How Open Source gave me my start in Design

5 min readAug 5, 2018

I was the kid in preschool who was banned from the arts and crafts drawer. I would show up, go straight to the drawer and start drawing, cutting and pasting things together. The teachers cut me off. I was drawn to art at home, too but with a twist. My dad being a techie caused me to be surrounded by technology — mainly a Windows 98 computer that quickly became another facet of my interests. He let me play games, which were mostly passed to around by his coworkers. I often received games without jewel cases and I wanted to organize and display my games. Naturally the next step for any young kid in the 90s was to fire up MSPaint and create some custom cover art.


Image: Paint.NET

I found MSPaint fun. Being able to digitally create so much and modify existing images created new possibilities. Unlike paper, mistakes were not permanent, things could be moved and art supplies were virtually limitless. My love of art quickly became intertwined with a love for computers and what made them so fun to use. My dad noticed this and encouraged me to explore new programs. This didn’t go over well at first—I was about 6 or 7 years old. A little time passed and he took it upon himself to try again. He suggested Paint.NET, an open source photo and graphics program for Windows. This was where my eyes were opened to image layers and other tools that I still use in Photoshop today.



If Paint.NET was a free alternative to Photoshop, were there other programs like this? Paint.NET is open source? This lead me down a rabbit hole for all kinds of open source software. Any program that came to mind until I thought “Is there an open source alternative to Windows?” That’s when I found ReactOS. The more I read, the more I was intrigued by people donating hours of their lives to make a free version of something as prevalent as Windows. It seemed like the motherships of all community driven projects to me at the time. I downloaded an early alpha build, jumped on their forum and started getting involved. I asked (dumb) question after question. Members were patient and encouraged me to improve when my contributions weren’t up to par. I had to be good enough and this reliable almost-instant feedback was priceless to a learning mind. With time I got more and more wrapped up in the FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) world and ended up replacing Windows with Ubuntu 7.04 on my computer.


When I entered the free world of Linux, I had to leave some programs behind. This included my staple: Paint.NET. I was stuck searching for a Linux version of an open source clone of Photoshop. Folks on forums always suggested that I “just use GIMP.” I was hesitant at first as the learning curve was steep but I was running out of options. I gave GIMP a shot. The passion to get back to creating things made the steep learning curve a breeze. I was hooked when I started contributing graphics and designs to ReactOS and other open-source projects. This forced me out of my comfort zone and to learn new things in GIMP. Plus, I continued to get honest feedback. I started to get so comfortable with UI design that I started to play around with my own ambitions.

Early image of openLonghorn, a defunct ReactOS UI, circa 2008

New Challenges

Getting into my mid-teens I was looking to start saving for a vehicle, school and other typical teenage things. I realized that no one online would know how old I am and would instead judge me by my work. I figured: why not try my luck finding Android developers who needed design work on the Android Market? Offering app icon design at incredibly low fees for developers who didn’t have the skill or help. This quickly evolved to UI and UX work which was foreign to me but my low fees and consistent deliveries made most of my clients flexible. I didn’t realize it fully at the time but this was the start of my visual design career.

I helped recreating the iPhone Keyboard on Android in 2011 for SixGreen Labs


In High School we were fortunate enough to get a brand new computer lab for the graphic design and CAD classes along with great teachers. These teachers ran successful design businesses outside of school and brought real-world experience. I inquired if my GIMP skills would translate to Photoshop if I were to sign up for the class. A placement exam allowed me to skip the basics and jump to Graphic Design II. My teacher’s guidance and advice allowed me to be more efficient at home where I continued to use GIMP while freelancing.


Today, I have a deep appreciation for open source and proprietary software in my field. I have moved on from GIMP. I really wish GIMP were in spot where it could be competitive to Photoshop and Sketch. I’m not sure if that day will come but it is reassuring to know it continues to grow to let hobbyists, freelancers and anyone curious to learn more about the industry without first signing up for an Adobe subscription like I did.

I owe so much to my parents, my teachers and the FOSS community.

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