November 14, 2006

What really happened to Ubuntu's Edgy artwork

Author: Nathan Willis

Casual Ubuntu users may have registered surprise when they first booted the distribution's Edgy Eft release this past October. Back at the beginning of the Edgy development cycle, much was made of the formation of a new, dedicated Art Team to develop a fresh look for the backgrounds and splash screens of the startup process. But when Edgy hit the shelves, the artwork was scarcely different from that of its predecessor, Dapper Drake.

In the intervening months, members of the Art Team had designed entirely new material, based on internal discussions and contributions from the Ubuntu community at large. On October 12, however, Ubuntu founder Mark Shuttleworth declined to accept the new package, reverting artwork to its Dapper Drake contents. Shuttleworth explained his reasoning on the ubuntu-art mailing list, but the action still provoked negative reactions from both list subscribers and Ubuntu forum participants, many of whom felt that Shuttleworth's veto violated his pledge to leave final decisions to the Art Team's leadership.

The public discontent was confined to non-participants; while accusations flew and argument ensued among outsiders, Shuttleworth worked with three core members of the Art Team to tweak and polish the existing Dapper artwork package in time for Edgy's release. Emotions run high during such a controversy, so it is difficult to get an objective account of what happened. The week after Edgy's release, however, Ubuntu Artist in Chief Frank Schoep agreed to give his take on the full story -- and try to clear up any misperceptions suggesting friction between the Art Team and upper management.

Edgy art rolled back to Dapper

Although some in the volunteer community had speculated that Shuttleworth or higher-ups at Ubuntu had been dissatisfied with the Art Team's scheduling or communication, Schoep said that the rejection of the team's proposed artwork was ultimately made on aesthetic grounds, though, he added, there were branding issues raised by the marketing team.

On the critical question of whether Shuttleworth's decision to reject the team's work violated the wishes of the community, Schoep insisted that the Art Team had always understood the Ubuntu sponsor's role as "client" to their "design firm" -- and in the professional design world, you work to the client's vision, not your own. "We weren't working as much to our client's vision as I thought we were," Schoep said. "Mark had a very clear view of what he was looking for in artwork for Edgy, and the direction we took with the artwork team didn't really connect with that in the end."

To a degree, that disconnect stemmed from the individual artists' interest in pushing Edgy's look in new, flashier directions. "We set out to start from scratch and to top Dapper, while Dapper was arguably very close to what Mark had in mind."

A prominent factor in much of the submitted artwork -- which is still publicly available -- is the use of visual effects, yet even as the feature freeze approached, there were still unsolved technical problems, such as inconsistency between color palettes. After Shuttleworth announced the rollback, Schoep, Jonathan Austin, and Jozsef Mak reworked the Dapper art packages for consistency, and limited the effects enhancements to a gloss finish.

Community versus Team processes

In spite of the last-minute reversal, Schoep does not regard the time invested during the Edgy process as a waste. "We learned a lot as a team. I learned a lot, being the Artist in Chief attempting something completely new," he reflected. "What we did for Edgy was following a totally new way to create artwork with our community. During the [Ubuntu Developers Summit] in Paris in July this year a small group of us -- consisting of Kenneth Wimer (the Kubuntu Artist in Chief), Troy James Sobotka, and me -- drafted a process plan similar to one you would find in a professional environment."

The plan involved multiple stages of defining requirements, proposing fixes, and iteratively developing solutions. Schoep credits the process with easing the chaos normally associated with creative brainstorming. "Instead of a scenario where you have 20 people dropping in with random designs and asking them to be the default, we had those people work together closely and build on their peers' work."

Nonetheless, the oversupply of interested artists made project management difficult, particularly as the release date neared and the team needed to focus its attention on refinement. "Instead of collaboratively refining artwork, we'd still have 20 different people working on 20 different designs, so to speak."

Schoep said that the team discussed traditional tools like Version Control Systems (VCS) but never found anything suiting both their unique workflow and non-source-code product. "The last phase, Polish, is the only phase where a proper VCS could have helped in theory. In practice it didn't get that far since by the time we got there it became clear we needed to start over again because of the direction we were heading."

On the other hand, Schoep cites Theme Teams as an overwhelmingly successful byproduct of the Edgy release cycle. Theme Teams are self-organized, independent theming projects that enjoy the freedom to pursue their own design philosophies, but still enjoy the benefit of shipping with the main Ubuntu release. The Edgy release cycle produced four; Schoep expects more next time around.

Gearing up for round two

All things considered, Schoep is proud of the work the Art Team and community contributors did in the Edgy release cycle, both as artists and as newcomers to the formal Ubuntu development process. He is quick to admit his own missteps as a first-time team leader, but remains positive in his outlook and focused on making improvements as the Art Team and volunteer artists start work on the next Ubuntu release, Feisty Fawn.

"The road was the destination. Although I fully understand the disappointment about the community Human artwork not being the default, I want to thank everyone in our artwork community for being around and sticking to the process for Edgy."

"For Feisty," he says, "a major improvement will be to have Mark's visual direction explicitly clear in advance of any work done by the community, so we can prevent working opposite of where we should be going. This will also allow the community to focus more on creating artwork instead of defining a design direction."

In preparation for Feisty, the Art Team has begun work on revamping the art.ubuntu.com site, which Schoep hopes will simplify community submissions and team coordination. Formalized style guides and documentation remain a possibility, though Schoep declined to go into detail. "In the end, I think Ubuntu will move towards a more formally described style, which will make it easier to contribute artwork, which in turn will result in more artwork available for inclusion." Feisty Fawn is slated for release in April 2007.

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