Linux tools and workflow for wire-framing, user interface, mock-ups and design

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If you are a Linux user then you already know that lots of big box software providers do not support Linux in quite the way we would like them to. Adobe, Apple, and all the others yes I am talking to you! In reality it is actually hard to be too annoyed at all these companies, I mean who wants to support the minority when you are really targeting the bulk of the market with Windows, and then the design crowd with Apple. Unfortunately, that leaves us Linux users who are really the minority suffering somewhat when it comes to tools to help when wire-framing, designing mock-ups, user interface layouts and of course final designs. I do have some good news though, things are getting better!

So where is the Linux design landscape at? Well, Linux is home to some established and relatively new apps that assist in all these key design areas. Let’s run though some of the best apps out there to help you dazzle with your creative flair.

My typical workflow

I should add before I start putting pen to paper or finger to mouse then I typically have already written my basic project brief and understand the scope. Simply put before you start wire-framing or building your mock-up and design you really need to have figured out what elements you want, for who and why. Ultimately you need to know what you are trying to achieve for you, your client and their users.

My workflow typically consists of the following:

  • Stage 1
    • Sketching and ideas
  • Stage 2
    • Wire-framing
  • Stage 3
    • Design

Tools to use

So, without further ado, let’s investigate the tools available for each stage of the workflow I previously outlined.

Stage 1: Sketching & Ideas

  • 1st choice
    • Pen & paper
  • 2nd choice
    • Balsamiq
  • 3rd choice
    • Pencil

Some people love the feel of pen on paper, the romance, the tactility(is that a word), the smell of the carbon all combine to make a process that is hard not to like. Of course if you don’t like pen and paper or lack any drawing skills then Balsamiq can also be your sketching tool. If you cannot afford Balsamiq why not try Pencil? It’s not as well rounded or intuitive but it is vastly cheaper. While I love Pencil for diagrams I do think Balsamiq is worth it when it comes to the cost.

Stage 2: Wire-framing

  • 1st choice
    • Balsamiq
  • 2nd choice
    • Pencil

Balsamiq is actually pretty old or should I say established, however it still makes doing sketch type mock-ups super simple. Balsamiq is hard to beat on any platform as it truly separates elements from design and does it in a naive, clear and visually appealing way. As with sketching, if you cannot afford Balsamiq then Pencil can be used, however, I think Balsamiq does have a clear advantage when it comes to wire-framing due to it’s varied elements and much better user interface and layout.

Pencil is the runner up here and has lots of great features. However, Pencil just does not have the amount of stencils that Balsamiq does and its user interface is no where near as good. If you are really on a budget Pencil may suffice, however for the professional level you need to pony up for Balsamiq.

Stage 3: Design

  • 1st choice
    • Gravit
  • 2nd choice
    • Inkscape

Gravit is my number 1 here, it is by far the most productive and easy to use design tool on Linux. Gravit unfortunately is not wholly free, there is a free albeit slightly limited version, but the paid version has everything you need at a not unreasonable yearly fee. It’s not the typical way Linux works as we rarely like to pay for software. However, in the case of design software I believe it’s the only way we will have a contemporary tool and so far Gravit fits that bill.

Is Gravit perfect? Nope. Is Gravit good? Yes it truly is. It is the most intuitive design program that exists on Linux and makes the features you want easy to access and hides the more complex and lesser used features. Gravit’s user interface is head and shoulders above Inkscape in a way that makes going back to Inkscape a disappointing experience.

In the runner up spot is Inkscape which was my trusty and long used design tool. However, Inkscape has a number of huge flaws. No multi page documents is a huge turn-off and its interface while use-able is overwhelming after sampling the streamlined Gravit. Is Inkscape good? Yes. Is Inkscape usable and free? Yes and yes. However, ultimately for professional design Gravit just makes life a lot easier.