Inkscape Criticism

First, let me preface this tale of User-Interface Woe with a disclaimer: I am far from an Adobe fanboy. I love open-source software. And of course, like everyone else, I really hate Adobe's prices. But I've learned to use Illustrator and Photoshop pretty well, so now, of course, switching to anything else causes work not-so-much to grind to a halt as to slam into a brick wall while I figure out all of the different metaphors, keyboard shortcuts, and little tricks I need to approach anything like my former productivity.

Trust me, I yearn to cast aside all Adobe products! Which brings me to Inkscape, the open-source vector illustration program. I really, really want to like it as a replacement for Adobe Illustrator. It's one of those open-source apps I install every couple of years to see if it's There Yet. And, yet again, I'm starting to think that it's not. Which brings me to the first problem I encountered on my most recent attempt at mastering Inkscape.


I use grids a lot. Chalk that up to my obsessive side, but I like things to line up. Not "close enough", not "almost there", but exactly, identically, on the same point. And, since I'm American, I think most comfortably in inches, and use a lot of powers-of-two fractions, like eighths and sixteenths and thirty-seconds. Many times I've even set the Illustrator grids to 1/64 inch. I have also always loved the look of the grids in AI; but I must say that Inkscape has power to spare in this area, allowing you to exactly duplicate the look of Illustrator or construct more complex arrangements as you choose.

Inkscape has two mechanisms for achieving this. It allows you to set grids in "Inkscape Preferences" on a global or default level; these grid settings are what get applied to new documents you create. You can also change grid settings in "Document Properties", settings which apply only to the document you're currently working on. Let's compare the two.

An inexplicably bifurcated interface

In "Document Properties", on the left, we find a system of even more power and flexibility (with one exception) than Illustrator's. We can change the colors and opacities of major and minor grid lines to anything we want. We have all the usual unit options. We can even overlay multiple grids! Say, for example, that we wanted to emphasize not only grid lines on whole-inch boundaries, but also grid lines at half-inches. Simply define another grid, with a major grid line at every 8 rather than 16 lines (for example) and choose colors appropriately. The results of this can be seen in the background; a grid with lines every 1/16 inch, a darker line every 1/2 inch, and a still darker one every whole inch. Many other, more exotic possibilities are available, and grids you create can be toggled on or off as you need them. All of this is excellent!

But now suppose you've come up with grid settings you really like, and you'd like to save them so they can be applied to all new documents as a default? Well, no problem there—just do the same thing in "Inkscape Preferences", right? Wrong! The grid settings here (the right window in the screen capture) are not the same; gone is the ability to overlay more than one grid, and, for a worse surprise, look at the numeric precision! Two decimal points instead of four? I can't define anything more precise than 0.01 inch, and I can't use my beloved powers-of-two fractions below a quarter of an inch! This, by the way, is the "one exception" I mentioned above: even four decimal points is insufficient for 1/32 or 1/64 inch, both of which I'm accustomed to using in AI.

Which leaves me the unpleasant task of setting up my grids the way I like them with each new document I create. Most likely I'd just configure one and save it as a sort of empty template for myself, so it's not necessarily a deal-breaker on it's own. Worse than the balky interface itself is the intellectual puzzle—UI choices like this seem so inexplicable, I can't help but wonder why it's this way, especially when Inkscape is so close to getting it perfect. Why not just make the global and local grid settings be exactly the same, as I expect would be the case if the code were properly modular? Why not include a "make default" button in "Document Properties"?

If I discover this sort of bad decision within two minutes of installing the software, what other horrors lie in wait? I'm tempted to force myself to use Inkscape on some project, just to find out. I also hold out hope that I'm missing something here, that some Inkscape partisan will pipe up with a perfect explanation of why it is this way and even why it can be no other way. Even suggestions for some workaround will do! As I said, I haven't used Inkscape long, so it's entirely possible I've missed some obvious fix. But then, I'm not exactly a novice driver of vector graphics software either, and if Inkscape's not aimed at me (a casual "prosumer") and my myriad of expectations, cognitive biases, and outright prejudices, I don't know who it would be aimed at.

Five Comments So Far

February 14, 2010
Ketan says:
Hey great article.

I get the frustrations of moving from one piece of sofware to another.

I've just started my hobbyist interest in vector graphics and decided to use Inkscape from the offset. If I had the choice (by choice I mean the money) I would just start off with Illustrator but as I don't Inkscape is my best option.

I was looking for some good tutorials and found this one They've done a series of webcasts on Inksape, brilliant for beginners like me but also if you're trying to make your way around a particular feature then they may have covered it.
April 16, 2010
Joe says:
Inkscape is based on the SVG format, which I'm pretty sure has support for an infinite number of significant figures. All you need to do is go to the XML editor (Edit->XML Editor) and manually define the stuff. Worth it IMO
April 18, 2010
Eiki Martinson says:
That's true Joe - one of the best things about Inkscape is that output is written in an open, standard, plain text file format, and you even have a built-in XML editor as you point out. But can you edit the grid settings in this manner? After all, grids are not really part of the output as I understand it, but are only guidelines while you are working on the illustration.

I'll have to look into this further. Thanks for your comment!
February 06, 2011
Laurence Gonsalves says:
I agree that having the grid settings in preferences be different from those in Document Properties is pretty silly. It probably would have taken less code if they had made them the same!

That said, you can get a 1/64" grid in the document properties by using points for the unit. 1/64" = 1.125 points. So you only need 3 decimal places.

Also, 1/32" = 2.25 points, which only uses 2 decimal places, so you can even set up a 1/32" grid in the preferences.
February 08, 2011
Eiki Martinson says:
Fair enough, but I tend to work by dividing my current grid in half when I need more resolution; so if my grid is 1/32 inch, I want to move to 1/64 inch without necessarily doing the conversion to points.

Thanks for the tip, though!

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