No matter if you’re dealing primarily with marketing, photo editing, social media graphics, or user interface (UI) and user experience (UX), as a graphic design professional, you will likely work with a combination of paid, subscription-based, and free graphic design software throughout your career. With that said, there are some tried and true programs that have stuck with users through the years for one reason or another.
What Kind of Software Do Graphic Designers Use?
The choice of software often depends on factors like the specific needs of the project, individual designer preferences, compatibility with their workflow, and budget considerations. This explains the popularity of certain online graphic design programs, some of which can even be used in a web browser through a free version or free trial before committing to a paid subscription plan.
The Rise of Online Graphic Design Tools
As the digital landscape currently stands, the visual appeal of webpages, applications, social media posts, and e-commerce platforms is critical to consumer interaction and brand perception. In most cases, the goal is to display both originality and usability. Digital design tools have enabled creativity and seamless collaboration across platforms and formats like never before while expanding availability to hobbyists, beginners, and professionals alike.
Below, we explore the most noteworthy graphic design software of today along with their various capabilities and appeals.
Adobe Creative Cloud’s suite of applications related to graphic design includes Illustrator (for vector graphics), Photoshop (for image editing), Express (a free alternative to Illustrator), InDesign (for layout design), and others.
- Adobe Illustrator – This software is an industry-standard, with top-tier editing, type, and vector drawing tools. Illustrator’s recent incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities and continual updates keep it ahead of the curve compared to competitors. Plus, as a cornerstone of graphic design, knowledge of this program can be key for collaborating with others for vector design projects.
- Adobe Photoshop – When it comes to advanced photo and image editing, Photoshop has long been a dominating software solution. This program package extends beyond mere image editing and into UX design, digital painting, photo touch-ups, and more. The latest tool developments have helped streamline and simplify tasks that were once more complicated, such as removing image backgrounds.
- Adobe Express – Formerly known as Adobe Spark, Express is a standalone, free graphic design software as well as part of Adobe Creative Cloud’s All Apps subscription plan. It’s intuitive to navigate, powered by generative AI, equipped with free design elements and templates, and integrates with other Adobe products. Need to assemble a quick video or ad? Want an application that works seamlessly with both mobile and desktop? Adobe Express is a flexible solution that can be great for beginners—although perhaps less ideal for detailed, complex creative projects.
With most programs under the Adobe umbrella, a paid Creative Cloud subscription is required; as a graphic designer, however, this investment is commonly expected, as it grants access to a full suite of tools in addition to their latest updates.
Widely used for both icons and UI and UX design, particularly for web and apps, Sketch is an easy-to-learn program with a minimal learning curve compared to other design software. It might lack the full range of features that other applications (like Illustrator) offer, but it includes the basics and a simple interface for UI design. Sketch is available for Mac users only.
Canva is a go-to, user-friendly tool for designers and non-designers alike, created by non-designers. As a web design tool with a free version that all types of professionals can take advantage of, it offers customizable templates for nearly any design task you could imagine—from email headers and business cards to infographics, simple text overlays, or social media posts and ads. Consider upgrading to Canva’s paid version if you want to level up your output and access advanced features and capabilities.
Figma is a cloud-based, collaborative interface design tool for creating user interfaces, web designs, app prototypes, and other graphic design projects. Figma’s strength lies in its collaborative features, making it a popular choice for teams working remotely or across different locations. Its versatility, ease of use, and real-time capabilities have positioned it as a prominent tool in the realm of UI/UX design and graphic design collaboration.
Often used for vector illustration and layout design, CorelDRAW has been a pioneer in the graphic design industry and still boasts a loyal user community along with a vast range of competitive features. While some Adobe design applications may have taken over the market as the modern standard, this graphic design tool offers continually upgraded capabilities and multiple tiers including a standard version and suite package. The former is targeted more at amateurs, whereas the latter is more popular among professional designers. CorelDRAW also offers either a subscription or a one-time payment model, making this graphic design software considerably adaptable based on the user’s needs.
The GNU Image Manipulation Program, aka GIMP, is a free, open-source alternative to Photoshop. This design tool is popular and praised for its customizable interface, digital retouching abilities, ease of creating designs from scratch, and compatibility with a variety of file formats.
Inkscape is a vector graphics editor known for its versatility and extensive range of capabilities compatible across platforms. Its combination of a rich feature set, open-source nature, and focus on vector-based design makes it a common choice among those looking for a powerful but free graphic design software for creating scalable, professional-quality graphics. There are features catered to both beginners and expert designers.
As a graphic design software featuring vector graphics and photo editing functionalities comparable to (and compatible with) Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer is an ideal low-cost alternative. It is packed with all the most essential tools for an excellent value, with a one-off payment model plus the latest software updates. This program can even provide perks that those of the Adobe suite don’t, such as quicker operation, detailed zoom, and infinite redos.
Popular among digital illustrators (especially iPad users), Procreate boasts an impressive reputation and price point for its quality of painting tools and overall performance. Though it might not be the full package, it does offer basic yet helpful drawing tools to support the smoothest shapes and brush strokes.
Vectr is a user-friendly, web-based vector graphic design software suitable for beginners and casual designers. Offering helpful tutorials and tools for collaboration, this accessible program is free forever unless you choose to upgrade to a premium plan with more storage and credits (and without ads). The collaborative aspect of Vectr really sets it apart, allowing live synchronization on projects with teams or clients.
A powerful, open-source digital painting software, Krita is favored by artists, illustrators, and designers for its extensive painting tools, customizable interface, and support for animation. This free graphic design software was established by the artist community and depends on donations to keep building out features. Krita’s program is highly customizable with tools for variable uses, but there might be a considerable learning curve for non-professional designers seeking a simpler solution.
Lunacy is a graphic design tool specifically built for Windows users, focusing on creating designs for Windows platforms—particularly UI/UX and web design. It offers a design environment suited for creating and editing vector graphics and interfaces aligned with Windows design principles. This graphic design software is completely free and accessible to beginners yet has a range of more advanced tools and features. Plus, Lunacy is compatible with Sketch files and makes it easy to share and edit work with others.
Known for its simplicity and versatility, Pixlr is an online photo editing and graphic design program featuring three different versions. Its mix of focused design tools, web-based accessibility, and basic and advanced features makes it a popular choice for those seeking a user-friendly yet capable image editing solution. Pixlr’s suite of applications function in web browsers or on Android and iOS devices.
SVG-Edit is a free, web-based, open-source graphic design program that provides a convenient solution for editing scalable vector graphics (SVG) files, plus essential vector editing tools and a straightforward interface for users requiring basic editing functionalities (without the need for complex software installations). This totally free graphic design software might not offer the most modernized tools, but it remains a go-to for quick creating and editing tasks. SVG-Edit’s repository is hosted on GitHub.
Photo Pos Pro
Photo Pos Pro is an entry-level photo editing software tailored to beginners as well as enthusiasts wanting an accessible way to enhance their images. This free tool has numerous plugins available to spice things up, and its easy-to-use interface and help system can help users kick things off smoothly.
Making the Right Choice in Graphic Design Software
In order to make the wisest choice or investment in graphic design software, start by defining your needs: What do you require in terms of program features that can support the scope of project types that you might work on? Additionally, consider the software’s ease of use in relation to your skill level and the learning curve.
Comparing Features, Compatibility, and Scalability
The following factors can also help determine whether a particular graphic design program is worth the combination of capabilities, usability, price, and long-term sustainability:
- Features – Make sure the design software is a match with the list of essential features you require (vector editing, photo manipulation, typography tools, etc.).
- Compatibility – Check if the software is compatible with your operating system (Windows, macOS, Linux) or devices (desktop, tablet, mobile, etc.).
- Scalability – For a system to be scalable means its resources are equipped to handle work in increasing volume or complexity. Thus, consider whether the software will meet your future needs as your skills grow and your projects become more complex.
Seeking a Bachelor’s Degree in Graphic Design?
Could you visualize a future working in graphic design? At RMCAD, we offer two different options to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design: an on-campus and an online graphic design program. While pursuing your bachelor’s degree in graphic design with us, you could become immersed in the latest industry tools, programs, and principles of graphic creation, visual composition, and the like.
If you’re interested in exploring your options further, request more information to decide if Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design could be a good fit.