This month, the GIMP lost its User eXperience (UX) maintainer.

This is important. Why? Because, over all, the UX of Gimp has always had a very bad rap. People don’t like it. I should preface this by saying 99% of the graphics that I do are done in GIMP (all of my TechRepublic images, all my book covers… everything). I’ve always been a big fan of the platform. That being said, it can’t be denied that an overwhelming majority of people do not find the GIMP experience to be positive.

But before I get into the thick of this, what exactly is a UX maintainer? Unlike the User Interface (UI), the UX can be thought of as not how the horse is designed, but how the design informs the experience of the rider. The UI maintainer would fashion the legs and the saddle, and the UX maintainer would make sure those elements were what the rider needed to actually ride the horse well.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the UX maintainers of GIMP decided they had their own well designed horses outside the building and didn’t really care about the only horse that mattered — the GIMP’s horse. The UX maintainer tuned out the needs of the community, and the single most powerful open-source vector image editor faltered. Yes, at some point, they tossed the community a bone and created the single window mode, but that was pretty much it. And then came a new voice for Gimp UX — Peter Sikking. Peter did everything he could to change the way things worked, and he did an admirable job. In the end, however, certain elements of the design process were broken, and Peter had to step down.

Now, they find themselves in need of a new UX maintainer. This is where the good news comes in. The GIMP has an opportunity here — one that could become a major turning point in the timeline of this incredibly powerful tool. What this means is the team responsible for GIMP must take great caution choosing the next UX maintainer. They need someone with their fingers on the pulse of the graphic artist world and their ears pointed directly toward end users.

And this next bit is crucial… so listen carefully.

The new UX maintainer needs to ensure to not just consider GIMP a Linux tool. GMIP needs to be thought of as the most powerful cross-platform image editors and must be retooled as such. Do not consider the Linux community as the single biggest user base (and thus design the UI based on that assumption). Assume everyone would make use of GIMP — if it were designed right. The UX leader also needs to be able to find a balance between the various teams that come together to make GIMP such a powerful tool. Additionally, the new maintainer must know the end user is the single most important audience out there. GIMP is really just a proper UX maintainer away from graphic design domination, but this means a few things must be seriously considered:

  • The UI must be retooled for easier interaction
  • Tool selection and options need to be much more intuitive
  • The UI needs a modern overhaul
  • The G’MIC plug-in must become a part of the standard installation
  • More artistic filters must be created for G’MIC to compete with the likes of Photoshop (and those filters must be created in such a way to make complex manipulations more user-friendly)

And that’s just off the top of my head. I’m sure every user who has ever touched GIMP could chime in with their own take on how the UX needs to be improved. The single most important issue is that the new UX maintainer actually listens.

There’s no denying the power of GIMP. No other free image editor comes close to offering its feature set. The only thing that has held GIMP back (since its inception in ’96) is the user experience. With the UX maintainer position open, GIMP can pull itself from the muck and mire of stagnation to finally become the powerhouse it deserves to be.

The GIMP is a crucial project to open source. It is to graphics design what Linux is to operating systems. Should the GIMP dissolve, the open-source ecosystem would be left with a glaring hole. Someone needs to step up and take over and do so quickly so Gimp can start the drawn-out game of catch up it so badly needs.

Regardless of where the GIMP stands, I’ll continue on as a user — and I know a lot of other designers who feel the same way, but only because they’ve relied on GIMP for so long. If GIMP has any hopes of winning over new users, it must rethink the UX/UI and bring it up to a more modern, user-friendly standard. I believe this can easily happen — with the right UX leader. This leader will need to be someone with a strong vision and the ability to bring the various designers and developers together in a harmony that GIMP hasn’t enjoyed for a while.

We need GIMP to succeed. Open source needs GIMP to succeed. Linux needs GIMP to succeed. Period. End of story.

What do you think? Can the loss of their current UX maintainer be a major, positive turning point for the most powerful open-source image editor on the planet? Or does this herald the downfall of the platform?