Ubuntu Artwork Crisis

Some people who care are not happy about the state of the Ubuntu Artwork team and mailing list.
Saleel’s take on the Ayatana list (good read, as off-topic as it might be, there).
Vish’s take on the Artwork list (you can see a lot of thought went into this.

Seems like a good opportunity to offer some reflection on how things developed and how at least one particular contributor ticks.

First post

My first post to the Artwork list happened towards the end of 2007, in roughly my fourth year of creating logos and mockups in the FLOSS-realm. After switching to Ubuntu, it seemed just natural to get involved there. I just loved the Circle of Friends symbol, though I never thought much of any other part of the official presentation.


I have to admit that increasing my chances of being hired by Canonical was part of my early motivation. Well, that didn’t work out. A constant part of my motivation, besides quite simply enjoying the creative process, is gaining experience, training and getting portfolio pieces out of it. Note that this can complicate cooperation, because under this aspect, it may hurt me if my work is altered outside of my control, or if it becomes unclear what exactly has been my part in a larger effort. Of course, experience with teamwork and having examples of it, is valuable, too.


Back then we had long discussions on the list. Many opinions, many words, not many results. There have been phases where we saw many theme mockups, but only ever a few theme implementations. Can’t fault anyone there; I also only created mockups and no themes. It’s just so frustrating, a lack of control coupled with hard to understand gtkrc files. But thanks to only few people, a community-themes package happened. Nothing new there, for this cycle …

The mailing list used to be noisy at times, but has been rather dead as of late. Though we will likely see some live now thanks to Vish’s post.


There was a lack of direction. I once tried to address this issue, by writing about design methods, target audience, desired tone and message on the wiki. There was some interest, but after a while it became clear there was no one else to work on that level and I didn’t have the energy to pull it through to results on my own.

Design Team

Later on, the formation of the Design Team at Canonical made all of that pretty much pointless. That’s also when I really buried the hope of having chance of creating a default wallpaper. It had been dwindling before already. Used to be motivating for a quite a number of people. The Hardy heron wallpaper was a success. The Ibex not so much. The author wasn’t happy with the result, his vision had been perverted by forcing it into another direction. Might be part of the reason why he ceased to be active. Though maybe he’s just to damn busy as a freelance designer, like I should be, too, if only I had my priorities straight :).

I wouldn’t hand it to a bunch of hobbyists either, if there’s a trained full-time designer in direct contact with decision makers. Sorry, I mean it would be embarrassing if that was a competition. Though the outcome is full of things that leave me puzzled.

Once in a while someone shows up with the assumption that the artwork-team is responsible for Ubuntu’s default look, still.


For Karmic, I took care of the wiki and put a lot of effort into organizing wallpaper submissions. Still proved to be hard for some people. The wiki “surge protection” kicked in, because of to many images on a single page, refusing to load. Complaining about that often enough led to ticket in tracker that predates Launchpad, but that’s all. Then the Flickr group took off. So I created the policy that we would not accept wallpaper submissions on the wiki anymore, knowing that they wouldn’t make it into the selection, anyway. All this also highlighted that the wiki is just not suitable to collect work from contributors. Too hard to edit, too much management effort required, doesn’t scale.


People used to add mockups to the wiki that went beyond theming into interface and interaction design territory. Usually unrealistic, never possible within a release cycle, even if there would ever have been developers to implement it. To not have those mixed up with things that could work for the upcoming release, I created a place that is basically a concept graveyard :/.

There are a few other things I could mention, but I better wrap up for now.

What works?

First what doesn’t work:

  • Unguided discussion on the list
  • Creating themes without iron willpower
  • Artwork submissions on the wiki

What does work:

  • Collecting wallpapers on Flickr and selecting a few per cycle
  • Countdown banner contest

Why do these work? Likely because of:

  • visibility of what’s going on.
  • low barrier to entry on Flickr.
  • clear mission and deadline for the countdown banner.

What else?

54 active Members in the Artwork team, according to Launchpad. One can really wonder what most them actually do, regarding artwork.

There’s an Art & Design forum. Currently it doesn’t look too bad when compared with the list, but I think like all forums, it encourages useless single line statements, terrible quoting habits and costs even more time because you have to actively go there, instead of just pulling messages. The need for email notifications in forums should tell you something …

Oh, and then there’s ubuntu-artists on Deviantart. Deviantart doesn’t even do email notifications, because going there to check your messages in addition to your regular email is so much fun.

About thorwil
I'm a designer from Germany. My main interests are visual and interaction design, free/open-source software and (electronic) music.

9 Responses to Ubuntu Artwork Crisis

  1. Both Edubuntu and Xubuntu are always looking and accepting community artwork. Perhaps aim for a default wallpaper in one (or both) of those for the next release! ^_^

  2. Martin Owens says:

    The ubuntu-artists dA group is basically just a users group. People may float up but it’s way below the level of where the ubuntu-art project wants to be.

  3. Thorwil, thanks for this review of the evolution and the way the Ubuntu Artwork team has worked. I understand many of your concerns and frustrations that you have outlined here… but I don’t quite get the main point of your post? What is this crisis you talk about in the title? What are the current problems with the Ubuntu Artwork team and what would you do to fix them?

    I’m asking because I might want to get involved, and I need to get a clearer picture before I do so.

    • thorwil says:

      The crisis is about a lack of a clear mission, inactivity and dwindling motivation among the few active members.

      This post is best understood in combination with the posts I link to at the top. It’s meant to provide some background. I’m not sure about what to do to fix it. This is being discussed on the ubuntu-art mailing list.

  4. mairin says:

    If you’d like to contribute to a distro that accepts community contributions in art and design (yes, even for the default wallpaper!) please consider the Fedora design team:


    Our mailing list is very active:


  5. Neo says:

    This is because Canonical unlike say the Fedora Project doesn’t treat community input as important in any of the design elements. If you want to work with a project that has a awesome colloborative effort in design, Fedora is my first choice.

  6. Brett Alto says:

    I’ve written about Ubuntu’s problems with artwork before:


    And I can see that nothing has changed except the Flickr page for community artwork since I complained.

    Ubuntu is developed by a software company that uses closed communication, so how can you expect them to listen to and study the community when it comes to artwork? It’s very disappointing.