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Learning to use tools that are always available

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I recently wrote a tutorial entitled GIMP Fundamentals for Web Developers, and I want to expand on one of my reasons for doing so.

People new to a discipline often start by asking which tools they are best learning first. In education, the student often doesn't get a choice, and from what I've seen in forum threads the choices made for them by their tutors or curricula are sometimes baffling.

In the wonderful world of computer-related careers there are some obvious answers to give: you want to be a graphic designer? Learn Photoshop. A web developer, you say? Learn Dreamweaver. These answers are fine. They're good, appropriate. They're what google and common sense tell you - learn to use the product which is the market leader. The bestseller.

Most advice stops there.

What I touched on in the GIMP tutorial was that you can't predict what job you will have next year. You can have a good guess at it, but everything changes, really. Technology, the world moves on.
While you need to know how to use the #1 app for any given job description, you would do well to learn a different one.

Take GIMP again. It would be simple for me to say that if you become proficient with Photoshop, you will be able to use GIMP as a drop-in replacement. You almost certainly won't, because of something that you almost never see mentioned in all those articles you've skimmed about software alternatives - GIMP is not a Photoshop clone. It's a different piece of software with different design choices and a different target audience. And it's not trying to be a clone. Shocking, I know. Likewise, Inkscape is not an Illustrator clone. Far from it.

What GIMP does have going for it is that unless you end up working for a company with hard-line rules about what software is installed on your machine, GIMP is available. Move to another company, a company who have paid for licenses for Corel Draw, say, instead of Photoshop and try convincing your new boss that she has to shell out for a license for your choice of software or you'll be struggling for the first couple of weeks. Imagine the same scenario where you click to install and 5 minutes later you're up and running.

This isn't a foolproof system, but I believe almost every area of software development, graphic design, etc - the things we're interested in here - has one or more packages which satisfy the following criteria:

1. Free (as in beer)
2. Multi-platform or platform independant

That's not a big list. I'm not even advocating freedom as in speech here (though that's something I would always aim for). The first point is to please your employer, and the second is obviously to allow you to continue your work on a Mac if you're a dedicated PC guy, or whatever. It should be easy for someone persuing a career in technology to become at least comfortable with using software which fits that description.

And then half the "must-have" skills on those job descriptions suddenly disappear.

3 Comments On This Entry

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Jstall 

13 November 2010 - 11:56 PM
Well I am not a graphic designer. Farrrrr from it I can't tell if yellow polka dots with a purple background looks good :online2long: . However I created my avatar from the D.I.C no pic avatar in G.I.M.P and it took a good hour so I very much approve of this article :) it is a great tool for you talented design types to leverage :)
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NickDMax 

15 November 2010 - 04:04 PM
I find that having a basic understanding of the available tools is always handy. I use GIMP/Inkscape a great deal simply because I don't warrant the expense of photoshop/illustrator. Sure there are many things that a well trained graphic designer can do in those "professional tools" that I can't do in GIMP -- but I argue that there is little that well trained graphic designer CAN'T do in the free tools that they could in the professional ones - it may not be as easy, but once you know what you are doing the playing field is drastically leveled.

I keep a "portable version" (portable as in "ini files vs registry" not "cross platform") of GIMP, InkScape, OpenOffice and a host of other tools on a little thumb drive just so that no matter where I may have to work -- all my tools are with me!
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Munawwar 

15 November 2010 - 11:51 PM
It's good to learn to use free tools, and I encourage it. It's sufficient for personal use, but, for a job, many graphic designing companies expect you to know many of the professional/paid tools, which is too expensive when the cost for each tool is added up :(.
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