won’t run any other way. X11 was intended to bridge the Mac OS with the rest of the Unix world, not as a full-bore environment you would run all your programs in. You might call it a “last-resort” tactic.

    The problem you had with fonts and finding drives on your system is a result of how X11 works. You’re running an X11 “handler” or black-box which is its own execution environment, and has its own method of browsing drives, supplying fonts, and providing other services to the application you’re trying to run. Try running an X11 multimedia app sometime … if you can. Chances are it won’t work at all.

    There are just too many of these open-source apps out there which are X11-only. One of the biggest of these, aside from GIMP, is OpenOffice, which even now is not a true Mac app. (Version 3 is, but it’s in early-beta and their own site says not to use it in a production environment — and given that version 3 has been in early-beta and “not for production” for many months, I have no confidence it will ever emerge from early-beta.) As far as I’m concerned, there’s no excuse any more for these apps to be “stuck” in the X11 world. I no longer will run one. Ever. For any reason. Not even at gunpoint.

    If an app claims to be “for the Mac” but is X11-only, I take that to mean “not a Mac app.” My advice to all Mac users … having myself run more than a few X11 apps … is to treat them as not-Mac-compatible from the start and go find something else.

  • JKLambert says:

    Dave et al,

    I hardly have time to do anything I want on the computer anymore, but I really appreciate your review of GIMP. I take advice from my “techie” friends and a couple of them have said GIMP is pretty good. HAH! I would NEVER be able to get it off the ground. Thanks again for reviewing graphics programs for folks like me – ignorant, but willing to learn. JKL

  • Tina Bird says:

    Hi Dave — I discovered I needed to do graphics work for myself when I decided to write a book/website about the oldest church in London, St. Bartholomew the Great. My husband is a graphic artist and he’d been patient (somewhat) about helping me out, but it rapidly became clear that I was going to have many more ideas than he had spare time. So I’ve only used GIMP (on Windows) for my “real” work, and I love it. When I started using it, I bought a copy of “GIMP For Beginners,” and I have so far been able to tackle nearly everything I’ve tried — where I’ve failed, it’s been the fault of the artist and not the software!

    It’s been a bit of a challenge learning how to translate terminology between Photoshop and GIMP so David and I can talk about how to do particular things, but that’s probably good.

    The only thing I tried to do that I ended up having to turn over to David was making the transparency for my page containing “Rahere Yesterday and To-Day”:


    but David’s success in that particular situation may be more due to the fact that his machine has twice as much memory as mine, rather than which software he is using 😉

    thanks — Tina Bird

  • Serr8d says:

    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.

    Well, you’re completely wrong about that. I’ve use the GIMP for nearly 2 years on my WIN PC, and it does access the fonts in Windows (that’s why I came here, looking for a font). What you wrote may be true for MACs, but for Windows, not so much.

    The GIMP is not supposed to act and look like Photoshop. That’s part of the aura about it.

    GIMP is extremely powerful, and now can use almost any Photoshop plugin.

    OT, but since you mentioned Commodore 64 (38911 Basic Bytes Free!) did you get your start with fonts by customizing those nifty sprites?

  • Dosboy says:

    I agree with Serr8d. I’ve never had any problem accessing system fonts with GIMP on Vista. Also, I’ve never had any issues with the installation process on Vista. Very smooth for both 2.4 and 2.6. I can’t speak to the Mac issue since I don’t use one.
    Honestly though, for someone like me who does the occasional graphic for web or basic print, GIMP is far superior to Photoshop, both from a cost and a usability perspective. Every time I load up Photoshop I feel like I’m an idiot because I just don’t know how to do anything. GIMP is much more intuitive for the graphically challenged.

  • John Kantor says:

    It’s not faster on a dual core Pentium running XP. It’s a lot slower.

  • dawsy says:

    I’m not sure what version of the GIMP you tried to install, or if you have read any of the myriad articles related to its use out there, but it doesn’t really appear to me that you have given the GIMP a fair go. An immediately apparent example is your complaint about fonts. It’s very easy to add fonts to the GIMP, by simply including them in your Fonts folder. Though I admit that this is not terribly obvious to the newcomer, a cursory Google search will quickly reveal this.

    Just because the GIMP isn’t a pop-out clone of Photoshop doesn’t make it unusable.

  • Dave says:

    Yes, obviously GIMP is not useless, but you have to understand that I’m writing for a relatively inexperienced audience many of whom are not computer experts by a long shot. They are going to find GIMP a lot harder to install and use effectively than is practical.

    On the whole I think I gave GIMP a pretty positive review on the basis of its features and capabilities. It holds up pretty well on that basis. However, while you as an experienced user, may not see the steep learning curve it offers for a novice, trust me that those challenges are very real.


  • Bèr says:

    Most of the points in the article ar eplain wrong, or entirely biased.
    Sure, Gimp is not for Joe Average. But nor is Photoshop.

    Everyone readin this: please refer to other resources too. At least you will then get a more honoust view of the matter.

    Look at it this way: Gimp is not Photoshop. If you are used to a shift-gear car, an automatci-shift will be a horror. And vice versa: one is not better then tho other, despite what people in both camps may say.
    For me, as 6+year user of Gimp, PS is a horror: I always use paint.net when forced to windows; it resembles gimp more closely. But a fact is: people whom I introduced in The Gimp, but new nothing of Photoshop, could use it without much trouble. Yet those who had PS wired into their system, found it a horror.

    That said: I advice people to have a look at Krita and/or Paint.net too: great photo-editing suites, and also free (as in freedom).

  • Trish says:

    I’ve used PSE and PSCS 3 for a while but recently had to switch to GIMP when I got a MAC and was unable to install those programs to it. I design wordart and not being able to reach my fonts in GIMP has been a pain. All of you who have been saying how easy it is to install fonts obviously aren’t using a MAC. When I first started designing I was using GIMP on a Dell with Windows and, yes, getting my fonts was easy, they just showed up. But its completely different when installing them to GIMP with a MAC.
    But other than the font issue, I find GIMP to be an easy program to work with and a suitable, not great, substitute for PSE/PS CS.

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  • Matthew says:

    As noted by others, most of the problems described here are with Mac installations. For Windows, most users will have little trouble at all. Just download from http://gimp-win.sourceforge.net/stable.html and you’re going.

    If you need CMYK support (in Windows at least), it can be done but is a bit of a hassle. There is a plugin to handle it. You run the filter and it converts the file into four layers and then the plugin has a save function. It is called Separate+ and is available here http://cue.yellowmagic.info/softwares/separate.html

  • FUD Buster says:

    Don’t listen to what your “techie” friends say about Gimp or Linux. Being ignorant is fixable, the problem with most people is they hold on to things they think are true, that just ain’t so! I switched to Debian on my PC over 5 years ago and haven’t looked back since. Linux and Gimp are a sheer joy to work with every day.

    A lot of these guys see Linux as a threat, and they should, because it is. Once people realize it’s not as scary as it’s made out to be, a lot of the wannabe tech guys will be out of a job, since no one will need them to fix broken Windows any more.

  • scrapfiend says:

    “Yes, obviously GIMP is not useless, but you have to understand that I’m writing for a relatively inexperienced audience many of whom are not computer experts by a long shot. They are going to find GIMP a lot harder to install and use effectively than is practical.”

    Ha! Nothing could be further from the truth! I’m totally inexperienced in photo editing and am definitely not a computer expert, but I had no trouble whatsoever installing GIMP. It does indeed recognise all my fonts, both old and new, and so far I have found tutorials for everything I’ve wanted to do. Your appraisal is most unfair.

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