Gravit Designer vector graphics tool

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Article from Issue 211/2018
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Edit vector graphics with Gravit Designer and save the results in the SVG, PNG, and JPEG formats.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) made a huge breakthrough with the Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) format, which supports far more than just employing and positioning standard objects. When the committee first published the XML-based format in 2001, the commercial programs prevalent at the time ignored it and continued to rely on their own, mostly proprietary formats. Even when web browsers started supporting SVG images, it was not enough to encourage more programs to work with this format.

However, Inkscape – a fairly comprehensive graphics program that is a mixture of two-thirds drawing program and one-third editor – could generate and load SVG data. The application still provides the most comprehensive features for this format, although it does not support all aspects of SVG.

Nevertheless, the powerful, well-documented, and widely used Inkscape has long left little room for other free vector graphics tools. The Xara Group made a less successful attempt with Xara Xtreme, which found very few friends in the Linux camp. Version 0.7 of the proprietary program is still available as a 32-bit binary in various repositories.

Meantime, well removed from the mainstream, another program with quite interesting features – Gravit Designer [1] – is being developed, and it promises to be fully fledged vector graphic design software. This article is based on version (3.2.6), which was the current version at the time I wrote this article. Since then, the developers have released another major version, Gravit Designer 3.3, which includes "critical bug fixes" and "some long-requested features from the community." See the announcement at the Gravit Designer website for more on the new release [2]. Gravit Designer is not intended as a replacement for Inkscape but is more oriented toward the commercial design tool Sketch. Therefore, the main focus is on importing Sketch files, not SVG graphics.

Gravit Designer works across platforms because the developers implemented a JavaScript graphics engine, and the program itself runs in a kind of browser. You receive the proprietary application free of charge in the form of a ZIP AppImage (executable container) [3]. An AppImage is a complete filesystem that you mount on startup and contains the software and all required libraries. After unpacking the 64MB AppImage, you can place it in any directory (typically /opt/) and start it from there.

First Impressions

Whereas Inkscape shines through an incredibly extensive menu and many functions, Gravit Designer limits itself to relatively few functions in a clear-cut and tidy interface (Figure 1). However, the differences go much further than the surface shows.

Figure 1: Gravit Designer comes as a container application running in a (hidden) browser, which explains the unusual appearance.

Inkscape was developed as a classic design tool for the desktop. Gravit Designer, on the other hand, goes the way of modern apps, wherein the Internet provides storage and supports the exchange of information between instances. The software preferentially uses the manufacturer's own cloud; information is only available in the form of video tutorials on YouTube, along with a couple on Facebook and some other web portals [4].

You can avoid putting your data in the cloud by saving a file to disk with File | Save to file; however, templates and tutorials are only available online. To use the templates, you need an account for the Gravit GmbH cloud, which causes problems if you're using the Tor browser, for example.

Gravit Designer also uses its own proprietary file format to store data, although it is compatible with other formats, including SVG, with some restrictions. The software explicitly supports SVG, but not very well. When exporting, the program offers both uncompressed and compressed variants in the File menu, but the results are not convincing (Figure 2).

Figure 2: When saving a file as SVG from Gravit Designer, important information is irretrievably lost. (Left) The original graphic created with the application. (Right) The SVG file.

Practice

As with any new tool, it takes time to work effectively with Gravit Designer. As a test case, I created a small invitation to a dinner party. It contains many common elements in the form of vector graphics, including superimposed layers, curved fonts (i.e., text to path), and embedded bitmap graphics.

Implementing the software as a JavaScript applet in the browser forced the developers to design all functions and dialogs themselves, which leads to some dialogs appearing unstructured, somewhat clumsy, or rudimentary. A typical example is the color selection dialogs. Gravit Designer has only three options for defining colors, whereas Gimp (depending on the extension), for example, offers five to six variants. The preset method also combines brightness and contrast in the same dialog (Figure 3).

Figure 3: By default, Gravit Designer uses a variant of the HSV color model.

The rarely used hue-saturation-brightness (HSB) color model, a hue-saturation-value (HSV) variant, is used; the last component is realized in the form of brightness and contrast. You only see the other color models when you click on the small color area next to the font family. This action opens a second dialog (Figure 4) with additional possibilities to set colors.

Figure 4: Additional color models are only available after clicking on the color selector (arrow).

Gravit Designer creates layers automatically. Alternatively, you can create them manually, move them into the layer stack, or rename them with a mouse click. By default, layers are given the name of the tool you used to create them, which leads to the accumulation of many layers with the same name (e.g., Path) that cannot be distinguished from each other. To change the name of a layer, double-click the name to enable it.

Figure 5 shows the fairly simple Layers dialog, in which you can only directly influence locking and visibility. Everything else is controlled by the options of the elements in your graphic, such as layer modes or opacity. The lock and visibility icons only appear when mousing over a layer. The program shows where the layer is located in the image by highlighting the corresponding element with a box.

Figure 5: In Gravit Designer, layers serve more as containers for objects than as active graphic elements.

Because sequence and relative position play a decisive role when using objects, layers have corresponding functions in their context menus that let you group previously selected objects, which then appear as one unit.

When creating the design for the test, I used the Text to Path function (the name in Gimp). This often-used feature causes continuous text to wind along a previously defined path. Gravit Designer implements the function well, but in an unusual way: With a path tool, you first create a line along which you then guide the text. You no longer need the line itself.

Enable the line by double-clicking; the software then provides an enclosed area with a rectangular frame. Now select the Text tool and move the mouse cursor toward the path you drew. As soon as it turns red, click on the line where you want to start the text. The program automatically inserts Your text here, which you double-click to edit.

You will find the other settings for this function in the Appearance pane. Scale font on resizing lets you set where the font appears relative to the path. However, if something goes wrong here, Undo has a problem restoring the previous state. You'll find that this happens often in more complex images and dramatically increases the computing time.

This example shows that the combination of the container format and the implementation in JavaScript is not exactly optimal. Especially for situations in which RAM is in short supply, Gravit Designer's speed can be very slow, which is even more apparent in large projects.

A number of further steps follow if you also want to select the shape, adjust the size, and change the color of the font. As is customary today, Gravit Designer draws on and supports all the fonts available on the system. In the Appearance pane, you can select the font family and its attributes (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Once you have positioned the text, you can adjust many font details.

The program is very stingy when it comes to font sizes, which go up to 72 point by default; other values can only be entered directly in the Scale field and with the mouse wheel. At least parts of the font can be selected and – within a font family – provided with different attributes, such as bold, italic, or another color.

The software supports transparency, albeit indirectly: Select the Scale font on resizing | Appearance | Blending | Inverse Mask layer mode. Whereas Mask reduces the display to the areas covered by the current layer, Inverse Mask makes the areas covered transparent.

In the File menu you will find two ways to integrate or link bitmap graphics under Place Image and Link Image. You can adjust the size and position of the images, but Gravit Designer does not provide for any further editing. You might need to crop the images in advance, hide the edges, and adjust the brightness and contrast.

Internal

All told, the process is very simple for smaller projects: As usual with vector graphics, you assemble the images from objects. In the toolbar, you will find a collection of standard elements under the square. Besides line, rectangle, and ellipse, you will find polygon, triangles, and stars; spirals and other common objects are missing (Figure 7). Only the first three allow you to select them directly using shortcuts; for the others, you need to use the drop-down menu.

Figure 7: The selection of standard objects from which you construct a vector graphic is spartan.

By default, Gravit Designer fills all objects. You can control many properties with parameters in the Appearance pane on the side, such as the fill color and coverage ("Layer mode") under Fills. The designer solves the functions for rotation and size adjustment in an exemplary way by providing handles in the main window to rotate and scale each object directly (Figure 8).

Figure 8: The JavaScript-based application provides special handles for resizing and rotating objects.

When it comes to tools for paths – Pen, Bezigon (Bezier polygon), Freehand, Shading (closed freehand objects), and Knife – the situation is similar. The interesting Knife tool makes it possible to cut out parts of objects for further manipulation.

However, these tools are unlikely to be sufficient for more demanding work. In this context, it's interesting that each application of a tool creates a new layer, which serves as both an object and a journal (History), making it easy to apply subsequent changes to the images.

The software provides a Drop Shadow and an Inner Shadow for all objects. Two dialogs are available in the sidebar. The only other possibilities are to select colors (Color Adjustment) or to Blur objects. The designer has no more direct manipulations planned. Compared with Inkscape, this is a very small toolkit.

Selection tools look a bit better. Besides the cursor (Pointer), which selects precisely one object, you can Subselect, use the lasso, and select layers or Slices.

If you run out of space in the main window, the F key hides all the controls. Pressing Alt+Enter switches the program to full-screen mode but also places a considerable load on resources (computing time and main memory).

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