Inkscape Review

Review of the Free Vector Graphics Editor Inkscape

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Inkscape

Inkscape is the open source community's alternative to Adobe Illustrator, the accepted industry standard tool for the production of vector-based graphics. It is a credible alternative for anyone whose budget can't stretch to Illustrator, with some caveats, including the fact that as powerful as Inkscape is, it doesn't match the full range of features of Illustrator.

Despite that, it has developed into an application that perhaps should now be taken seriously as a professional tool, though its lack of PMS color support may still be a stumbling block for some users.

The User Interface

Pros

  • Clearly presented tools and options
  • Collapsible side palettes

Cons

  • Collapsing of side palettes a little buggy
  • Floating Tools palette can't be reconfigured.

Inkscape has a fresh user interface that presents the various tools and features in a very accessible way. I'm being a little persnickety in the few faults that I can find.

The main Tools palette is aligned down the left-hand side in a way that uses the minimum of space so that the working area isn't unnecessarily compromised, though there is the option to drag the palette loose and have it float above the working area if that is your preference. Unfortunately, if used in that mode, the configuration of the palette can't be changed and the only display option is with all the tools displayed in a single column.

Above the working area, several toolbars can be shown or hidden. Personally, I hide the Snap Controls Bar, preferring to use that space for the Commands Bar and Tool Controls Bar.

The Tool Controls Bar changes the options that it displays depending on the tool that is currently active, allowing the way the active tool operates to be changed quickly and easily.​

Other palettes, such Layers and Fill and Stroke can be displayed in collapsible format to the right-hand side of the working area.

When collapsed individually, using the Iconify button, a tab appears to the right of the screen, which can be clicked to reopen that palette again. There isn't an option to collapse all the palettes with one click, but pressing F12 activates the Show/Hide Dialogs command which does hide all the open palettes simultaneously.

This command is different to Iconify as it doesn't leave tabs that can be clicked to reopen a palette and F12 must be pressed again to show the palettes. In practice, I found that on more than one occasion, when pressing F12 to show all palettes, it failed to reopen all of the palettes that were hidden and this buggy behavior does undermine the usefulness of this feature a little.

Drawing With Inkscape

Pros

  • Good selection of tools for drawing and editing graphic objects
  • Tweak Objects tool could free creative block

Cons

  • No Gradient Mesh type tool
  • 3D Boxes tool looks a little gimmicky

Inkscape is very well equipped in terms of tools for drawing, from producing simple logo forms to more complex graphics. You've only got to look at Inkscape's website to see some of the stunning results that some more advanced users can achieve with this application. Some Illustrator users will bemoan the lack of a comparable tool to the Gradient Mesh, but even without that, Inkscape is capable of some truly impressive results.

The Gradient tool is very intuitive to use and easy to adjust. By combining multiple objects with different gradient blends, and using other features such as layer transparency and blur, will allow users to get very creative.

The Bezier Curves tool is a powerful general purpose tool that allows users to draw just about any shape that is desired. At first, I couldn't work out how to make nodes angled rather than continuing an existing curve, but soon discovered pressing Return after placing a node and then clicking on that node allowed me to continue drawing the path without the new section being influenced by the preceding curved section. Combined with the various tools for combining paths, Inkscape can produce just about any path conceivable. Paths can also be used to Clip other objects, to effectively frame them and hide any parts that are outside of the frame.



Another tool worthy of mention is the Tweak Objects tool. This has a number of options and the results of it can be a little unpredictable, but I quite like this as a way to stir inspiration when creative block has set in. You can apply the tool to different objects, including text that has been converted to a path and see if some of the random results can set you off in a new design direction.

One question mark that I have over the complement of drawing tools is the 3D Boxes tool. Personally, I'm not convinced of the usefulness and effectiveness of this, but I can appreciate that some users may value the ability to produce three-dimensional effects so quickly and easily.

Getting Creative

Pros

  • Wide range of filters available
  • Extensions to add new functionality

Cons

  • Effectiveness of some filters can be a little hit and miss
  • Extensions cannot be installed within Inkscape's interface

Inkscape offers its users the power to take their designs to more creative levels using a range of Filters and Extensions. These can open up all sorts of creative possibilities to develop more unusual and exciting results. In fact, there are so many filters available by default, you could waste quite some time going through them to find the right kind of result for a specific piece of work. Some of the results can be a little hit and miss. I'd like an easy way to manage which filters are displayed in the menu, though I'm sure with a little research I'd find a way to remove filters that I don't want.

The Extensions menu comes with some extensions loaded by default and the system offers Inkscape users the ability to further customize their own version of the application. The extensions that are available serve a range of different purposes and add even more power to a comprehensive application, but these need to be manually installed on the file system rather than through Inkscape's user interface.

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Laying Out With Inkscape

Pros

  • Reasonable text control for jobs with moderate amounts of text
  • Blur can be applied to editable text and objects

Cons

Applications like Inkscape aren't intended for use as desktop publishing (DTP) software, but there are occasions when it makes sense to produce complete projects in a vector-based editor, such as posters or simple leaflets with little text.

Inkscape can accomplish such tasks quite well. It doesn't have the option to insert more than one page, so if you're working on a double-sided leaflet, you'll either have to save two separate documents, or use layers to separate the two pages.

Inkscape offers just about enough control over text to make it feasible for laying out body copy, though if you need fine control of tabs, line insets or drop capitals, then you'll need to turn to your favoured DTP application, such as Adobe InDesign or Scribus. You can apply blur to text and other objects and still edit them as required.

My main gripe with Inkscape in this aspect centers on its capabilities for applying tracking and kerning. To apply kerning to a letter, you need to select that letter and then hold down the Alt key and press the left or right arrow key to move the letter in the desired direction. You should note that other letters to the right of a kerned letter do not adjust their position in relation to it, and so these also need to be adjusted as required.

You can select more than one letter and move them simultaneously, though that doesn't affect the kerning on any but the left hand letter. I personally couldn't get this technique to work on text within a frame. I also couldn't find any option to adjust tracking on text, which I think would be useful, even bearing in mind that this isn't a DTP application.

Sharing Your Files

By default, Inkscape saves its files using the open SVG format, meaning that theoretically it should be possible to share files created with Inkscape with anyone using an application that supports SVG files. Inkscape also supports saving documents to a wide range of alternative file formats, including PDF.

Conclusion

There aren't many options for free vector-based image editors, so Inkscape has little competition to keep pushing it forward. Nonetheless, it is an extremely accomplished application that continues to develop into a very real alternative to Adobe Illustrator. There are many things that I like about it, including:

  • Clearly presented tools and options
  • Good selection of tools for drawing and editing graphic objects
  • Wide range of filters available
  • Extensions to add new functionality

Looking at the negatives, they're not too major for me and include:

  • No PMS color support
  • No Gradient Mesh like tool
  • Collapsing of side palettes a little buggy
  • Limited kerning control

I'm an unashamed fan of Inkscape and really do believe that all those that play a part in its development have produced an extremely powerful application that anyone with an interest in graphics software should take a look at.

It doesn't have the same broad feature set as Adobe Illustrator, so if you regularly use that application you may find Inkscape a little restrictive. However, for most users it has the tools to cover the most common requirements.

As mentioned earlier, the absence of PMS support may put some professional users off. While I grant that variations in different monitor outputs mean that selecting PMS colors onscreen shouldn't be trusted completely. Designers should turn to swatch books for greater certainty over their color selections, but not all designers can justify the expense of Pantone's swatch books. It would be great to see PMS included in future versions of Inkscape, but it may be that licensing issues mean it won't be feasible to include this feature in a free open-source project.

Version reviewed: 0.47
You can download this application for free from the Inkscape website.

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