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Open Source Design Tools for Human Rights Activists

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The world's premier human rights organizations often have entire communications teams with dedicated graphic designers to celebrate their work. But not every organization can afford to have a designer. Even those organizations that do have design gurus may decide, for strategic reasons, to keep tight control over their workflow so that they are not bombarded with too many requests. Not to worry! There are several open source design tools that allow anyone to create killer flyers, posters, icons, or campaign -- the only limit is your imagination. More importantly, learning basic design allows you to approach your human rights work more creatively and reach audiences with more diverse forms of storytelling.

Open Source programs are different from resources that allow you to use an account for free up to a certain amount, and they do not require you to upgrade or purchase more capacity. When downloading each of the programs below, I recommend that you download the stable version for your platform (this will be clearly marked on the Download site). Stable versions lack the bells and whistles of experimental versions of software, but they won't crash after you've just filled in your thousandth pixel with burnt umber. All of these programs and tools are supported by voluminous YouTube instructional videos and Wikis. Just run a search online.

The Big 3: GIMP, Inkscape, and Scribus

GIMP

GIMP is a complex photo editing program that is the closest corollary to Adobe Photoshop. Use GIMP to touch up photos with its staggering array of filters and tools. Once you get the hang of GIMP, you can branch out into using layers to mash up images.

Inkscape

Inkscape is a vector-based drawing program similar to Adobe Illustrator. Vector-based drawing uses mathematical formulas to create images. Unlike GIMP, which generally edits pixels, the resolution stays sharp at any size because all images are scalable according to a formula defined by paths and functions. Use Inkscape to create icons, logos, and cool shapes. Inkscape is probably the most difficult of these three programs to use, so be patient.

Scribus

Have you ever used Microsoft Word and fought it for 30 minutes as it kept pushing a line of text onto a separate page? This happens because Word attempts to predict where you want to place objects on the page based on its own internal layout engine. Scribus is a powerful desktop publishing platform that bears similarity to Adobe inDesign and enables you to precisely place objects on a page. This makes it very useful, but also frustrating for Word users because it will not do any of the heavy lifting for you. Use Scribus to produce infographics, flyers, posters, postcards, and even business cards.

W3C and SEO Searches

If you are composing blog entries for your organization on Wordpress or Drupal, you may occasionally need to know some basic HTML. This is where the World Wide Web Consortium comes in. This nonprofit offers a number of helpful tutorials that tell you the basics of tagging, aligning images, and creating tables. Once you've created your post, check out this short, insightful guide to search engine optimization (SEO) at Global Voices advocacy and also look at their other tools.

Creative Commons

Founded 10 years ago, Creative Commons has revolutionized the use of media on- and off-line by creating simple licenses for users to remix or reproduce work. As more and more services (such as Flickr) sign up, so too do the number of search options available for finding media on the Creative Commons site. While it's always great to support artists by paying for a high-quality, beautiful photo or graphic if your organization can afford it, go to Creative Commons to find images that you can use and modify. Good netiquette says that you should always credit the author if s/he demands it under the license.

Open Clip Art Library

cute whale by johnny_automatic - a cute cartoon whale from a U.S. patent drawing

Image by johnny_automatic

Sometimes you don't need an image or graphic, but a simple icon. Open Clip Art has thousands of free icons that you can use. These are available in both PNG format and SVG (scalable vector graphic) format, which is used by Inkscape. This means that you can just plug the icon into GIMP or use it on Inkscape to scale it to the appropriate size.

Colors

Sometimes you design a cool image but then can't come up with a good color scheme. As I was composing this piece, a colleague showed me a great tool called Color Hunter, which allows you to extract a palette from a photo that you upload. I don't know if Color Hunter is Open Source or privately owned, so I can't vouch for it.

Do you know of other open source tools?

I'd love to hear them.

Thanks to @lottydotty and @cantaloupealone for their expert design advice.

Deji Olukotun is the Ford Foundation Freedom to Write Fellow at PEN American Center. A human rights attorney and writer, his novel Nigerians in Space will be released in 2013 by Ricochet Books.