Best graphic design software
The problem that designers face every day is that of unending revision. Perhaps something needs adding, removing, recolouring or de-emphasising. The permutations on how a piece of artwork can be subtly different are as infinite as the reasons for altering it.
Recreating physical artwork with minor differences is time-consuming and costly, whereas in the digital realm it can be quick, cheap and repeatable.
Using a graphics design application means colours and elements can be changed, removed or redesigned rapidly without a complete rework. That allows for the expansion of design options, providing wider variation and additional time that can be allocated to the creative process rather than being consumed by the practicalities of making artwork.
We’ve collated a list of the best graphic design tools that can be used by professionals to produce new designs rapidly, or the less experienced to produce something workable.
- We've also highlighted the best free software for graphic designers
Built for creating professional artwork for screen or print
As a replacement for DrawPlus X8, Affinity Designer isn’t a rehash and was built from the ground up over a five-year development project by Serif.
Specifically aimed at professional designers and how they work, this software can handle a very wide scope of design tasks, including web, branding, concept art, typography and even repeating patterns, as you might need on ceramics, wallpaper or soft furnishings.
Inherent cloud functionality also makes it a good option for teams of designers working towards a common goal. And all this functionality can be yours for a very modest £48.99 ($49.99) per seat on Windows PC or Apple Mac.
Now on the 22nd version since 1985
Essentially, Adobe Illustrator is the vector version of Photoshop, and the two share many common tools and functions to aid designers who use both.
However, if you want to design graphics that are can be rescaled from a postage stamp to a giant billboard, then Illustrator is certainly the tool of choice.
There was a time when you could buy Adobe Illustrator outright, but Adobe now only offers this product on the Creative Cloud (CC) suite, and it isn’t cheap.
There is a Student version, with a 65% discount, but a business customer will be paying £19.97 ($19.99) per month to have single seat access to this application.
It might have a powerful feature set, regular updates and be available for both Apple Mac and Windows PC, but the cost is prohibitive for occasional users.
The daddy of vector design applications
CorelDRAW was most designer’s first ever serious Windows application, and many still have great affection for it today.
However, this isn’t a cheap tool as you must spend £599.99 ($792) on the CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 2018 to get CorelDRAW, even if you only want that specific tool.
That makes it one of the most expensive per seat solutions, even making Adobe’s subscription costs look affordable.
What you get for the money is a massively powerful suite that can work with both vectors and bitmaps in a seamless design workflow. It’s remarkable in terms of the feature set and how relatively easy it is to learn.
A cross-platform vector editor that’s free
Due to the complexity of vector illustrations, most software for creating them is locally installed, but Gravit Designer has online options too.
The cloud-based version that runs from any browser and can automatically save to the online storage or locally.
Alternatively, on Windows PC, Apple Mac, Linux and Chrome OS, there are installable releases that can better utilise the computer hardware.
Our experience is that the online version can get slow with complex designs, but the locally installed versions cope much better.
Whatever platform you use it on, the application is free, so there isn’t any excuse for not giving it a try. There are plenty of impressive examples designers have created using Gravit Designer that prove it can be very effective at some jobs.
A free tool with plenty of useful features
Most business people shy away from free software for often valid reasons, but Inkscape is certainly worth looking at before you commit to buying CorelDRAW or an Adobe CC subscription.
It’s a vector design tool that offers broad file support, extensive text manipulation and both Bezier and Spiro curve types. It also has an extension model that allows new features to be easily installed, and there are some amazing ones available.
The only reservations we have are that even on a powerful PC it can be slow at times when a complicated process involves rendering.
As a GPL licensed app, along with Windows, Linux and Apple Mac versions, you can also download the source code and compile it for whatever version of Linux you use.
For a complete analysis of Inkscape check out our full review.
A vector editor designed purely for Mac
Rather than the scatter-gun approach of other applications, the creators of Sketch built a tool to address a relatively narrow requirement.
Sketch is focused on screen design, specifically creating the icons and interface elements for websites and applications. And, as the software is exclusively available for the Apple Mac, mostly designers working on iPhone, iPad and macOS applications are going to find it useful.
That said, it can be used more generally, but its strength is creating slick user interfaces.
Regrettably, Sketch is available only on a subscription model that costs $99 (£75.60) per year, although updates are released very regularly.
A one-stop creative document solution
The company behind Xara started out on the Atari ST and Acorn Archimedes computers in the 1980s, before focusing its efforts on the PC when Windows came along.
Its latest version, Xara Designer Pro X, is a comprehensive design tool that can work with both bitmaps and vectors with equal aplomb. That means it can handle DTP (desktop publishing), graphic design, illustration and photo manipulation tasks in a single tool.
For those wanting to mock something up rapidly, a license gives you access to over a million archive photos and illustrations to incorporate, along with hundreds of template layouts and thousands of design elements.
The price is £199 ($299), and a cut-down version called Xara Photo & Graphic Designer is available that costs just £49.99 ($59.99). And Pro X can be found even cheaper on Steam.