Soft drop shadows in LibreOffice Draw

My new book will be published Open Access, and I also aim only to use open-source tools as part of the writing process. The most challenging has been to figure out how to make nice-looking illustrations.

Parts of the book are based on the Ph.D. dissertation that I wrote a long time ago. I wrote that on a MacBook and made all the illustrations in OmniGraffle. While it was quite easy to make the switch to Ubuntu in general, OmniGraffle has been one of the few programs I have really missed in the Linux world. True, many graphics tools are available, but none with the same type of finesse as OmniGraffle.

After trying and failing with many of the most popular vector graphics tools, I have ended up using LibreOffice Draw to make all the illustrations. It is more limited than, say, Inkscape but provides the tools I need. It was also easy to get used to the workflow. The only thing I have struggled with figuring out is how to create nice-looking soft drop shadows. In OmniGraffle, the shadow function immediately looks nice, such as in this illustration of how one can think of an instrument as the mediator between action and sound:

My first attempts at adding a shadow in LibreOffice Draw ended up with a gruesome non-soft shadow:

I searched around, but could only find all sorts of complicated solutions. This was last year, and I decided to move on with the project without shadows. I could have moved to another graphics tool but had already spent quite some time making Draw figures. So I decided that shadows were not that important after all.

As part of the final manuscript completion, I am currently making minor changes to all the figures. Out of the blue, I found out that the latest version of Draw now has a more developed shadow section.

Hooray! By changing the “distance,” “glow,” and “transparency” settings, I now finally have soft drop shadows in place:

Draw does still not provide the same smooth user experience as OmniGraffle. But getting the soft drop shadow function in place helps a lot!

Finally moving from Apple’s Keynote to LibreOffice Impress

Apple’s Keynote has been my preferred presentation tool for about a decade. For a long time it felt like the ideal tool, easy to use, powerful and flexible. But at some point, probably around the time when the iOS version of Keynote came along, the Mac version of Keynote started loosing features and became more limited than it had used to be. Since then, I have experienced all sorts of problems, including non-compatibility of new and old presentation file versions, problems with linked video files, crashes, etc.

Even with its increasing amount of shortcomings, Keynote has been one of the few programs that I have been missing after my move to Ubuntu as my main OS three years ago. Keynote has also been one of the few reasons I have often decided to bring along my old MacBook rather than my current Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro workhorse.

Over the years, I have been trying other presentation software. I was an early user of Prezi, and still like the looks and non-linear approach that it affords. However, the lack of a native Prezi client for Linux has been a turn-off, particularly since I never trust the network connections when I am out traveling. I am also somewhat skeptic about not being able to use local media in Prezi presentations, particularly since I often use a lot of video material.

I have also been excited about trying out some markdown-based presentation solutions, including reveal.js and Remark. This has been refreshing, and I like such an approach when working mainly with text-based presentations. I do realize, however, that many of my presentations rely heavily on images, sounds and videos, which make the markdown-based approaches less ideal.

I have been trying Impress, the presentation part of OpenOffice/LibreOffice, on and off for several years, and have, to say it mildly, never been impressed. The design of the software has been ok, not even close to as intuitive as Keynote, but not so far away from MS PowerPoint. The biggest drawback, however, has been its performance, both when it comes to editing presentations, but also when presenting. After all, a presentation software has to be efficient to work with and needs to perform flawlessly in presentation mode.

Luckily, I decided to give Impress yet another try before giving a presentation in Hamburg this week. I exported a Keynote presentation to a .pptx file, and opened it up in LibreOffice Impress on my Ubuntu laptop. To my big surprise it worked very well! Not only did the graphical elements look good, but also the embedded videos worked well. There must have been some major update to the software recently, because suddenly the speed of editing also worked quite fine. There are still some issues when scrolling through a large presentation with lots of multimedia content, but not more than I can live with.

The conclusion: today I held my first multimedia-rich conference presentation using my Ubuntu laptop. Not only did the projector connection work flawlessly (which has not always been the case with Linux systems…), but also the presentation ran without any performance issues whatsoever. A new era has begun in my presentation life! LibreOffice Impress is still not as smooth and solid as Keynote was a few years back, but it is now at a point where it is stable and easy enough that I actually want to use it professionally.