Toward an Open-Source Design Practice

A combination of subscription fatigue, security issues, and AI insanity have driven me to seek alternatives.

A neon "Open 24 hours" sign in the front window of a cafe.
Via Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted, but I’m finally getting back into the groove. May was absolutely crazy, with two major projects/events followed by my getting sick not once, but twice. And if I’m being honest, I just kind of coasted for a few weeks and feel much better for it.

So now I’m back, though you can expect a few posts scattered throughout the month vs. the every Friday cadence.

But first, if you’re not a subscriber then you should be! I won’t spam you, and members can post comments and receive additional, in-depth stories a few times per month.

During my break I was able to catch up on some reading, though I still have a pile of books to work on. My favorite – and most impactful – read has been Caps Lock by Ruben Pater. Pater is a Dutch designer who is perhaps best described as an anti-designer. That’s not to say that he doesn’t appreciate design, but he definitely has a pretty detailed view of all its downsides, which seem to be legion. Whether you agree with him or not (I tend to agree), Pater can certainly provoke thought.

Designer as Hacker

In his chapter “Designer as Hacker,” Pater explores how designers can create and modify their own tools, often though free and open source software (FOSS). This resonated deeply with me personally, since I’m pretty tired of paying exorbitant, per-seat subscription fees for pretty much every single tool I use. The tools budget for my agency 58 Creative is more than $4,000 this year – and that’s a one-person shop!

Granted, it’s true that I pay for a few things that I don’t necessarily need. But I’m a one-person show with a day job and it’s been worth it to pay a little extra for tools or features that improve automation and reduce my admin overhead. But now I’m re-examining that view and focusing more on what I need to get the job done with fewer frills.

If you’ve read my past articles then you know that I’m more than a little skeptical of the AI goldrush, and nothing in the past couple of months has changed my view. If anything, my perspective on current AI implementations has gotten considerably worse: Google’s dumbass search implementation, the Adobe TOS debacle, Microsoft’s AI boss claiming that anything on the web is freeware, and Figma’s decision to train on customer work all contribute to my pessimism.

So in summary, subscription models have – despite their benefits – require monthly or yearly payments forever in order to use them. Having a tough quarter or year? Gone are the days of postponing software purchases to weather downturns; you’d better make that payment or you can’t work. In addition, the same companies that you’re paying are also monetizing your work for themselves to build products that may very well put us all out of jobs.

Why Am I Doing This?

It’s not like I’ve just had this revelation after reading Pater’s book. For example, Adobe has annoyed the hell out of me for years and Microsoft’s ongoing security shitshow is concerning. I look into alternatives from time to time, but have never been compelled to actually transition to any of them.

I’ve used Affinity products for a while, but have stubbornly held on to my Adobe subscription because it’s the “industry standard” and I might need to share files. Same for Microsoft 365.

But reading Caps Lock has given me some inspiration, especially reading about agencies and collectives that use open-source tools in their daily work. So I’ve finally decided to take action and migrate away from big tech products and toward ones that are more affordable, more accessible, and more open.

My Tool Stack

For the purposes of this article, I’m mostly talking about my agency 58 Creative. Design Flaw has been all open-source from day one, with the notable exceptions of Soundcloud and my image sourcing from Adobe Stock and Dall-E. The site runs on Ghost, I do all of my writing with LibreOffice, and notes go in Joplin.

Here is a comparison of my current and future tech stack for 58 Creative.

Need Current Tool New Tool
CRM Hubspot TBD
Project Management Basecamp Nextcloud, self-hosted
Meetings Teams TBD; maybe Jitsi
Phone Teams TBD
Office MS 365 LibreOffice
Email MS 365 Proton
File storage MS 365 Proton
Sceduling Calendly
Website Squarespace Wordpress, self-hosted
Audio hosting Soundcloud TBD
Video Hosting Vimeo TBD
Accounting Xero Xero
File storage MS 365 Proton
UX Design Figma Axure or Penpot (self-hosted)
Graphic design Adobe Affinity
Audio editing Adobe Audacity
Video editing Adobe Davinci Resolve

I’m some cases, I’m sticking with commercial products. I’ll continue to use Xero for accounting, Affinity for design, and still use a Mac. In other cases, such as Figma, I’m still evaluating options before I make a final decision. But for many others I’ve either fully committed or have already made the switch. Because many of my subscriptions are paid annually, I’ll keep using the current products and switch when it’s time to renew.

You may be aware that Canva recently bought Affinity. That makes a lot of people, including myself, nervous. I generally distrust big companies, and none us will be surprised to see Affinity “enhanced” with cloud features, AI, and a subscription model in the future. For now, it’s a great set of products.


Lower cost may be a benefit, but not always. I pay $30 per month for two Basecamp seats, and running a server for Nextcloud is roughly the same. However, I don’t have to pay more for additional users; I can add as many users as I want for free. At some point, the server may need to scale up, but in almost all cases I’ll still come out ahead.

In addition, while many of these tools are free to use, they aren’t free to build. If you’re using FOSS products then it’s a good idea to kick in a few bucks to help keep the projects going. This is especially true for businesses, so I’ll be making a few contributions.

The main upside to self-hosting is that you control the data. Granted, in many cases – including my own – you’re still using someone else’s server and there are some risks to that. Of course, it’s possible to set up a home or office server, but can require quite a bit of work and expertise, especially if you intend to make your server available on the public internet.

Because you control the data, that means that it’s is protected from random companies hoovering it up to train their AI models. And if you need to keep sensitive internal or client files safe you can also enable server-side encryption with your own keys.

This isn’t a security site but it’s important to understand the difference between “at rest” encryption and end-to-end encryption (E2EE). When files are encrypted on a computer the entity controlling the keys is able to decrypt and view files. So while companies like Microsoft, Google, Dropbox, etc. do encrypt your files at rest, they hold the keys and can still decrypt and view your files. In most cases, this isn’t a big deal and it’s not something that I worry about myself. But some folks have higher security needs and everyone should evaluate their own threat surface to determine what their own requirements.

Because FOSS products are community-driven, they tend to be more responsive to community needs and requests. While this is not always the case, you’re more likely to get a response to a feature request or bug submission than you would from Adobe, for example.

And if you like the product and want to help out, you can! There are plenty of ways that non-developers can contribute to open-source projects.

Most open-source products utilize open standards for their file formats. Both LibreOffice and Nextcloud use Open Document Format, which means that they are 100 percent compatible and you don’t have to worry about the next version breaking compatibility, as both Microsoft and Adobe have done repeatedly in the past.

Many products also use Markdown, which also helps ensure compatibility. Even Ghost allows markdown when creating posts.


We get used to lots of neat features that open-source tools may lack. Also, open-source user interfaces are typically (but not always) less polished than those of commercial products. But in my case – and I suspect this is true for most folks – they are plenty good enough and the features do what’s needed. And frankly, if you’ve had the misfortune of using Sharepoint then you’ll probably appreciate the clarity of a product like Nextcloud.

Sometimes, missing features create more work. Almost every product on the market has MS 365 integration. For example, appointment scheduling with MS 365 and Calendly or is almost fully automated. But by moving to Proton, I have to manually add scheduled calls to my calendar instead of having them added automatically. The client experience is the same, but mine requires an extra step. My meeting volume is low and I'm willing to accept that tradeoff.

If you choose to self-host your tools then you or someone you know needs to understand how servers and networks function. You should know how to use the Linux command line and be comfortable with DNS configuration and troubleshooting. You’ll be in charge of the infrastructure and it’s on you to keep it updated, secure, and functioning.

Almost all of the tools on the list have hosted options, either from the vendor or third parties should you prefer to not roll your own. You lose some of the (potential) cost benefits by going this route, but you still have better control over your data and can protect it from big tech overreach.

This is a Journey

After a lot of thought and evaluation, I’ve decided to move to more private, affordable, and open solutions for my design business. While I forecast at least a $2,000 annual savings, that’s not the primary motivator. I’m more interested in the privacy of my and my clients’ data and helping support a diverse community of folks who value community over profit .

I’ll follow up with occasional updates (both good and bad), and if you’re getting tired of the status quo I encourage you to look into alternatives too. I’m happy to answer questions, share resources, and give encouragement. If you want to know more or have specific questions then please send me a note at

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