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The best free iPhone apps of 2019

The best free iPhone sketching and design apps

Our favorite free iPhone apps for drawing, sketching, painting, layout and animation.

(Image credit: Cameraxis Private Limited / TechRadar)

Desyne

Desyne is for creating flyers in a jiffy. You get a slew of templates, categorized into sections like posters and events, or aimed at specific social networks. Select one and you can get to work.

This app has few limitations. Although you can make quick changes to a template – for example, swapping out the background image, and a few words – there’s lots of scope for creativity. You can add stickers, text, and masks to your creations, working with a straightforward but smartly designed layers system.

Naturally, there’s a catch: IAP. Without a subscription, templates and tools are limited, and a watermark is enforced. But even the free version of Desyne is fun, usable, and useful. If you like it, there’s a big annual discount you can make use of during your first few hours with the app.

Universe – Website Builder

Universe – Website Builder is – as its name suggests – a tool for building websites. The thought of doing this on your iPhone may make you feel queasy, but Universe works well, primarily because of the limitations it imposes.

Pages are essentially grids. You drag out a section and insert a content block. This might be an image, some text, a link, or a video. Once you’re done, your efforts are uploaded to the Universe website.

The app is usable, fun, and effective. With some effort, you can fashion surprisingly smart multiple-page sites; but also, with almost no effort, you can get something online. Of course, IAP’s are lurking – for $9.99/£8.99/AU$14.49 per month, you can add a domain, create a store, and view analytics. But even for free, this one’s worth checking out.

Autodesk SketchBook

Autodesk SketchBook is a drawing app for iPhone. It’s of course far from alone on the App Store, but what sets SketchBook apart is the sheer range of things you can do with the app.

Despite the minimal interface, there’s tons to discover. There are dozens of brushes, which mimic all kinds of real-world tools. Every one of them can be tweaked. Multiple layers afford you flexibility when working on complex compositions. And transform, shape, and text tools provide scope when you’re working on technically oriented illustrations rather than free-form doodling.

You’d usually expect to pay a fair amount for this kind of quality – and once, SketchBook did have a price-tag attached. But now it’s free – and yet still superb – it would almost be an insult to not download it, even if you can barely scribble a stick-person.

Vectornator

Vectornator squeezes a pro-quality vector illustration app into your iPhone. Load up one of the example images, or a blank canvas, and you’ll have access to a wide range of tools and settings. The app is usable and fluid in action, whether you’re working on a template for an app or a vector doodle.

Even the largest of iPhones lacks the iPad’s screen acres, and so there are some interface compromises. Some icons are perhaps a touch small, for example, but settings sit out of sight until you need them, appearing as a tabbed menu in portrait, or a slide-in panel in landscape.

Even when drawing with your fingers, Vectornator proves to be friendly and sleek. With a stylus, it’s superb – and a great way to free yourself from the desktop. That it’s free is astonishing.

Clarity Wallpaper

Clarity Wallpaper aims to get beautiful wallpapers on your iPhone’s home and lock screens. The main Featured feed houses all kinds of top-notch pics – although some sit behind a ‘magazine’ IAP of more heavily curated artwork.

More custom options sit behind the editor button: Blurs and masks (gradients atop a picture) can be created without limitation for free; dozens of color-only gradients are also available for selection. Everything can be tested against a preview home screen prior to saving. 

Doing more (custom gradients, screens with text and custom frames) requires a one-off $2.99/£2.99/AU$4.49 ‘Pro’ IAP. But even if you stick with the free version, there’s no doubting this is an excellent app for quickly getting some sleek, effective wallpaper for your iPhone.

Paper

Paper is a sketching tool based around jotting down ideas quickly. Your drawings are stored in little digital notebooks, which you can open and flip through. Tap a page and you can scribble with a finger or stylus using the app’s selection of brushes.

There’s a smattering of additional handy tools in the free version, most notably the ability to add text notes to any picture, and the means to export a note or book. However, some features sit behind monthly IAP, including photo import, copy/paste, and auto-correct when drawing geometric shapes and lines.

Despite these limitations – and the app rather oddly reorienting your sketches on iPhone when you return to browsing – Paper remains one of the most pleasing apps of its kind, not least if you retain a fondness for real-life versions of the little notepads the app depicts.

WhatTheFont

WhatTheFont is a tool for identifying typefaces, and it’s extremely simple to use. You can either load an image from your iPhone or take a photo using the app. It figures out where all the words are within a few seconds, or you can drag out a selection yourself. You then tap on a selected word, and the app scoots off to find matches.

The likelihood of perfect matches is slim – it depends on having a very clear image to start with, and the font being available on the MyFonts service – but during testing, the app was bang-on several times. Even when it wasn’t, it offered up something that at least captured the flavor of our original font.

Whether you’re a jobbing designer or someone who puts together the odd newsletter, WhatTheFont is an excellent freebie.

Canva

Canva is a graphic design tool for the rest of us. It’s not going to send professionals scurrying for the shadows, but with its mix of templates, filters, and editable design elements, it gives the average iPhone owner a fighting chance of working up an invite or poster during a lunch hour.

Layouts are smartly targeted and categorized, and move beyond typical posters, greetings cards and flyers into social media territory (Twitter headers, Instagram posts and blog posts), and even business (cards, logos and presentations).

You can import photos, add text, and fiddle around with a wide range of drag-and-drop elements before sharing directly to social media, or saving your work to your iPhone.

For anyone who wants to design something for their burgeoning home business, or just for fun, Canva is a great place to start.

Brushes Redux

Back in 2009, Jorge Colombo did some deft iPhone finger painting using Brushes, and the result became a New Yorker cover.

It was a turning point for iOS and suitably handy ammunition for tech bores who'd been drearily banging on about the fact an iPhone could never be used for proper work. The app sadly stagnated, but was made open source and returned as Brushes Redux.

Now free, it's still a first-rate art app, with a simple layers system, straightforward controls, and a magnificent brush editor that starts you off with a random creation and enables you to mess about with all manner of properties, from density to jitter.

Assembly

Developer Pixite is best known for its eye-popping filter apps, and so Assembly was quite the surprise. The app is all about building vector art from shapes.

Individual components are dropped on to the canvas, and can then be grouped or have styles applied. It feels a bit like the iPhone equivalent of playing with felt shapes, but you soon realise that surprisingly complex compositions are possible, not least when you view the 'inspirations' tab or start messing about with the 'remix' projects.

For free, you get loads of stuff to play with, but inexpensive IAP unlocks all kinds of bundles with new themed shape sets to explore.