osp blog

The means of production

A lecture by Gijs de Heij and Eric Schrijver from Open Source Publishing, presented October 27^th^ 2014 at the KABK in The Hague during the Project Week ‘The Tribunal for Uncertain Objects’. The project week was structured around the research of Susan Schüpli. Other lectures that day were given by Jorinde Seijdel, Rosa Menkman and Jonas Staal.

We are Open Source Publishing, a caravan based in Brussels who only use Free and Open Source software to produce graphic design.

We started as an experiment enticed by the vibrant culture in the world of Free and Open Source software. We started to use this software as an alternative to the homogenous software landscape habitually used in graphic design.

Now we are not only using them but even producing them.

We prefer to call ourselves a kitchen.


We do print parties in which we produce printed matter and we cook at the same time. A recipe can not be copyrighted—it can only be kept secret (like the recipe for Coca Cola) or shared (like your grand-fathers apple pie). Not only can we use some else’s recipe, we can also adapt it to our own version, that we in turn can pass on.


We are in Brussels. We are 9—women and men from various backgrounds.

Own the means of

Who owns the means of production? This is a central question in Marxist theory, and we don’t pretend to be Marxist theorists but still this question is very relevant to us.

All the technological means we normally use as graphic designers to create our work, our production, are produced and often patented by private companies. From the printing presses to the inks (Pantone colours—a standard owned by a private company!) and of course the computer software and hardware.

As a designer at the KABK, you are taught to be a conscious designer. You know that a designer is not just someone who can make pretty pictures to sell objects, but that design can tackle political questions. Or that you can do both at the same time, as Roosje & Niels’ example of Toscani’s Benetton campaign illustrates.

So when we buy our computer and our computer software, we willingly give our money to these multi-billion dollar corporations. Why is that?

When you install mainstream software, like that made by Apple or Adobe, did you ever read one of these boxes where you click ‘I agree’? If you did you might have noticed that companies are very careful in their wording. They make it clear that you do not own the software, but rather, that license the software, which means that you buy the right to use the software in a certain way. The right to use the software is governed by a strict set of constraints. Among other constraints, these ‘End User License Agreements’ always forbid you to open up with the software, to tinker with the internals, to ‘reverse engineer’ it, to change it.

Adobe has traditionally been doing a good job at entertaining relations with educational institutions, offering them good deals on the software, making sure that new generations of designers depend on these tools. The software monoculture that has been created because of Adobe’s position as a monopolist is not a subject of discussion in design education.

So we have a situation where all designers across the world use the same tools made by the same small set of people, and they are not allowed to modify and change these tools as a traditional craftsman might have done.

We choose to use another type of tools: tools that are not privately owned but owned by the community. Free and Open Source Software is sometimes made by commercial companies, sometimes by amateurs, sometimes by professionals in their spare time, but in each case, those people who make the tools decide to license the software in such a way that it becomes part of the commons. These tools are ‘free’ in the sense of gratis, but more importantly we are allowed to open them up, access their source-code, we can see and understand how they work. What is maybe even more important: their license allows us to change the software, and redistribute the changed versions.


We get by without Adobe and MacOS.

Here you see a part of our tool universe.

Now, many of these tools might be seen as counterparts to existing proprietary software: Linux is as an operating system, like OS X; Inkscape is a vector drawing program, like Adobe Illustrator; LibreOffice is an Office Suite, like Microsoft Office; Scribus is a desktop publishing program, like Adobe Indesign & QuarkExpress; Fontforge is a font editor, like Fontlab and Gimp is a pixel-based image editor, like Adobe Photoshop.

The similarity between the Open Source tools and their more well known commercial counterparts varies. For instance, LibreOffice is a direct clone of Microsoft Office. In comparison, Inkscape feels quite different from Illustrator. Illustrator was built around the PostScript format, squarely based in print publishing, whereas Inkscape is built around the SVG format, which was conceived for the web and comes with its own approach to vector graphics.

We also use tools that have no real equivalent in the world of mainstream graphic design tools. Most of the time, these tools originate from worlds other than graphic design and therefore bring with them different approaches to visualisation.

Graphviz is a tool to produce network graphs developed by AT&T (the telephone company). ConTeXt is a document formatting tool descended from Latex & TeX—these are tools created by scientists and still mainly used for scientific publications. Image-magick an image editor that works by sending it series of instructions through the command line.


Here we see a poster, made with Inkscape, where the visual language is inspired by the kind of graphs that Graphviz generates. Parts of the poster were first generated with Graphviz.


This is the logo of the Balsamine theatre, with the old logo decomposed and pasted into the b—
which is finally in all b’s in the font we created for the Balsamine. The font, by the way, was based on an existing Japanese open source font—the fact that the accented letter is of a different size than the non-accented letters is because it was intended for vertical display. These kind of artefacts that are the result of a different visual culture, we try to work with them, rather then brushing them away—in the same way that we do not mind to be influenced by the nature of the tools. If we use a tool, we let the tool inform us.


We made a Balsamine fanzine in LibreOffice Calc, which is like Microsoft Excel—
you can surely imagine it is slightly gruelling to do lay-out in a spreadsheet.


This is the website of the Balsamine. On the web it is much more common to use open tools than it is in design for print: in this case, the underlying system is called PmWiki but other Open tools like Wordpress are really popular as well. They have thrived because of their open nature: because people are able to open these tools up and study the way they work, it becomes more easy to create add-ons, plugins and extensions. So such a tool can become the centre of its own little ecosystem.

So you see all tools bring a certain heritage, culture and ecosystem. For the 2014/2015 season of the Balsamine we wanted to align ourselves with the ecosystem of the web. Exactly because the internet is built on a ‘view-source’ logic, open standards like HTML, CSS and JavaScript.

So it brought us to this new challenge: let’s try HTML, as a tool for layout. Of course web designers use HTML for layout all the time. We wanted to take that tool and extend its reach, and design with it for print.

If you choose to work with HTML and CSS, it means a different model of layout than in most DTP software. You have a formatting model, called the ‘box model’, that is oriented towards reflowing. Another reason to work with HTML and CSS is the existing ecosystem. A tool like ConText is used by only a handful of users. Web design is booming. Even if designers using web technologies for print are a minority, these technologies themselves are in full development, and we can lift on some of the vitality of that ecosystem.



So we started to write the HTML and CSS together in Etherpad—
which is like the O.G. of collaborative text editors, and which is Open Source.


This is what it looks like.




We had to do quite some experimentation of course. We output the PDF simply with the browser: Ctrl+P.


CSS already offers quite some features for print. Unfortunately, some of these features are described in the CSS standard, but not yet implemented by web browsers. So whereas methods exist to specify crop marks and page numbers, they do not work yet. So for these features we had to find work-arounds. Also the browser generates PDFs in RGB. This is a problem in print, where either CMYK or spot colours are used. What we did, finally, is to make two pdfs, for two spot colours.


When we organised the Relearn Summer School (more on that later), we wanted to create a tool where the participants could create a report in real-time. Again we used the Etherpad, and hooked it up to create a wiki-like tool called Ethertoff. Participants take notes on the etherpad, these notes are displayed on a webpage, and the participants can also edit the stylesheet that determines the layout of the webpage. So writing notes and doing design can happen at the same time. All these webpages then, are printed by the browser and collated together to form a PDF for a print publication.


Here we see a spread from the book—What is funny that the challenge here wasn’t as much on a technological level, but on the level of the organisation of the process. The creation of a book is often sequentially ordered: the text is written, the text is edited, the lay-out is created, the proofs are checked, the designer finishes the lay-out before it goes to the printer. In this case, everything: writing, editing and designing—happened all the time. We could also print at any time.

So how to manage this process? That becomes the challenge.


Here you see a detail where we see the different people who participated in writing this text.

Who owns

A designer does not just work with technological tools: the main material is the visual culture a designer continuously appropriates and re-uses and invents upon.

A culture, as such, is by its very definition communally owned, but the artefacts that make up culture are private property. Copyright is a right, it is accorded by default, no need to claim it. You just have to make a ‘creative act’, and the product of your creative act is protected by copyright until 70 years after your death, automatically. It is only after that period, that the work is considered to become again a part of the commons: the public domain, free for everyone to use.


At the 71^st^ anniversary of the death of Eric Gill, OSP released three typefaces, all versions of his famous Gill Sans.

One is based on drawings of Gill—juridically, that is fine. Another on one is based on scans of lead. The last one is based on the digital Monotype version that everyone with a Mac can find on their computer.

Typefaces have traditionally been hard to protect under copyright, especially in American courts, because American judges figured that making a typeface is not a ‘creative act’. So typeface companies found a way around this: the form of the typeface might be hard to copyright, the code, the coordinates that makes up the digital typeface is copyrightable: it is considered a writing.

So what we did, is that we converted the font into bitmap, so that the coordinates information of the curves would get lost. Then we traced the outlines, so we would get another representation of (more or less) the same curves.

We wrote a letter to Monotype, explaining what we’ve done—their lawyer wrote us back, asking for our address and we never heard from them since.


We are Open Source Publishing so obviously we use Open Source software, but we also try to open up our own production. For us it is important to share generously, even if it not always easy to do so. How can we actually invite others to use the designs and tools we have created? How do we communicate our process?

Software comes with a manual to explain how it works. But in fact there is also a manual within the code, describing how it is structured and how it works. When you have access to the source code, as you do with Free and Open Source software, you can read all the ‘comments’: lines of code that are not meant for the machine to execute but for humans to read. And the files produced by your software, you can open them up as well.

Welcoming data


We prefer to use text-based data-formats. Normally data might be stored in arbitrary binary encodings that fit great in the binary way of thinking of a computer but are illegible to humans. In text-based formats your image, your glyph remains text so you can see and understand what is stored in the file. On the image you see a letter drawn, and its corresponding text in a UFO font. UFO is an open, text-based format developed by your teachers Erik van Blokland and Just van Rossum. Together with Tal Leming. This UFO font, you can start to modify it through a text-editor. Who needs design software?

Of course every format brings its own vocabulary; but as it remains text you can more easily study the data and its structures. It also allows for a more durable storage of your data. Rosa Menkman noticed this how a file of a three year old version of Pages might not work anymore. With a text-based formats, you would be able to open it up yourself.

Open Source is not subject to the same logic of programmed obsolescence as commercial software. Rosa also mentioned what a wonderful piece of software Quicktime Pro is. We agree. But it doesn’t run anymore on today’s computers, because the company that owns the program has another program that fills Quicktime’s niche (Quicktime X). So they have no commercial interest in keeping it alive. Just like the vector drawing software Freehand was killed off by Adobe once it acquired Macromedia—because it was competition to Adobe’s Illustrator product. You can run Freehand on your old Macintosh, but there is no version that works on current computers. Were it to be Open Source, the community could have adapted it to work on current computers.

There are certain Open Source softwares that date back to the 1970ies that are still in use on computers today.


To collaborate we use a tool called Git. Git is a software running on a server making sure every contributor to a project has the same version of a file. It also keeps track of the history of a file and this whole history is also present within every local copy. Every contributor owns a full copy of a project’s history.

Visual Culture is an interface into this archive. It allows anyone to explore our projects and their files, we imagine Visual Culture as a tool that would allow for a more rich collaboration between designers. Especially for shared graphical objects like typefaces we imagine am opportunity for a more shared, distributed form of production.


Relearn is a summer-school we’ve organised in the past two years. As a lot of OSP members are also teachers they try to spread the open-source culture also in traditional art academies. This doesn’t always work out as we’d like, because a school structure comes with so many roles and hierarchies already established. That is why we started our own initiative. Almost everybody who participated in Relearn was either a student or a teacher in their daily live, but here we come together as a group of people coming together who want to learn. And we find out the best way to learn.

The Free and Open Source software development is inspiring when it comes to education. Firstly, the exchange of knowledge happens mostly outside of traditional educational institutions and art institutions. There is an awful lot of self-organising involved. Secondly, the participants display a surprising agility in moving between roles. A mentor on one project can be an apprentice on another project.

For the organisation of Relearn we tried to keep the agility in mind. The event is organised in week long workshops, a.k.a. tracks each coming with their own themes and questions. These tracks are prepared by ‘consciences’ who set the frame and keep the exchange of knowledge flowing. Participants are also encouraged to jump track during the week.

In closing, we would like to come back to Jonas Staal’s lecture. He raised the question if we should be content with the role of the artist as the one who holds mirrors and raises questions. In Jonas’ view, artists can take an active role in facilitating social change.

In our case we don’t see ourselves as (just) questioning the culture of Free and Open Source—we are actually participants. Because we have an a-typical profile for typical Open Source developers, we do get confronted with real problems in this subculture: sexism and scientism, among other things. And we like to think, that in our way, we contribute to re-thinking this subculture. But we do not do so as questioning outsiders anymore—we have just as well become a part of this culture.

It is the question what happens when you get interested in a subculture you initially are not part of. Today’s artists and designers often position themselves as amateur-anthropologists. Fandom, religion, activism, all are alluring because their practitioners have a sense of conviction and purpose artists can no longer easily claim for themselves. So the artist comes into the community, makes work about it, maybe even collaborates with community members. Yet the artist’s reflex might be to keep a safe distance. To keep the position of the outsider. And then report back from the comfort of the gallery.

In Graham Greene’s ‘the Quiet American’, the protagonist, a journalist, tries to keep his distance from the political turmoil around him in Indochine. Yet he finds out he is in over his head already, a participant whether he wants it or not. ‘Sooner or later’, the local resistance leader tells him, ‘one has to take sides’.