Inkscape Beginner’s Guide by Bethany Hiitola
Most recently LGW got hold of “Inkscape Beginner’s Guide”, Bethany Hiitola’s latest book on the famous free vector graphics editor. The book was kindly provided by the publishing house.
What is it about?
The book aims at newbies and explains how the basics of using Inkscape, a free vector graphics editor. It covers topics such as creating complex objects, working with layers, using some SVG filter presets etc. There's also information about customizing various parts of the application to your liking.
In terms of tools it focuses on shape tools and the text tool, providing information on formatting, including slightly advanced topics such as manual kerning of the text.
The book also provides some useful workflow tips that are better understood from ground up.
The book is built around solving small tasks. If you have difficulties jumping right into the deep waters of unfamiliar software, you will certainly appreciate the approach.
One thing I definitely liked is that Bethany tried to put some right ideas into users heads from the very beginning.
For instance, while explaining layer modes, she did tell that they are, essentially, a filter applied to a layer (actually, it’s a filter primitive, feBlend, but that’s specifics).
Another example is that she tried suggesting to structure project folders. Shaping the right workflow habits is quite commendable.
Yet another thumbs up goes for using a simple web page template that doesn’t look like it was made in 1995 with Microsoft Frontpage. Not that it couldn't be further improved.
When it comes to books for beginners, there is an interesting challenge that every author has to look straight in the face and try not fainting.
How do you explain a feature that relies on another feature that isn’t yet explained, without cross-referencing sections too much? And how do you, therefore, end up not having a 200 pages long Chapter 1 that looks like a spaghetti of ideas?
After going through several pages of notes on the book I noticed that nearly a half of them was on Chapter 1 — the introduction.
I think I lowered by eyebrows only by the end of Chapter 2 and was mostly nodding in agreement from then on.
So, what’s wrong with that chapter and what about the others?
Simply put, it has the majority of questionable and puzzling definitions I stumbled upon in the book. Here is a puzzling one:
Inkscape was built with SVG and the W3C web standards in mind, which give it a number of features, including a rich body of XML (Extensible Markup Language) with complete descriptions.
And here’s a questionable one:
Quark Xpress and Adobe InDesign... unfortunately cannot create or otherwise modify vector graphics.
My ultimate disagreement, however, is about the explanation of the difference between vector and bitmap graphics. For some reason Bethany decided to explain that difference by telling, and I quote, that the biggest drawback to vector graphic formats is that they are not ideally suited to working with photographs.
If at this point you feel an urge to scroll down to the comments section and write something nasty, you probably don’t think like the target audience of the guide :)
Personally, I think that the distinction between vector and bitmap graphics that we’ve learnt to read in books is a bit harming the ecosystem: people grow with ideas that certain things are impossible for vector graphics. And once they learn about e.g. Phantasm CS, they start asking questions. And those are the right kind of questions. But I digress.
Then there’s another thing. A recurring theme of the book is that you can freely scale vector graphics up and down. This is where I’ll have to toggle BIG FAT RED LIGHTS.
It’s such a popular misconception that it managed to crawl inside the brains of the best of us. In terms of physical representation you cannot really freely scale a vector graphics image down.
While theoretically a vector image is resolution-independent, you still have media limitations, be it paper or display. This is why icon designers take out details from their designs when they go from 512×512px images all the way to 24×24px. It's also why they are crazy about aligning vertical and horizontal lines to the pixel grid.
Likewise, when you scale up, at a certain point you might want to add details, because the media allows it (or even calls for, in case of Retina displays).
The point of vector graphics is that you can tweak shapes easier after scaling them up and down. Scaling as such is rather dull.
While some of the definitions were puzzling, certain parts of the book were quite a bit annoying. I could be wrong, but it looks like PacktPub editors tells authors to include the default “Pop quiz” and “What just happened” subsections in every chapter. Probably it’s because repetition is advertised as the king of perfection or something along those lines.
But here’s the problem... Some of the variants for pop quiz questions didn’t make sense or used terminology the users were not supposed to be aware of at the respective stages of reading the book. I’ve no idea if this is a strong requirement in PacktPub, but if it is, I’d ask editors to go easy on that. Inventing content just because its part of a template isn't the key to exciting reading.
There were few cases of consistently incorrect uses of terminology in the book too. For example, the Pen tool was called the tool for freehand drawing throughout the book. Traditionally freehand drawing is what the Pencil tool does. The net outcome is still a Bezier path, but freehand drawing is about a drawing technique rather than the underlying file format specifics.
The other case was the description of the Multiply layer mode. The explanation of what it does was based on a particular use case, but the logic wasn’t understood correctly by the author. If you get the book, I suggest you read the relevant part of GIMP's user guide for a short and precise reference.
I’d summarize the impression from the book like this:
Precision of instructions: 4/5
Quality of illustrations: 2/5
Contemporary trends coverage: 3/5
If you want to know the very basics of Inkscape and you want them in digestible chunks of information, the book will prove to be a nice introduction to Inkscape. Provided that you can train yourself to mentally skip “What just happened?” and “Pop quiz” subsections, as well as all of the Chapter 1.
What you really need to know is that you will get just a general feeling of what vector graphics editors do. Don’t expect the book to make you an almighty inkscaper. You will only get very basic skills of using Inkscape, as the book focuses on generic tools and techniques.
If you need a detailed explanation of features such as the Tweak tool or Calligraphy Pen or Tiled Clones, I’d suggest the Inkscape books by Dmitry Kirsanov and Tavmjong Bah — people who actually wrote some of those advanced Inkscape features.
“Inkscape Beginner’s Guide” is available in paper, PDF, EPUB and MOBI.