Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Joys of Proprietary Software

So Johns Hopkins has a new identity, meaning new unified logos for all of the different parts of the university. If you're expecting a rant about how I don't like the new look, fear not: I like it just fine! Personally I am not sure that this was money well spent (not that I actually know what exactly was spent, but it certainly wasn't cheap, probably several assistant professor salaries' worth), but since the end result looks pretty great: Yay!

Now what does any of this have to do with proprietary software? Well, I immediately grabbed the new logos to update the "virtual letter head" for recommendation letters I write, and looking at the "large" versions of the new logos I noticed that they are all 300+ kB for not much more than a stylized seal and a string of text saying "Johns Hopkins" and whatever else it needs to say. Does that seem too large to you? Certainly did to me.

A little digging showed that the PDF versions of our new logos had been created with Adobe Illustrator CS6 (Macintosh) using the Adobe PDF library 10.01 of all things. I have no idea what any of this even means, but I am stating it for reference.

The logos were surrounded by a lot of white space that I had no use for, so I loaded them into inkscape (using the "very fine" approximation level, something that probably doesn't matter) and saved them again. I did this because the "Save as..." dialog of inkscape gives me the option to say "only drawing" instead of "entire page" and hence gets rid of the white space I didn't want. Took all of 3 minutes to figure out, and when I compared the new inkscape PDFs to the original Illustrator PDFs at high magnification, I couldn't tell any difference whatsoever.

Reassured by the quality of the conversion process I hacked away at the new letter head and eventually I committed it all into my old Subversion repository. Whenever I do this I check the size of all the files I am about to commit (probably a habit left over from the good old days of CVS) and I was a little surprised to find that the new PDFs were 12+ kB. Yep, that's right:

Illustrator creates a file that's 25 times larger than a visually identical file created by inkscape.

Admittedly this difference probably doesn't matter very much in today's world of 1+ GB networks and 2+ TB disk drives. But I conclude from this that Adobe simply doesn't care. And that's sad because people pay them a lot of money for their products. Inkscape on the other hand anyone can use for free. Even better, anyone can improve it too. For me this is just another example of why free software beats proprietary software every time.

Sorry that I ranted for so long just to make such a minor point.

In any case, I can now create PDF recommendation letters that are 100+ kB instead of being 500+ kB for just a sexy new logo. And although I may be the last person on the planet who cares about the size of the files they send out, that still feels good.


  1. Peter, we're really happy to see the new logo being put to use. Thanks for writing up your thoughts! We made the PDF version of the files for a wide variety of uses, including some cases (ie print media) that require an incredible amount of metadata. This can make file sizes get pretty large.

    We encourage everyone to choose the filetype that best fits their context and then modify (and compress) those files however they like. All we ask is that designers follow our Usage Guidelines PDF that we include in every logo pack, which explains why the white-space was included around every file, among other things.

    Thanks again for using the new identity, and if you have any other questions, feel free to contact me directly ( or the identity email at

    —Jason Rhodes, JHU Office of Communications

    1. Jason, you can trust that I preserved the whitespace in the layout for the letterhead, not having sufficient whitespace would look horrid. However the whitespace alone cannot account for the difference in file size. I tried to find the metadata you're talking about but with the tools I use (all free software) it doesn't show up anywhere. So I still think that shoddy Adobe engineering is too blame. But that has nothing to do with the logo of course. Thanks for taking the time to respond!