38:2 Open source software for web designers - Lee Matthew Jackson
38:2 Open source software for web designers - Lee Matthew Jackson

38:2 Open source software for web designers

Proprietary software can get expensive and even the biggest commercial players are not always the best. Over the last 22 years I’ve used open source software either due to my budget or my love for the open source community.

Lee Matthew Jackson
Lee Matthew Jackson

Proprietary software can get expensive and even the biggest commercial players are not always the best. Over the last 22 years I’ve used open source software either due to my budget or my love for the open source community.

Lee Matthew Jackson - Trailblazer FM ™


Lee Matthew Jackson

Trailblazer FM ™

In this episode I share all the open source software we use in our agency. You can realistically deliver your web services entirely with these free tools. We’ve always focused on cross platform solutions where at all possible in order to give us flexibility across devices and operating systems. Most of these tools will work on Windows, Mac and Linux.


Welcome to the Agency Trailblazer podcast, this is your host Lee and today is episode 300! Would you believe it? We have been rocking this show for over 300 episodes. If you count all of those cool tipisodes we did and those Christmas editions and those little ad hoc mini series that we were throw in now and again. But officially, this is episode number 300 and today I want to talk about open source software.

Before we continue, this episode is proudly sponsored by Cloudways. We Trust Cloudways with all of our resource intensive and mission-critical websites. You can find out more on trailblazer.fm/cloudways.

Many, many moons ago, back in 98 or maybe even earlier, I was exposed to the very first open source product that I’d ever experienced. The idea of open source, i.e. something free that I could look at the code of and edit and play around with was absolutely mind blowing and the fact that this product did what a proprietary software product that cost three or four times the price could do I was overwhelmed. I mean, I was a teenager back then. I had no money. So using an open source product was phenomenal and that’s something that has been a passion of mine ever since.

We are rocking 2021 right now and to this day, I still use many open source products in my business because I really believe in the open development space in us sharing code and skills in us building our businesses based on our shared resources.

If you just look at WordPress, for example, WordPress has grown over the last I think it’s 15 years now at least, has grown because of an amazing community, because of all of the people that have contributed to the source code. And it has built up into a real serious product that I believe powers about a third of the Internet, if not more. Don’t quote me. I just heard it some time. I’m just guessing. But it’s quite a lot. A lot of websites are powered by WordPress.

If you look at the Linux operating system that has gone from strength to strength, and if you’re looking at a website, you’re probably looking at it on a Linux server. Open source is powerful and I would love to share with you in this episode a whole range of tools that would allow you to run your web design agency well, for free.

I mean, obviously, you need to pay your staff. They’re not open source. You need to pay your rent and all of that stuff. But let’s take a look at what you could do as an agency, what products you could use to run your agency entirely on open source software. I will caveat that with there will be costs for at least one or two of these products because they are self hosted and you will need to pay for your hosting unless you have great Internet and you can set up your own server within your office, which is also absolutely viable.

This is quite a long list. We’re going to group this into graphics, then into programming, then into productivity/collaboration and then video and audio. And these are all of the key areas that we cover within our agency. We have an agency called Event Engine. We power event websites all around the world. We also do virtual events and we use all of these different software products to provide the services of web design, web build, web development, consultancy and project management. We also use these tools to collaborate internally with our team and to communicate with the consultants that work with us around the world. So all of these tools are tools that we believe in, are tried and tested and we love them.

So let’s get started with graphics. The first product is Pinta. This is a free and open source program for drawing and for image editing. And it does have things like layers. It has a very similar look and feel and layout to Adobe Photoshop. We found that this is quite lightweight and it’s a great cross platform product. This works on Windows, on Mac and on Linux and I’m a huge fan of Linux I and a lot of Linux Mint machines here at the office. So I’m able to edit and work with applications across my main Windows machine that I use for all of the streaming and audio recording, etc. but also across on the Linux machines as well.

Remember, you can head on over to episode number 300 on trailblazer.fm for all of the links to these products.

Our next product is a vector drawing application. So I guess this would be something similar to Adobe Illustrator. And in fact, you can open Adobe Illustrator files in this product. The product is called Inkscape and it is a titan of design. You can create incredible vector based designs. You can edit existing Adobe Illustrator files as well, which I find phenomenal. You can export your assets as SVG and all sorts of formats, and it has years and years and years of development behind it. This is a project that has been going on for probably as long as WordPress, if not longer. So a real good, solid product and again is cross platform; will work on Windows, will work on Linux and will. Also work in Mac OS.

If you are an InDesign user, then you might be looking at Scribus. Scribus is essentially desktop publishing and it does work in a very different manner to InDesign, but it still allows you the same output. You can layout magazines, you can layout books. There is a learning curve. I would warn you, it does things in a bit of a different way. So, for example, if you’re going to input text, you can’t necessarily edit the text in line, it pops up a box. So there’s a few things that are a little unusual. But once you get used to it, it’s an incredibly powerful desktop publishing application and you can export in all sorts of formats as well. So very, very useful for printing or for creating digital books.

The next product is GNU Image Manipulation Program, or GIMP for short, and this is a 25 year old product. So again, another well-loved product by the community. And this has always been considered to be the Photoshop replacement whilst we use Pinta for most of our work, because it’s very lightweight, easy to use as a simple to use interface, etc., when we need to go that next level and perhaps open some Adobe Photoshop files, edit them or create some more complex designs or do some more hardcore image editing, then we will actually lean on GIMP for that and GIMP can run all sorts of plugins.

There are countless plugins out there for GIMP and I believe some compatibility with some of the older Photoshop plugins as well. So it’s certainly something worth checking out. Again it is cross platform will work on pretty much all major distributions.

And the final product in graphics is Darktable. So if you are used to using Lightroom or whatever you’re using for editing raw photos, then Darktable is the product for you. This is a great way to organize your photos, but also a great way to run all of those relevant algorithms in raw mode and you can then import them into GIMP or vice versa. The two of the products work together really, really well. I must admit for myself, I don’t have to use Darktable so much but when we have had images taken, one of our colleagues uses Darktable and swears by it. So for us, in the graphics sense, we have absolutely no adobe fees what so ever.

Let’s move on to programming. Now the first is the IDE, how are you going to input your code, etc.. And we use a product called Geany and a few of the idea snob’s out there might have a little bit of a laugh about this because it might be considered more of a beginner or a basic IDE, but that’s why we love it. It is a ridiculously simple IDE. It works again across Mac Windows and in Linux. It’s got a whole plethora of plugins. It’s an older product, so it’s been around for a long time. It’s got a really good stable code base. There are great plugins for manipulating text, for adding in open close brackets, all sorts of things that you would expect to be able to do to be able to run macros and to be able to see your folders on the left hand side. Just a whole range of stuff. It’s also got its dark modes and all the cool stuff that you would kind of expect from a product. We do also use Sublime Text on a few of our machines.

However, I am trying to only focus on open source products that we use in this particular episode. So if there was ever a product that we would recommend where you were looking for open source, i.e. no fee and you can access that source code, then Geany is certainly something we would recommend. There is another editor as well that I would give an honorable mention to, which is Kate, go ahead and check that one out, maybe test them both. I’m not sure on whether Kate is cross compatible. I know that Geany certainly is, because I have Geany here on my Windows machine.

The next one is a GitHub client, which is called GitKraken. They do have some extra level so you can pay for access, etc. But GitKraken is a very nice interface, sorry, or GitHub client, but it also works with BitBucket and a whole load more and it works again across all platforms, Linux, Mac and Windows.

It’s a little bit more complex to use than, say, the very basic GitHub client that comes from GitHub, which is also cross compatible. So you might as well just use that. But for us, like I said, it gives us that integration with a whole lot of third parties and it gives us some really nice visuals so we can see what is going on, who’s doing what. And I really like the dark interface. I’m really into dark mode at the moment. So I’d certainly recommend take a look at GitKraken.

Our next product in programming will be FileZilla. This is FTP, I’m pretty sure everybody’s heard of it. Pretty sure everybody uses it. There is a pro version which I do buy and use because it integrates with things like Google Drives, Amazon, S3 and also because I just want to support the cause, because this is an incredible product that we, again, have used for countless years. As long as I’ve been developing, I’m pretty sure FileZilla has been around in some shape or form. It works with SFP, FTP and whatever TP’S there are out there. And in case you didn’t realize, TP stands for transfer protocol. Oh, Lee you are so clever today.

Let’s move on to productivity and collaboration. So this is the office administration, collaboration with other people, managements of projects, all of that all rolled into one big massive category. So no particular order let’s open up with a LibreOffice. If you are using Google Docs, you’re using Microsoft 365, you are using Microsoft Office, whatever. You could replace all of that with a LibreOffice. That will allow you to create documents, Excel spreadsheets, manage databases, create presentations and even draw because they do have a drawing application in there where you can do kind of a combination of desktop publishing and drawing and the output really is based on your skill, not necessarily based on the product. I do believe it could be very powerful. We just don’t use the drawing aspect of it. But are massive users of writer of Calc and of the presentation elements of their as their versions of Word of Excel and of PowerPoint.

For browsing and for checking of email, say through IMAP, etc. Then we’re big fans of Firefox. We do also use Chrome. I mean, in a Web agency, you kind of have to because you’ve got to test things across cross platform, etc. But if there was going to be a browser of choice, then it’s going to be Firefox combined with Thunderbird for email checking. We do a lot of our email online still through Gmail simply because it’s such a great and easy interface to use. But for when I want to manage certain things and do some calendaring as well locally, then I’m a big fan of Thunderbird.

To be honest, Thunderbird is getting old. There are probably other better products out there, but sometimes better the devil, you know, when you know how to use a product and you’ve used it for so long as we have with Thunderbird, I am just kind of stuck with it at the moment, but definitely open to some recommendations. But with regards to a browser, Firefox is ridiculously fast. There are some great applications out there or extensions, I should say, for Firefox ad pretty much everything that I do in Firefox integrates with the apps that I use, which is great, which actually leads very well onto Joplin.

Now, Joplin is a note taking app and it’s similar to OneNote. But with Joplin, you control it, you host it yourself. You can place it on your own cloud. You can place it on Dropbox. You could just run it locally. It doesn’t matter how you want to do that, but you can essentially synchronize your notes to an end point and then use multiple instances of Joplin to manage your notes. So for myself, I’ve got two Linux machines here. I’ve got a Windows machine here and I have an Android phone.

So all of those have the same Joplin install and I can synchronize my notes between everything. So if I think of something on my phone, I edit it, get synched up to the cloud and then I open up my PC and I can continue with my notes. It’s also got a web clipper, which is great. So if I see an article I want to read, it can sink down a simplified version of that article so I can simply read it at my leisure without all of the advertisements.

So definitely worth checking out a great competitor to say Evernote or OneNote. I’m aware that one note I think is free. There are quite a few good free applications out there. But if you want to support the open source world and perhaps if you want to actually look after your own data, etc. and have a bit more privacy and security, then you could look at Joplin, which does include note encryption if you really want to take your your privacy further. Especially if you’re, say, integrating it onto something like Dropbox and you’d want to encrypt those those data files that you’re thinking up.

The next item on my list is ProjectLibre. This is a phenomenal product which essentially knocks Microsoft Project out of the park. Personally, I think it’s an incredible product. We’ve used it for many years for two core reasons. Number one, obviously, project management so we can manage our resources and our assets and we know who’s in and when and who can do what and when and how long things are going to take. But we also use it for the Gantt charts because that allows us to show to our client what’s going to happen. We can essentially visualize with them all of the relevant milestones, the timelines, and we use it for both proposals and for live projects so we can keep our clients updated.

Yes, there are online tools to do all of this, but we still will fall back on ProjectLibre for many projects because it’s quick and easy to use. We can synchronize the file on our NAS Drive, which is also open source, by the way.

So we’ve got everything internally anyway, and we can collect. Right on those documents, and because we only have a couple of main project managers who are accessing these files and then exporting and printing things out, it’s a very useful product for us to have. We do have admittedly some duplication because then we manage stuff on Basecamp so that people can see what’s going on, on base camp, kind of on a public facing. But for an internal project management system is a phenomenally powerful and I do recommend check the show notes. We will link to an old episode about project management, where we had Dan on the show just sharing some staples of managing projects.

The next one, if you want to replace Zoom, is Jitsi-meet. And they do have a free online service, which is a bit hit or miss because you’re using their service. But if you want to host your own, then you could grab yourself a server, say, over at Vulture or Linode and set up your own Jitsi-meet server and for a few dollars a month you’ll be using an open source peer-to-peer video network and you can have conversations with your team.

You can use it also for online events, which is something we did last year for Agency Transformation Live. We had a huge lobby with all sorts of people hanging out together, having conversations, and we also had multiple tables, all powered by a completely free and open source video conferencing product. So be sure to check out Jitsi-meet.

Now, if you are married to the cloud, then you can run your own cloud because Nextcloud is an incredible open source project. They earlier this year launched or kind of rebranded a little bit to Nextcloud Hub. And what they have here is essentially Google Suite or Google workplace, whatever they call it. Now, it includes your drive. You can upload your files to the driver and they have a synchronization product. Again, we’re still going. All of these so far have been cross compatible, just like, you know, so Linux, Mac OS and so on with next cloud. They also have a synchronization tool for Linux, for Mac, for Windows. So you’ve got your Dropbox element. But they also have an email client built in. They’ve got a calendar built in and they have integration with open office.

So is the open office or? Well, they’ve got integration with an open source, online document editing and collaboration tool. I’ve forgotten the name so you can do your spreadsheets, you can do your documents and you can do your presentations. And they save all of that in the open document format, which means it will all work with LibreOffice locally as well. So you can synchronize all of your data to your own cloud that you’ve set up through Nextcloud.

So that means you’ve got an offsite backup and you can also operate on multiple machines. You can operate online using the editors on there, just like you can with Google Drive. And you can also open the very same documents locally on your synchronized copy and edit those via LibreOffice. So essentially you’ve got the full works, you’ve got the email client in there. There’s even messaging built in there if you add all of those different add ons. So there are a whole range of incredible add ons and again, for the cost of a small cloud server with a bit of encryption, a bit of security, you could be running your own version of Google Suite. But it’s all entirely open source, all entirely under your control.

I will caveat this with we do use this internally. We love playing around with this. We do not use it for production stuff yet because we are still working out how this would fit into our workflow and if and when it might replace something like Google Workplace. For us right now, it’s worth just spending the money on Google. It’s a tried and tested product. We’re not happy about staying there forever, mainly because of, you know, Google owns the Internet and how can we do de-google our lives as best as we can.

But at the same time, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. So we’re continuing with a hybrid of Nextcloud, which allows us to integrate some of our content, like our Joplin, we synchronize our Joplin accounts, etc. to Nextcloud and a whole load of other internal assets that we work with. But then a whole load of client facing stuff that we work on we actually use Google Drive for now, but we are using it less and less and leaning on the Nextcloud more. So watch this space? We’ll let you know a little further.

If you are into privacy, then take a look at Signal that will allow you to do WhatsApp style messaging fully encrypted. And they don’t spy on you and they’re not owned by Facebook and their engine is an open source product. It works very similar to WhatsApp. So it can be installed on multiple phones, but it can also be installed again cross platform and you can look at the source code because this is open source. So be sure to check out signal. Remember, all of these links are in the show notes trailblazer.fm, go to episode number 300.

All right, last one of productivity and collaboration is a product called Share X, and I’m afraid this is only a Windows product, however screenshotting etc. is pretty much inbuilt into Mac and into most Linux distributions, or there are some very well known screenshot tools for both said products. For us, we use the defaults in Linux meant and again the defaults inside of Mac OS. So on the Windows machines we use Share X. This is an open source screenshot/screen recording tool.

It includes integration’s to multiple destinations. So you could integrate this with, say, Google Drive or like we do, we integrate it with our Nextcloud, which means we can take a video recording or a screenshot. We can edit and annotate that screenshot, for example, and we can upload that to our Nextcloud drive and send out an external or an internal link to share what we have captured or recorded. Very, very powerful. I guess this is an open source version of cloud app or whatever other third party cloud screenshot tools that there are out there. But certainly something we love to use because it’s open source, because it’s geeky, because it’s nerdy and it’s super good fun. And it’s got a really, really nice interface.

Right, you’ll be happy to know that we’ve shared an awful lot of shiny new objects with you, of which I’m sure you’re going to go and install on your machines. We have four products left and we are hitting the video and audio category and the next product you are listening to me on, which is Audacity. We have used this for every single episode of this podcast ever. Audacity has been around for many, many years. It is an open source version, I guess, of Adobe Audition with countless plug ins, both premium and free, allowing you to edit the quality of your audio to mix things together to create special effects.

So if you’re into podcasting or if you’re into video editing and you want to edit your audio and get that studio quality, then Audacity is the product for you. If you are dealing with video and editing video or Audacity works really well with Kdenlive. This again is another cross platform open source project it’s been around for many, many, many years and I guess that would compete with Adobe Premiere and is an incredibly powerful product, allows you to create HD and 4K videos.

You can splice everything together, you can do your effects, you can do your Chroma keys, you can do all sorts of incredible output with a product such as Kdenlive. Now, there are other open source products out there for video editing, but the one that we personally use internally, is it personally corporately use, I guess is the correct word. Is Kdenlive, that’s the one that has got the user interface that we are most used to. Having moved from Adobe products to open source based products, it’s got that same workflow. So it’s something that we’re used to using. And I’m sure there are others. People might be saying that Davinci resolve or the products like that might be perceived as the better option. But for us, Kdenlive is certainly worth checking out.

Now we are coming into land. These are kind of these last two are kind of one and the same. I’m not a fan of VLC we’ve used it many times in the past. We’ve kind of found it a little bit buggy cross platform. VLC is an open source video and audio player. It’s great. It’s been around for donkey’s years, but we have found it a little buggy, especially when it comes to cross platform. Or we found things like artifacting when we’re doing playback.

So we’ve shifted over to a product called MPV, which works again, cross platform. It can work directly from terminal. So we can play videos. We can even stream videos as well online from, say, Vimeo or YouTube or audio from, say, SoundCloud, etc. or via terminal, which is phenomenal. And then on top of that, we add a visual layer. So in Linux, for example, I might use a product called Celluloid, which is a visual GUI that lays over the top of MPV and in Windows I use SM player, which again is that nice visual layer over the top of MPV and it plays pretty much any format that is out there, both video and audio.

And that gives us the final product, which is Handbrake. If you need to convert videos in any format, Handbrake is definitely the way to go. We’ve recorded for K video, which we need to compress down into Web quality, etc. It will handle anything that we can throw at it. We drag in our source file, we it where we want it to output. We tell it how we want it to output and then it does the work and renders that for us as an output file that we can then use inside of Kdenlive for video editing or shove straight out there on the Internet.

You’ll all know that very often when a client provides you with video content that it’s in multiple gigabytes in size. They’ll send you it through, say, a WeTransfer link and break for us has been a complete life saver.

And that’s the end of our list. Incredible. I don’t know how many products there is, but that is an awful lot of free, open source software that is available to you, the web designer, the web developer, the agency owner. You can take this software and you can produce amazing quality work. And the investment is simply your time to learn. And I would say your payment in return to all of those communities is to report any of the bugs you find or any of the fixes that you make, because these are open source products which are there for the greater good of everybody.

So rather than big corporates controlling proprietary software and controlling entire industries, this is the greater good. This is the wider community putting our own skills and our resources together, just like we do in, say, WordPress, et cetera, and helping each other out.

What are your favorite open source software/online products? Please, please come over to trailblazer.fm and let us know in the comments. Let’s have a conversation in there. This episode was proudly sponsored by Cloudway where I run an awful lot of my open source projects on their infrastructure. So thank you so much, Cloudways for sponsoring us and for believing in what we do.

Folks, if we don’t see you in the comments over an agency trailblazer, then we will see you in next week’s episode.


PodcastSeason 38

Lee Matthew Jackson

Content creator, speaker & event organiser. #MyLifesAMusical #EventProfs