We live in an era of unprecedented access to graphic design resources. It almost feels as though anyone can teach themselves to design. The downside to this? It takes that much more effort to produce professional-quality graphics, even when you know all the latest graphic design trends.
However, if you are determined, the first step is to get the right tools. You want your software to expand your creative thought process and result in highly polished finished projects.
Read on to find out not only which graphic design software comes most highly recommended, but what each program is used for and some free alternatives to build up your skills.
Let’s Be Honest: Adobe Has You Covered
Adobe has a powerful suite of graphic design tools. Each tool is generally considered the industry standard for the subfield it addresses. The downside to all of this software is that Adobe charges subscription fees, and it’s expensive.
For instance, Adobe has several plans available depending on your needs, but any one of the following listed programs (besides XD) costs about $21/month at the time of writing. Adobe XD is about $10/month. However, as a UI/UX design app, it won’t fulfill all your graphic design needs.
You are most likely better off buying access to the Creative Cloud (which includes all apps) for $40-50 a month because if you use more than two apps regularly, it’s worth it. Now, on to the software specifics!
If you can only buy or learn one piece of graphic design software, let it be Photoshop. Photoshop is primarily for photo editing, but it has a wide range of uses. It comes with a vast array of tools, is highly customizable, and continues to evolve with updates.
Photoshop is the most popular tool on this list, so learning it is a marketable skill and a relatively accessible one. There are plenty of tutorials and courses to be found online.
There is a learning curve, but that’s the only other major con to Photoshop besides the price tag. Photoshop takes the cake for the best graphic design software out there.
Illustrator is made for creating images, and while you can draw in Photoshop, the better choice for digital drawing is Illustrator. Specifically, Illustrator is made for creating vector images, which are fully scalable with no resolution concerns.
Illustrator shares many of the same benefits as Photoshop. It’s customizable, constantly improving via updates, and is part of the Creative Cloud.
This software also shares Photoshop’s limitations of high cost and steep learning curve. But if you want to draw a professional-looking logo, for instance, Illustrator is probably the best choice.
Adobe InDesign rounds out the list for most Adobe graphic design needs by addressing text and layout design. It’s not too challenging to learn yet is the absolute go-to tool in digital publishing.
You can format a book with this software and then send it to be published, which people often do when they need to format something for publication. InDesign is necessary if you want to look like you know what you’re doing.
Adobe XD, meanwhile, is intended for UI/UX design. Like every other piece of software in this suite, XD is the industry standard for design software in its field. The best graphic design software is intuitive but also has plenty of tutorials available and XD is no exception.
Interestingly, XD has only been around since 2015, while its closest competitor, Sketch, debuted in 2010. XD is more popular besides this head start, likely because Sketch is restricted to Macs only, whereas XD is also available for Windows users.
CorelDRAW and Affinity Designer: Strong Competitors
The CorelDRAW graphics suite is designed to compete with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator–within one program. The suite is the most complex and expensive tier of CorelDRAW, with “essential” and “standard” tiers for the less committed.
Like Adobe products, the CorelDRAW graphics suite is widely known, highly respectable, and highly expensive. An annual plan is about $17/month, or a one-time purchase is about $400. This software could be the best graphic design software for you if you want something along the lines of Photoshop or Illustrator but want to pay a little less for similar functionality. Other benefits are that you will have access to a wealth of assets and be able to export to many different file types.
It is relatively affordable, at a one-time cost of around $50. Affinity Designer is for creating vector images and is thus considered a worthy Illustrator alternative.
Other benefits to this design software are the lack of lag (even with the strain of dozens of objects) and handy grids for keeping everything in alignment.
Other Software for Niche Needs
If the above recommendations aren’t speaking to you yet, it may be that they fail to address a more specific niche of software for graphic design. The following design software deserves a mention for covering the bases where Photoshop can’t.
Procreate is a highly capable app as an alternative to Photoshop. It’s made for the Apple iPad and pencil, which creates an intuitive feel that only drawing directly on a surface can accomplish. Procreate shares the cons of Adobe products, though, such as a high cost and steep learning curve.
Autodesk Maya is for 3D graphics and animation. While difficult to learn and expensive to acquire, Maya is the best choice out there for 3D animation. Many animated movies you’ve seen likely make use of it as their design software!
Sketch is a unique UI/UX designer because it’s affordable ($9/editor, per month) and is relatively easy to learn. Adobe XD may be more popular, but if you would only need XD out of the Adobe Suite, Sketch might be the best graphic design software for you. The only major drawback, as mentioned earlier, is that Sketch is only for macOS, so PC users are out of luck.
Free Alternatives to Get the Job Done
If you want to get your feet wet with design software, these free options might be perfect for you.
- For photo editing, try: Gimp, Photoscape, or Pixlr X
- For drawing and vector graphics, try: Inkscape, Infinite Design, Krita, Vectr, or Gravit Designer
- For making or using templates easily, try: Canva or Genially
Wrapping Up: The Verdict
Software for graphic design comes in many different specializations and price points. Overall, the best graphic design software is usually the Adobe product that fits your specific design needs, whether it be drawing or text layout or editing images.
A more affordable vector graphics alternative is Affinity Designer. CorelDRAW is still expensive but appealing as a two-in-one drawing and image editing software. Finally, don’t forget that there are plenty of free options and programs devoted to a narrower range of applications or platforms. Photoshop may be the king of design software, but it’s not the only option!