| September 24, 2010 6:17 pm

Note: The normal programming of the website has been interrupted by a need to get the Open Source Writing book done.  I fully intend to pick things up very soon, but I first must send a finished draft to my editor/publisher.  They’ve been very patient and I’ve been … somewhat … irresponsible.

With that said, an interesting topic came up on the Scribus mailing list last week.  One of the list members, who is preparing a presentation for a local Linux User’s Group, posted a request for materials on Scribus.  That request set off a larger discussion about how Scribus might be presented to a mixed audience.

Since I’ve been contemplating a similar question for the aforementioned book, I’ve found the back and forth to be very helpful.  So much so, that I thought I would post my comments here to engage a slightly larger audience.  What follows is an edited summary of multiple responses.  I have tried to capture enough context context so that it stands on its own.  The full thread can be found on the Scribus Mailing list.

I would love to hear people’s thoughts and comments on the ideas presented, especially since I happen to be finishing the chapters on LaTeX and starting the chapter on Scribus.  Though people might call writing a “lonely endeavor”, that isn’t true.  Good feedback is the way to great books.


Dear Scribus Users,

Thanks for continuing this discussion.  I’m planning a book chapter on Scribus and I’ve found the back and forth to be very helpful for that purpose.  Since I’m also writing about LyX, LaTeX and related tools, the commentary here as proven invaluable in improving some of the other book sections as well.  Which is why I’d love to tackle a few of your points.

Sometimes it’s a good idea for a program to come with “training wheels” [in reference to LyX]. The only thing is, there needs to be a way to take them off once you don’t need them.

As a LyX user and contributor, this is too rich a target to pass up.  I’m not trying to start a flame-fest, but rather would like to clarify how I use LyX versus how I use Scribus.  (I’m also refining my arguments for said book, so there is also a selfish element in continuing this thread.)

Layout Program or Writing Environment

I wouldn’t describe the “limitations” as “training wheels”, but rather as structure. But then, I don’t think of LyX as a layout program at all.  It’s a document processor where I write.  Thus, the structure is actually quite helpful, at least for my needs.  it allows me to work productively without needing to worry about double spaces, inconsistent use of styles, or other formatting issues.  Such problems plague me when working in OpenOffice.  LyX also gives me access to my reference library and the ability to automatically generate a bibliography, which I appreciate.

Indeed, when I work with LyX/LaTeX, I have one primary concern: *very* clean *semantic* markup.  I don’t want any kind of LaTeX ugliness, strange formatting or other issues.  Perhaps this is also I agree with this sentiment:

Then I tried Lyx and found that it kept me on a really short leash. E.g., I was trying to set the title page, where I wanted the title in 120 point type. Lyx insisted that 120 points was a bad design decision. Yes, I eventually learned that you can convince Lyx to do it your way, but the whole idea of being forced to someone else’s idea of good
design practice left me cold.

It’s more than the juvenile design dictates.  Trying to create front-matter in LyX (LaTeX really) is painful.  Especially for a book or similar type of document that really should be unique and customized to the content it contains (though internally consistent).  Every time this comes up on the LyX users list (about once a month), the consensus is the same:

If writing a book, thesis or similar document use LyX for the text.  Create your front matter in Scribus or another visual environment.  It saves days of time, leads to better output, and it makes it easier to comply with formatting guidelines.  The exception to this rule is when using a class specifically created by a publisher or journal.  In that case, they’ve already ensured that the type-set output will match with their style guide and you are better off following their dictates.

Personal Writing Style or Fingerpainting

In my personal work I start by writing in OOo. But I do not “write” the same way everyone thinks I am supposed to. That is, in today’s parlance I am supposed to create “content” and then use something else to format it. I hate the word “content.” My brain does not work that way. I need to format it as I write it. Else I will forget that I intended that paragraph to be formatted a particular way.

Indeed, I write as though I was teaching the material to a class. As you explain the subject to the class it occurs to you that a drawing showing how the concepts you are explaining fit together would help the class understand. As the teacher I would turn around to the board and draw a diagram or make a bullet list or table or something to give the students a visual perception of what I am talking about. Thus, when writing the same thing occurs to me. I need to stop writing then and run off to Inkscape or whatever and create the graphic. In my OOo document I would just enter a paragraph containing <graphic001 here>. Then, while doing the layout later in Scribus I can just place the graphics at the appropriate places. In my brain the graphic elements are at least as important as the words; in many cases more so. I cannot understand how people can write without visualizing the final layout as
they write.

I don’t think that this is strange at all.  Actually, this is exactly how I like to work.  Moreover, it’s the way that I’ve seen great writers do things (at least described in some of the materials I’ve found while researching aforementioned book).  First they say something and lay the groundwork for what it means using tags or formatting.  (I like to use semantic tags, but it appears you prefer to use formatting.)

Then, such writers describe figures and images that would help them say it.  Some  need to create the graphic before continuing.  Others continue and then come back to the graphics after all points have been made.  Like you, I add a placeholder (in LyX parlance, a Figure float) and a caption then I run off to illustrate.  The image will join the other two pieces of text when its finished.

But all of that is still different than placing the image in a final layout.  And it is that phenomenon that LaTeX users speak so disparagingly when they refer to “finger painting.”

The Big Picture and Principles of Design

Principles of design sounds like an entire art course. Perhaps several art courses. Again, I have just an hour and a half.

I don’t think I was clear, initially.  I’m not recommending that you be comprehensive, or even cohesive.  The original talk I attended, which was called “Illustrator and the Principles of Design” didn’t try to be a primer on the principles of design.  Instead, it was a very specific discussion of three examples.

With each example, however, the presenter did three things:

  1. He used illustrations that clearly demonstrated a principle.  For example, one showed how color and position could be used as effective contrasts.  (And all of the layouts were awesome.)
  2. He succinctly described why each example worked and helped enumerate the specific principles/guidelines behind the composition.
  3. He then showed the tools used to achieve the effect.

Though I’m a scientist by training/profession, I’ve been dabbling in the art/design world for a while.  (Since high school, when I sadly realized I wasn’t talented enough to make a living from my artistic skills.)

In that time, I’ve noticed something important: art and design have their own language.  To move from novice to proficient requires that you learn this language and the ideas it embodies.  This isn’t hard, but it requires that an instructor be aware that pupils aren’t fluent.   To become fluent requires that you learn both the theory and the lingo, but most instructors I’ve been associated with don’t really bother with the bigger picture.  The discussion is either about technique or its about high level concepts.  The Illustrator presentation combined both, and for that reason, I thought it hugely effective.

That’s what I’m trying to advocate.

Take your skills and feel as a designer and instructor (in effect, your aesthetic eye) and use the language of design to help your audience appreciate the layouts at a slightly deeper level.  You don’t have to dedicate a huge amount of time to it, but touching on the big picture is always nice.  It also avoids a second problem I’ve seen at design conferences: technical presentations with little or no context.  It also whets their appetite for the really good stuff, like Bringhurst.  I wouldn’t have moved into the design literature without teachers who pointed me there and prepped me to understand it.

Software Does Not Sell Itself

[Point raised by another user.] For me, … Scribus gives me the tools to do what I want then gets out of my way and lets me do it. Most of what I need to do is fairly easy to figure out, and when it’s not, there’s this mailing list and an IRC channel I can use.

If part of your presentation is giving reasons your audience would want to use Scribus instead of something else (Closed Source/Expensive) this might be a good talking point: you can be up and running in short order, and expand your skills as you go.

+1 for this.  In you are presenting to a novice crowd, it’s particularly important.  While I’d like to say that good software speaks for itself, that isn’t true.  It needs a spokesperson or salesman to illustrate the real-world benefits. This is why Steve Jobs is such an effective salesman for Apple.  At his best, he doesn’t talk about features, he speaks to the transformative power of great tools.

With your presentation, you could effectively do the same.  Show an awesome example and then answer the question, “Why Scribus?”  After all, there are other options?

If it’s a poster, why would you choose Scribus over Inkscape?  If it’s a long-form document, why would you choose Scribus over LaTeX (or if you prefer, OpenOffice)?  For existing users, the answer to the question is obvious.  For new users, it is not.

Even more advanced users might appreciate your insights, I like to paint in watercolors, acrylics and oils.  Though its possible to use any medium for a composition, some material begs a particular treatment.  Hearing the technical opinions of other artists is always valuable.  Even if I choose an alternative.

I think I will just present Scribus and let it speak for itself. If it clicks with members of the audience – and I’m sure it will click with at least some – then Scribus has won new fans. If someone wants me to compare it to other tools I’ll just say that I don’t have time to get into detailed comparisons.

No need to be detailed, 20 sec. would probably do it.  Just enough to answer “Why Scribus?” as applied to that particular example.  People aren’t necessarily stupid, but they can be obtuse.  It is much better to be explicit than implicit.  If you trust an audience to understand an implicit point, you might be tremendously disappointed in the rate of retention.

Miscellaneous Begging and Pleading

Unfortunately, I do not have a web site. I might be able to post it to the web site of our local LUG. But we’ll cross that bridge when and if we get there.

Please do cross the bridge, though.  As I said earlier, your presentation is relevant to one of my current projects and I would love to see your notes.  I am also trying to find really great examples that I could include (with proper attribution, acknowledgment, etc) without needing to create them all on my own and I would love to see your work.  I would even be happy to host the slides and material.  (I’ll stop before descending into full pathetic pleading.)

Again, best of luck with your presentation and I hope that some of these thoughts were helpful.




One Response to “Principles, Layout and “Why Scribus?””

Stephen wrote a comment on September 27, 2010

I can understand this issue of stopping to make the appropriate graphic. In some cases it might be a quick sketch to refine later or if I am trying to explain something technical I may go off and make another graph. Sometimes it is not until the words start to flow properly that you can see where the argument is going, or that words alone will simply not be sufficient. I wrote a couple of papers recently for a conference that had been in-house posters (handwritten with printed graphics), one of these had been knocking around for sometime as a potential paper, and some of the original ideas had made it into a couple of talks – but, despite planning, once I started committing to paper (OK computer file) it became clear that some of the arguments needed clarification, and extra-explanatory material. So I generated new material as I saw I needed it.

Care to comment?