I first used a computer to produce documentation over thirty years ago but my first experience of free software was just over ten years ago with xfig, a program that was easy to use and had obviously been developed by those who used it. I still use it for simple diagrams but for colour graphics Inkscape is my program of choice. Developed by professional graphic designers who were dissatisfied with the quality of commercial software, it can create the SVG images that are needed for the next generation of web design and it has all the tools a creative designer needs; it can also turn your bit-mapped logo into an SVG image for use on your website.
My next was LyX; at the time I needed something which could print maths properly and LyX fitted the bill but I also found that I could produce high quality documents in less than two-thirds of the time I could using any other software. LyX 2 now has all the writing tools a writer could need, offers a choice of ways for a group to write collaboratively and can produce the final output in print, PDF or HTML format.
But LyX 1 did not handle multiple languages well and here OpenOffice came to my aid; it has now morphed into LibreOffice. Not only does it support more languages than any other similar program, it makes it very easy to switch languages and to spell-check in multiple languages. If you are familiar with MS Office 2003, LibreOffice will be reassuringly familiar; the main differences are that it can open documents in a wider range of formats and it uses a different database format from MS Access in which to store data, though there are ways to get round this.
My other early discovery was ImageMagick, a comprehensive image manipulation program. ImageMagick can convert nearly every known format into another format and it can be set up to do repetitive operations, for example, converting a large number of images from one size to another. I use it because it is so quick and easy to use for simple conversions and cropping.
Most recently I have begun to use Scribus, another program developed by professionals who were dissatisfied with what commercial software had to offer. Scribus allows very fine control over the design of a poster or leaflet and, as well as simple printing, will produce colour separations for use with a professional quality printer along with PDFs.
John R Hudson