Help me set up an Open Source Design Agency.
January 28, 2009 10:24 AM   Subscribe

Setting up an Open Source Design Studio. What would I need to look out for?

I am thinking of setting up a design agency / studio of 3-5 people that runs entirely on OS software: ubuntu, scribus, inkscape, gimp, etc...

We'll be doing graphic / web / product / CAD design and ideally want the entire office running off a server and be entirely paperless (other than client proofs and whatnot).

What do i need to know? What software am i missing? best way of receiving faxes, recording phone calls as MP3's, backing up data, etc... pros and cons, is there any bleeding obvious thing that I've missed?

Any ideas, thoughts and inspirations would be greatly appreciated.

posted by gonzo_ID to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Is the intent to make money?
posted by rr at 10:30 AM on January 28, 2009

Response by poster: yes, i think so...
posted by gonzo_ID at 10:31 AM on January 28, 2009

It would be helpful to know what level of knowledge you have with the things you mentioned. Are you looking for advice about setting up linux servers or mostly software recommendations?
posted by meta87 at 10:47 AM on January 28, 2009

Response by poster: bit of both really.... setting up of servers plus OS software useful for running a studio. not the actual graphic / design / CAD software... but the workflow management, document management, recording incoming calls and faxes, etc...

sorry i'm a bit vague. is only a thought at the moment. not fully formed.
posted by gonzo_ID at 10:55 AM on January 28, 2009

One situation you could run into if you ever need to hire a professional designer is that they tend to work almost exclusively Adobe products. And if you have to work with any external agency (printers etc.), you may find they expect documents to be in Adobe file formats.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 10:55 AM on January 28, 2009

is there any bleeding obvious thing that I've missed?

That this is totally quixotic cart-before-horsing?

It's hard enough to start a business without setting up additional arbitrary hurdles for yourself. The only business advantage you'd get from this is that you would save a few thousand bucks in software license fees; that's a drop in the bucket compared to the difficulties you'd have finding good employees just for a start.

Web software developers could generally get by ok in a pure open source environment -- provided you ruled out clients married to the microsoft ecosystem. Designers could not. Gimp is cute and all, but it's not a professional design tool.

If you want to start a business, start a business, but if you want to succeed don't do it with one hand tied behind your back for no good reason.
posted by ook at 11:18 AM on January 28, 2009

If you're thinking of printing any of this, you'll likely have a difficult time getting the results you want. Firstly, no printer is going to support the native files your OS software produces. Secondly, the output from OS software is usually less than 100% Postscript compliant, and if you can't be 100% sure of your product you shouldn't be trying to sell it.

In my capacity as a prepressman/printer, I've looked into Gimp and Inkscape. They're great ideas, and I wholeheartedly support their development, but I would never expect them to produce professional printed materials.
posted by lekvar at 11:47 AM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

How are you going to do proper colour management if you do print work? What if a client wants a bit of Flash? Thorough cross-platform web site testing? And have you actually tried using GIMP for high end work (or tried forcing a designer to use it)?

It'd be an interesting marketing gimmick for promoting the business, and I curse Adobe products as much as anyone, but in my experience the alternatives are limited. If you haven't already, draw up a detailed list of all the types of work you'd like to cover and investigate each aspect thoroughly, so you're fully aware of the problems and limitations you're facing.
posted by malevolent at 12:07 PM on January 28, 2009

There are limitations. I swore to never have Microsoft products on my computer but when a client wants a template designed in Word, a PowerPoint presentation formatted or a bit of flash then you have to do it. Of course, it all depends on what sort of work you're doing but it's hard to turn away clients if you need the work. I agree with the printing limitations (although a lot of printers take PDFs nowadays but you'll need Acrobat Pro) but even those examples I gave you are non-print.
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:15 PM on January 28, 2009

Best answer: Do you already have the people on board? And they're OK with using the software mentioned? Because if not, you're going to get a LOT of resistance from any good designer that's grown up with Adobe products. I started a design company a few years ago with a full OS infrastructure, but there's no way in hell I could ever get the designers to give up their Macs, much less leaving Photoshop entirely.

Infrastructure stuff:

Telecom: go with Asterisk and Linksys SPA-942 phones. Phone, fax, voicemail, call recording, etc. The phones use PoE; you can get a good 24-port PoE switch from Linksys for about $400 last I checked.

For VPN/firewall, with the size office you're talking about, a simple m0n0wall-based appliance works great.
posted by chundo at 1:41 PM on January 28, 2009

It seems like specifics might be the sort of thing gonzo_ID needs here - "they're not professional" is a somewhat vague and clich├ęd criticism of OS design tools. I'm not a designer myself, so perhaps I just don't have the perspective, but I use these tools all the time and I have yet to encounter the sorts of problems mentioned so forebodingly here.

malevolent, of all the color management and pre-press stuff Scribus can do, what are the specific sorts of things he would run into that it can't do? Bunglegirl, point taken if someone's asking for a Microsoft Word or PowerPoint file - those don't usually convert from the OS equivalents very well - but what in particular would you need to buy Acrobat for when every tool already supports PDF and postscript output quite well? Are you talking about creating PDF forms or something? I send PDF and postscript files to small print shops several times a year and I've never had any problems - not only do they print stuff out successfully but they open the files I send them in commercial tools and edit them without issues. I also produce documentation for my clients in Scribus or open source word processors (I use Abiword mostly) and send them as PDFs and I haven't heard complaints.

Anyways, it seems to me that's the kind of stuff he needs to know.

For full disclosure, I am a web applications engineer and I work with web designers all the time. My skepticism of the naysaying is coming from the fact that I've used OS design and desktop applications in my own small business almost exclusively for several years with few problems and also I frequently encounter web designers who do not seem all that proficient in using their commercial web design tools. I've worked with some real hotshot designers too, but their success appears to come from the fact that they've got the acumen and knowledge to pick up any tool and use it deftly; the commercial software itself seems like less of a factor.

That said, I would also say that there's no need to be religious about using OS software - use it for what it does well and when it's a stable and workable solution. In general, don't kill yourself and spend days piecing together an open source solution if there isn't a quick-to-download app with an established community - if you can drop a few hundred bucks and get a commercial application that does exactly what you need, do it.
posted by XMLicious at 3:32 PM on January 28, 2009

Oh, one other thing - SugarCRM is really the cat's meow if you end up with a large client list or a professional sales force to manage. My firm is too small to need it but I set up the OS edition for a couple of business associates of mine and it has been an absolute pleasure to work with having been thorougly bled dry by Salesforce in a past business life. (And *shudder* having had to work with Goldmine back in the 1900's.)
posted by XMLicious at 3:45 PM on January 28, 2009

XMLicious, any suggestion on CMS? At some point, the OP is going to need to do content control and management.
posted by jadepearl at 5:25 PM on January 28, 2009

It depends on the nature of the web site, but my guess would be that Drupal or something comparable would be appropriate for a business like that. Drupal in particular is pretty easy to hit the ground running with if you're somewhat familiar with PHP, and it has a large and very active community. I've heard good things about EzPublish too though I haven't had a chance to dig into it and if you're in Europe there may be more local and regional user groups available as it originates from a Norwegian firm.

Another consideration is that if you're going to be doing web design work and you have an idea of what your customer base might be, it would make sense to try to determine if a particular CMS is prevalent among them and build your own site with it to develop expertise.

Perhaps design people can comment on what's good for OS 3D modeling and design. My impression is that Blender is on top there right now but I've only got passing familiarity with that sort of stuff.
posted by XMLicious at 6:56 PM on January 28, 2009

Free software does CMYK now -- it's been doable with LaTeX (maybe something missing from your list btw -- does any proprietary software actually do typesetting better than that? I don't think so...) I know professional designers using GIMP and Inkscape -- Scribus admittedly maybe not so much, but it's geting there -- the objection that you can't use that software for professional work is just crotchety. I've been sending design work done entirely in GIMP and LaTeX to professional printers for 5 years now. Sure there have been some file exchange issues, but in my experience it's not like using proprietary software makes those go away. If anything it makes the incompatibilities more severe. I think you've got a good idea and should go with it. It's certainly the future.
posted by johnsu01 at 8:21 PM on January 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: gonzo_ID, I just noticed that you asked about document management up above. Alfresco is the big name in OS document management, from a company of the same name established a few years ago by one of the founders of Documentum among other luminaries from that sector. I haven't had any experience with it myself but from what I've read it was already a pretty well-developed app when it was initially released and by now it's had four years "in the wild" to mature.
posted by XMLicious at 9:23 PM on January 28, 2009

Since OS has nothing to do with the business of the company, this part of the "plan" is basically adding an artificial constraint on the business, making it more prone to failure than other businesses of its ilk.
posted by rr at 9:17 AM on February 2, 2009

Heh heh, yeah, but even if that's true isn't the difference going to be something like a 96% failure rate versus a 93% failure rate? My impression has been that small design companies pop up and disappear like mushrooms in a forest after a rain storm - that there's as much if not more churn than there is in starting restaurants.

Whether or not you're a competent chef with business savvy is going to be a much greater influence on the success of a restaurant than, say, choosing the right brand of kitchen equipment or going with new instead of used. (Or anything else in the restaurant - have you ever come across one of those Chinese restaurants that has menus from a completely different place when they start up, because they just bought out the assets of another restaurant that went out of money to save cash?)

Similarly, if someone is a skilled designer and has sales acumen and project management skills they're probably going to do well at a small design venture no matter what the splash screen says when they start up their illustrator tool or log into their web server. The former qualities, I would expect, are a much greater determinant of success than the tools. (And I would actually expect that for such an individual to have access to a CRM and a document management system et cetera from the get-go because it's open source, to enhance their sales and project management efforts, might well increase the likelihood of success.)
posted by XMLicious at 8:15 PM on February 3, 2009

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