I’ve done my fair share of software reviews on this site, but so far, all of them have been about the major commercial applications and “industry standards” like Adobe products and a couple of 3D suites. But there’s a new class of graphics applications built on open-source platforms that are going to leap further and further into our awareness in the coming months and years for a variety of reasons. Possibly most notably, they are free.

The modern designer–any designer–would find it hard to get by without Adobe Photoshop, and, for years, there has been no real alternative (at least, for you fans of Corel products, not one that is substantially cheaper than Photoshop). Now, there’s GIMP (the GNU Image Manipulation Program), which actually isn’t the least bit gimpy. GIMP is a cross-platform, extensible, and expandable application that is quite robust and sophisticated. Does it do everything Photoshop does as well as Photoshop does? Not yet, but it does a lot of things quite well. Color adjustments and transforms are easy and powerful. The interface is highly customizable in a way that makes Photoshop seem clunky and staid. The gradient editor is so fun that I’m tempted to run my gradients in GIMP then import them over into Photoshop.

GIMP suffers a little bit by being focused so heavily on web graphics. Its print functions are a little underpowered. As you would expect, integration with Adobe products (like AfterEffects) is not available to the same extent as with Photoshop; features like layer styles are absent. (However, GIMP will save multi-layered files in PSD format.) GIMP was built primarily by and for Linux/UNIX users, so it requires the Apple X11 environment to run on OS X. This doesn’t impede its functioning at all, but it does make for a slightly more complicated install.

Perhaps the best thing about GIMP (aside from the price) is the “extensible and expandable” idea. Like a lot of other open-source applications, GIMP relies on a loose team of contributors that develop plug-ins and tools for use in the GIMP environment. The Plug-In Registry on the GIMP site houses a number of tools that do everything from export layers as a PNG sequence to automatically create a light saber effect. And that number is always expanding.