SVG or: How we learned to stop worrying and love document freedom


SVG was one of the brightest revelations when we switched to libre design tools; in fact, it’s one of the major reasons that made us switch from the Adobe toolchain we learned in college to a 100% F/LOSS workflow for design.

After years of working with closed formats, SVG seemed like a dream: it’s viewable and editable in a wide set of free and proprietary tools, it’s based on a familiar XML syntax, and can even be viewed on a modern web browser.

How the death of FreeHand shows why open formats matter

Back in 2001, when we started our communication design studies, Macromedia FreeHand was the most widely used vector graphics software. At the time, with one single iMac G3 in the classroom, we took turns, in pairs, to design our very first double page layout using FreeHand. That was the first assignment using this tool and the one that got into computer assisted design.

FreeHand was a faithful companion during our five years of studies. In 2005 Macromedia was bought by Adobe. By the time we graduated, in 2006, it became clear that the Freehand days would soon be over. Illustrator, Adobe’s main vector graphics software, was the only cool alternative. So if you wanted to continue to work in vector graphics, you knew at you were suposed to do: learn Illustrator, even if you did not like that tool.

Looking back on five years of work, sadly enclosed in FreeHand’s proprietary format, we knew that moving to another proprietary tool would mean going through the exact same process in a few years. No other software could open FH files and soon FreeHand would be incompatible with the most recent operating systems.

We didn’t want the situation to repeat itself, and we didn’t want our activity to be dependent on the whims of corporations that we don’t have any relationship with. That was when we searched and started to learn about Standard formats and Free Software. We found SVG and we knew it was the right format for our vector work. So we installed Inkscape and began our quest in designing with F/LOSS.

Reverse Engineers

The closed black boxes of proprietary formats shackle designers to specific tools, and forces them into certain workflows that depend on those tools. And because tools like FreeHand can quickly and unexpectedly reach their end of life, we end up with many lost, undocumented formats, like old scrolls written in undecipherable languages whose message we’ll probably never be able to read. However, in the same way old scrolls invite crafty cryptographers to devise ways to decypher them, there are crafty hackers tirelessly working to release these formats from their orphan state by reverse-engineering them.

One beautiful example of this is Valek Filippov‘s and Fridrich Strba‘s work in reverse-engineering the FreeHand file format for the LibreOffice project. The mostly invisible nature of this kind of work makes it even more important to draw attention to it; Valek and Fridrich have been busy with this endeavour for years, and we’re crossing our fingers waiting for the day when we can finally rescue our old work from its still-impenetrable black box.

Possibilities for an open format

And what can we do with an open format? So much! During the last few years, we’ve done many promising experiments with SVG. We tried our hand at SVG business card generators, using the sed tool to find and replace text based on CSV files; we’ve set up automated command-line vector workflows using svg2pdf for auto-export and pdftk for post-processing; and we’ve been sending SVG files to our clients that they can open directly in their browser, without the need for specialised tools or using clunky interchange formats like PDF.

All this is only possible because SVG is an open, documented, standard format. There are hardly any excuses to keep on using closed formats that limit our intentions and force us to use tools we might not want or even need. Open formats are empowering, and by each inch of progress the world makes in making open formats better and more widespread, the more we can all grow.

Read the rest of our Document Freedom Day series on SVG:

Celebrating Document Freedom Day, celebrating our favourite open standard

Working together, developing open standards

Open standards allow the unexpected

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Working together, developing open standards

A snippet of SVG code generated in Inkscape

A snippet of SVG code generated in Inkscape

Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG for short) is an XML-based format for vector graphics, as the name might imply. It’s an open standard developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, which you may know of already by its short form: the W3C. Because SVG is an open standard, its specification is public. Anyone can read the rules and guidelines that make up the SVG format. Anyone can make software that parses or produces SVG. And because the specification is public, that reading, parsing, programming and changing can go on for ever. File formats based on open standards never have to die. Your SVG could be immortal.

Let’s talk about the specification a little. For those not already rabidly interested in standards, the specification is the standard: it’s the document defining what a particular standard is and how it can be implemented. The specification makes everything else possible. The SVG specification has been under development since 1998. It grows and changes a bit, but stays stable. In its current form, SVG 1.1, it defines a language, and ultimately a format, with a diverse set of capabilities. It includes the features most of us know, like vector shapes, paths and text rendering; and features many may not know about, like animation and interactivity.

One of the joys of SVG is that it really is under active development, working up to a new major release of the specification. If you take a look at the archives of the SVG Working Group mailing list, you’ll see people discussing features and implementations. The contributors to those discussions aren’t just W3C employees (in fact, the majority of them aren’t). Many of them work for companies with an interest in SVG, or are just involved members of the public. It’s a diverse group of people helping to develop and troubleshoot the standard.

SVG embodies one of the great features of open standards development: it unites a whole collection of different players and stakeholders in a group effort to make something good. Companies that might otherwise spend their time, effort and labour building closed systems instead end up working together to build something everyone can use.


Read the rest of our Document Freedom Day series on SVG:

Celebrating Document Freedom Day, celebrating our favourite open standard
SVG or: How we learned to stop worrying and love document freedom
Open standards allow the unexpected

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Celebrating Document Freedom Day, celebrating our favourite open standard

This Wednesday, it’s Document Freedom Day, a worldwide day for recognizing and celebrating open standards. Open standards, put simply, are standards, file formats and codecs that are usable and implementable by everyone and anyone. In our work on Libre Graphics magazine, we use open standards every day, whether it’s in our print design work or in something as simple as an HTML web page.

For Document Freedom Day this year, we want to spend some time talking about one of our very favourite open standards: SVG, the Scalable Vector Graphics format. If you’ve ever picked up a copy of Libre Graphics, you’ve encountered an image originally produced as an SVG. For our illustration work, for posters, and for elements like our logo, we make heavy use of this versatile file format. We already showcase beautiful SVG images frequently in our “Best of” section. This week, we’re making a point of talking about the format itself.

We invite you to read along from now until Friday as we post a series of entries about our favourite open standard.

Read the rest of our Document Freedom Day series on SVG:

Working together, developing open standards
SVG or: How we learned to stop worrying and love document freedom
Open standards allow the unexpected

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Mini Debian Women Conference 2014


This weekend we’ll be participating in the MiniDeb Conference at Barcelona.

Two days of talks, discussions, the celebration of the Tenth anniversary of Debian Women and PGP Keysigning among other fun things.

Be sure to check the full schedule, register and contribute to the crowdsourcing campaign that will help support this wonderful event.

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Libre Graphics magazine at Libre Graphics Meeting

At the start of April, the 9th annual Libre Graphics meeting will take place in Leipzig, Germany. The program of talks and events is up now, and it looks fantastic. Here’s what we’ll be talking about:

Beating the drums: Why we made gender an issue
Since 2010, Libre Graphics magazine has been showcasing high quality art and design made with F/LOSS. We’ve also been publishing articles which offer critical perspectives on art and design practice in F/LOSS and Free Culture contexts. In winter 2014, we published an issue called “Gendering F/LOSS.” Building on years of discussion in diverse F/LOSS communities, we used the issue to look at the state of gender in F/LOSS art and design. In this presentation, we explain why we made gender an issue, literally.

Dear designer, have these cool tools
Getting designers to switch their tools is always a hard task. Convincing them to abandon their proprietary tools for F/LOSS ones is an even harder challenge. We know that the “You can’t do professional design without going the Adobe way” meme is untrue, and it is our personal itch to disprove it. For that, we’re cooking up a kit of tools and assets that can help anyone wanting to try Free Software tools for their design practice. The Libre Graphics magazine is one of the ways we have to prove that one can design and *print* with an F/LOSS based toolchain. What tactics can we resort to in order to get other designers out of their proprietary habits?

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Call for submissions: Libre Graphics Magazine 2.3


Since our first issue, back in 2010, Libre Graphics Magazine has paid close attention to fonts and type — after all, they are basic ingredients of any magazine, since the Sumerian clay tablets hit the streets of Uruk. In the last few years, we have witnessed a massive burst of creativity in the area of type design, with F/LOSS and libre fonts playing a major role (and we’re not just thinking of Lobster).

For the upcoming issue 2.3, together with guest-editor Manuel Schmalstieg (Greyscale Press), we will zoom in on the Free & Libre type design scene, talk with the people behind the fonts, and reflect on the way they change our everyday lives.
But let’s not forget, fonts are always bound to their real-world context — words, phrases, stories. We will take a bumpy ride through the unstable terrain of digital publishing, where open web standards (CSS, JS, EPUB) serve as a guiding light amongst the battling digital distribution giants.

Finally, having examined “Collaboration” back in issue 1.3, we will perform another reality-check, to see how distributed workflows and software production paradigms have permeated (and enriched) our writing and design practices.

Does your work fit into that raster?

We welcome your submissions for articles, showcases of your work, interviews and anything else you might suggest. Proposals for submissions (no need to send us the completed work right away) can be sent to The deadline for submissions is March 23, 2014.
Libre Graphics Magazine is published under a free license (Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike). All included submissions will also be published under CC-BY-SA (or a compatible license).

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Out now: Libre Graphics magazine issue 2.2, Gendering F/LOSS

We’re very pleased to announce the release of issue 2.2 of Libre Graphics magazine. This issue, built around the theme “Gendering F/LOSS,” engages with discussions around representation and gendered work in Free/Libre Open Source Software and Free Culture. We invite you to buy the print edition of the issue or download the PDF from We invite both potential readers and submittors to download, view, write, pull, branch and otherwise engage.

Why Gendering F/LOSS?

In the world of F/LOSS, and in the larger world of technology, debate rages over the under-representation of women and the frat house attitude occasionally adopted by developers. The conventional family lives of female tech executives are held up as positive examples of progress in the battle for gender equity. Conversely, pop-cultural representations of male developers are evolving, from socially awkward, pocket-protectored nerds to cosmopolitan geek chic. Both images mask the diversity of styles and gender presentations found in the world of F/LOSS and the larger tech ecology. Those images also mask important discussions about bigger issues: is it okay to construct such a strict dichotomy between “man” and “woman” as concepts; how much is our work still divided along traditional gender lines; is it actually enough to get more women involved in F/LOSS generally, or do we need to push for specific kinds of involvement; do we stop at women, or do we push for a more inclusive understanding of representation?

This issue looks at some of the thornier aspects of gender in F/LOSS art and design. In discussing gendered work, the push for greater and greater inclusion in our communities, and representations of gender in our artistic practices, among others, we hope to add and amplify voices in the discussion.

Gendering F/LOSS is the second issue in volume two of Libre Graphics magazine (ISSN 1925-1416). Libre Graphics magazine is a print publication devoted to showcasing and promoting work created with Free/Libre Open Source Software. We accept work about or including artistic practices which integrate Free, Libre and Open software, standards, culture, methods and licenses. To find out more about the purpose of Libre Graphics magazine, read our manifesto:

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Libre Graphics magazine on Hacker Public Radio


While we were at FOSDEM, we had a chat with Hacker Public Radio. Listen to the interview here:

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We are the 3%


Get the poster

Estimates of the number of women contributing to F/LOSS vary. 3% is a generous guess. We’d like to see more. Download the poster. Distribute it. Help spread the word that F/LOSS needs women.

Addendum (9/February/2014): The preliminary results of FLOSS Survey 2013 (available here) have recently been released. Women make up 11% of contributors to F/LOSS projects. Looks like the poster is due for a revision!

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We’re at FOSDEM



Come say hello and browse our latest issue, Gendering F/LOSS.

Our stand is at building K, group C, side by side with the Mozilla and the Open Street Map stands.

This year we have the full editorial team and columnist Antonio Roberts.

The issues are flying fast so come and grab yours!

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