Freehand Anonymous

My name is Michael Johnson… and I use Freehand

I discovered recently that this (allegedly) high-tech industry of ours is populated by a whole tranche of designers who are quietly hanging on to an old, obsolete piece of drawing software.

UPDATE: All is not lost. Read about the latest developments in the legal case to Free FreeHand here

They know they shouldn’t, they get ridiculed for it, but they can’t help it. A piece of software that has been ever-present for decades has proved a tough habit to crack. Like the beginning of an aa meeting where people stand and admit that they’re hardened drinkers, it’s time to stand up and say that “my name is Michael and yes, I do still use Freehand”.

At this point readers will be experi­encing mixed emotions – some will be thinking ‘what an old saddo’. Younger ones will be asking ‘what’s Freehand?’. But, especially in the UK, it seems that a lot of people will be quietly nodding their heads.

Little things started to give it away. I asked Michael C Place for some text from a D&AD project recently and his answer was in the affirmative “as long as I didn’t mind getting it in Freehand”. We discovered recently that Dixon Baxi were still advocates. Some quiet digging revealed a vast array of design studios still using it: Neville Brody, Why Not Associates, Spin, to name a few. The Designers Republic were committed fans and we  know there are users at Barnbrook Design, maybe even at North too.

Mr Place declined to contribute to this piece, not wanting to get involved in a discussion about a piece of software, and he has a point. But it seems the choice to use, and continue to use this programme is more than just geekery. If Quark users have to migrate to InDesign, at least they’re moving to something on a par, and in some cases better. Just ten minutes with Keynote persuades most people to happily drop Powerpoint like a stone, such is the gulf in quality. But Freehand users are coping with a transition to some­thing they see as a step sideways, often backwards.

It was one of the great, original debates of the graphic design business – ‘which programme do you use to draw?’ Battle lines were drawn early between the intuitive, easy-to-learn Aldus Freehand and Adobe’s more technical Illustrator. Malcolm Garrett remembers it well. “There was a sense that if you required a particular kind of precision then Illustrator was the way to go, in the same way that XPress won out over PageMaker. The clue is in the ordinariness of the names, Freehand and PageMaker, they just don’t say ‘professional’.

I remember Erik Spiekermann once saying he disliked Freehand, because it was too, er, ‘freehand’.” He thinks that “designers who felt they were more ‘expressive’ liked the basic feel of Freehand, which allowed them to create in a welcoming environ­­ment, more akin to art studio than drawing office. For some reason Illustrator gave the impression that it was more technical and thus less expressive somehow.”

Garrett feels the differences are minimal but hardened users jump straight to its defence. “It’s intuitive and fast,” says Aporva Baxi from Dixon Baxi, still determinedly delivering artwork to printers in Freehand, despite the protests. “We just feel at home and can work very fast using it, allowing us to concentrate on the creative. The fact that you can drag any number of pages around, create a full book, guidelines or presentation whilst still being able to design freely is liberating.”

For Spin’s Tony Brook it was love at first sight. “I went from a complete computer virgin, to a happy clapping convert in a matter of hours. I have met so many passionate advocates of Freehand, it is like a badge of honour, whereas your common or garden Illustrator disciple just mumbles and calls me old, which may be true, but if that’s the best they can do….” Why Not Associates’ Andy Altmann reveals that it “was great for designing all the typographic layouts for the environmental projects we have collaborated on with artist Gordon Young. The typographic trees in Crawley [see p22], the entire 320m of the typographic pavement in Morecambe – it would have been really painful to have done it in anything else.” Amazingly, Altmann also admits that all the artwork for the seminal book Typography Now was done as 200 individual pages in the programme.

Nearly all of its adher­ents know the writing has been on the wall ever since Adobe acquired Macro­media in 2005, getting their hands on the crown jewel, Flash. The 2007 announcement that Freehand wouldn’t be updated came as no surprise, and Adobe’s position on this is clear: “Adobe has no plans to initiate development to add new features. While we recognise it has a loyal customer base, we encourage users to migrate to the new Adobe Illustrator….” To Adobe, bouncing a bunch of ‘has-beens’ into switching makes logical sense, and without any apparent fan-base in the States (a US source could only think of one designer they knew still using it) they faced no significant backlash there.

But its impending demise will feel like amputation to some. “For me it basically feels like an additional limb used purely for design, a third arm that understands and knows what I want,” says Nick Hard in Neville Brody’s Research Studios. Baxi admits they “quietly dread the day we have to install a system update to osx that suddenly conflicts with it”. Tony Brook reveals that “Adobe has finally beaten me into submission. This Christmas I did a day’s course on Illustrator. I still don’t get it.”

For this writer, once a Freehand beta-tester, it’s been ever-present on a 20-year journey. But now my copy won’t let me print out anything containing fonts (bit of a drawback), and regularly needs re-booting/re-installing (not ideal). Garrett criticises this as an inherent inability to embrace change, a sort of ‘I know what I like, and I like what I know’ culture.

He’s right of course, and the news that The Designers Republic has folded should perhaps be the death-knell for their favourite piece of software too. Its central place in British graphic design for 20 years  is coming to an end.

At least there’s a glimmer of hope. It seems that Adobe has (finally) acknowledged that Illustrator could do with some of Freehand’s best bits (like multiple, different-sized pages in a document, and even simple old ‘paste-inside’). Perhaps they’ll send me a copy of cs4 and I’ll be a (slightly late) beta-tester? But in the meantime, I have a logo to do by this afternoon,
I think I’ll just knock out a few quick ideas in a programme I know well….

Michael Johnson is design director of johnsonbanks and editor of the johnson-banks Thought for the week blog

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