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Graphic design tools

Why read this? : We explore how graphic design tools meet different business needs. Learn how project scope and budget drive which tools you use. We also share examples of which graphic design tools you need for specific tasks. Read this to get to grips with graphic design tools.

Graphic design tools

How this guide raises your game :-

  1. Learn the 3 key factors which drive your choice of graphic design tools.
  2. Understand the difference between raster and vector graphics and how that impacts your choice of graphic design tools. 
  3. Follow our examples of graphic design tasks and learn which tools you use to do them.

Design ideas generally start in your head and then you sketch them out on paper. Graphic design tools help you digitise these ideas making them easier to edit, share and use in your work.

Agencies, photographers and video makers will use different types of graphic design tools as part of their service to you. They use these to create, edit and share graphic files.

But if you want to do any design work yourself, you have to know which graphic design tools best meet your needs. 

Your choice is normally driven by :- 

  • the design job to be done.
  • your design budget.
  • the quality and quantity of the designs you need.
Screenshot of home page of Adobe Photoshop software

Ready to test your knowledge?

What’s your starting level of knowledge about graphic design tools?

Take the 2 minute, 5 question Three-Brains graphic design tools quiz and see how much you know about graphic design tools already.

The design job to be done

You have a wide choice when it comes to graphic design tools. Defining the design job to be done helps narrow this down. The main types of jobs are :-

  • designs from scratch – e.g. illustrations, icons, symbols and shapes. The most common graphic design tools for these jobs are Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, Affinity Designer and ProCreate.
  • designs to work with photos – where you need to manipulate, edit or change photography or combine photos and designs. Example graphic design tools include Adobe Photoshop, GIMP and Affinity Photo.
  • designs of multi-page documents – e.g. magazines or books. Here you need publishing software like Adobe InDesign or Affinity Publisher.
3 illustrations / images showing 1. Symbols, Icons and Illustrations 2. Photo editing and combining elements and 3. Documents and resources

Your design budget

Adobe is the market leader in graphic design technology. It sells a wide range of highly sophisticated tools which can meet all your graphic design needs. 

All their tools integrate really well, and they encourage you to buy their whole Creative Cloud package. It’s a very slick user experience.

However, that sophistication, integration and experience doesn’t come cheap. 

Adobe sells its software on a subscription-only basis. You buy each tool on a monthly or annual basis. The price ranges from $15-$30 per software program per month

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

The subscription includes automatic updates at no extra charge. So, you always have the latest version. And you get access to several extra services like guided tutorials and Adobe fonts.

There are around 20 different tools you can choose from. These cover graphic design, photo editing, publishing, web design, animation and other skills. 

Rather than buy on a package-by-package basis, there’s also the Adobe Creative Cloud license option. This gives you access to ALL 20 Adobe Creative tools for around $80 a month. 

This includes other programs beyond graphic design packages such as Adobe Animate, Adobe Dreamweaver (for websites) and Adobe XD (for experience design).

The subscription nature of the Adobe package means you essentially never “own” the software. You have to keep paying for it to be able to access and change the Adobe files you create. So, while you can always view the jpg, png and PDFs you create, you have to keep paying the subscription to be able to edit them.

Also, the monthly payments are locked in a year in advance. There are harsh exit fees if you pull out early.

Adobe alternatives

It’s for these reasons that alternatives to Adobe are also popular. The most obvious competitor is Affinity. With Photo, Designer and Publisher, they offer viable alternatives to Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. Each program has a one-off AUD$80 up-front cost. But then the software is “yours” to own forever.

For specific needs, you can also look at open-source and free software like GIMP for photography and Inkscape for Illustrations. Here you edit and manipulate the design elements directly. 

Then, there are online design platforms like Canva and Vistacreate. These let you take templated designs and edit key elements like fonts and colours to create customised designs. Other platforms like Desynger throw in even more design tools you can use. These types of platforms usually offer some free design elements and more advanced (paid) options. 

The quantity and quality of the designs

The final influence on your choice is how often you’ll use the software and how good you need the designs to be.

For example, if your website, e-Commerce platform and social media channels depend on regular, high quality and original visuals, joined-up packages like Adobe or Affinity are the best all-around solution.

Mind you, these packages have steep learning curves. You have to spend time learning how to use them. And you have to use them regularly enough to justify the cost.

It’s for this reason, that many businesses use freelancers or agencies to do the work. But of course, when you do this, you have to pay for the time it takes the graphic designer to do the work. 

And while Canva seems like a cheaper option, it suffers from the fact that anyone can use it. So, it’s hard to be original and truly creative. If you pull from the same base designs as other people, you won’t stand out. (See our brilliant branding and behavioural science articles for more on why standing out matters). 

Where and how will you use the graphic design?

The output quality is also influenced by where and how you’ll use the graphic design.

There’s a big difference between the quality needed for a social media post to be seen on a mobile phone and a graphic for a 96-sheet outdoor billboard, for example.

It’s also important to know that graphic files come in 2 formats. Raster or vector. 

How and where you use these different file types also influences your choice of graphic design tools.

Raster graphics

Blank Billboard seen from the ground against a clear cloudy sky

Raster-based graphics are based on a series of rectangles or pixels which are used to create an image. The term raster originates from the world of television. Most images you see on computer screens are raster generated. 

Common raster-based file formats include .jpeg, .gif, .bmp, .tif and .png.

When you need to use an image or graphic on a small screen (e.g. a mobile phone or a laptop), and especially where the image is used on a website, the raster image format gives you good enough image quality. And it won’t use up a lot of computer memory, so it won’t slow down your website. Most websites display images in .jpg and .png formats. 

However, the challenge with raster graphic file types comes when you want to expand the image. Let’s say to use the image on larger surfaces, like a T-shirt or a billboard. When you expand the raster-based graphic or image, it can lose its sharpness and appear “blocky”.

You can get around this if you create a raster image with a high resolution. A high-quality photo taken on a DSLR camera, for example. This would create an image with a high resolution or a high number of pixels. But this also means the image takes up a lot of memory.

As you can see from the image here, this high-quality image from was over 22MB. This would give you the maximum amount of edit capability without losing the sharpness of the image.

But 22MB is a massive file size. Most websites aim to get images to under 100Kb to help them load faster. 

Vector graphics

For graphics such as text, shapes, symbols or icons, you can also use another graphics format called vector graphics. 

Vector graphics are stored not as pixels but as paths. Common vector graphic file types include .eps, .svg, .pdf, .ai and .dxf. Because the graphics aren’t stored as blocks, they retain their integrity no matter the size of where they are used. There’s a great technical explanation of the difference between vector and raster graphics here. 

But for practical purposes, you just need to know that vector graphics will stay sharp no matter the size. Compared to raster images or graphics, they’ll retain their sharpness, and not go “blocky”.

Vector graphics are most useful when you need the image to be scaleable. For example, you usually create and store logo designs in vector formats as logos appear on objects of multiple sizes. Anything from a matchbox to a 96-sheet billboard might feature a company logo. And you need that logo in a vector format to make sure the resolution and quality stay the same at all sizes.

Raster vs vector example

Look at this example where we wrote the words Raster in Adobe Photoshop and Vector in Adobe Illustrator.

On screen, they look identical in terms of quality of resolution. But zoom in and it’s a different story. You can see we’ve “blown up” the first letter of each word and that’s when you start to see the differences. 

The curve inside the “R” of Raster and the diagonal slope of the leg, look relatively blurred and blocky when scaled up.

Compare that to the diagonal line of the “V” of Vector. It keeps its sharpness, even when scaled up because the original image was created in a Vector format. 

Graphic design tools - raster vs vector - examples of an R and V created in Photoshop (raster) and lllustrator (Vector)

Graphic design tools and jobs to be done

Now we’ve covered the basics of how you’d decide on the type of graphic design tools you need and where you’d use them, let’s go over a few examples.

As Adobe are the market leader, and offers the widest range of services, we’ll use their tools as the benchmark. We’ll show how you can use their graphic design tools to complete the jobs to be done. 

So, let’s start with some examples where your graphic design needs to start from scratch. Let’s say, you need to create a new icon, a new logo and a new illustration based on a sketch. For these types of jobs, you would use a graphic design tool like Adobe Illustrator.

Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based program for drawing, you guessed it, illustrations. You can use it to create illustrations such as shapes, symbols and icons from scratch. For designers who like non-digital tools like pen and paper or brushes, you can also take a picture and import it into Illustrator.

Illustrator is particularly good for designers who work with typography and who like to create graphic elements like geometric shapes and patterns, logos and digital artwork.

Our most commonly used tools in Illustrator include the Pen and Anchor point tool, the Shape Builder tool and the many Effects which can added to create vibrant and striking designs. (See our separate article on these functions). 

Icons - Shapes and symbols

While most people can draw shapes like squares, circles and rectangles with basic software like PowerPoint or Keynote, graphic design tools like Adobe Illustrator come with many features to edit, manipulate, cut, paste and redesign those shapes into something much more interesting and exciting. 

For example, if you look at the icon we use within our logo, it’s all done in Adobe Illustrator.

Our idea was we wanted an icon that looked like a head or brain shape. After some trial and error, we settled more on a head than a brain shape. The icon also had to involve the use of “three”.

And we wanted it to look unusual and unique. 

The 8 steps used in Adobe Illustrator to build up the Three Brains logo

From idea to graphic design icon

So, to get to this icon, we started with only 3 basic circles. We went through 8 steps to get to the point where it became a unique graphic design that’s now part of our brand identity. We used a lot of the tools in Adobe Illustrator to create this visual. For example, we used the alignment and distribution tools to make sure the initial circles were evenly balanced. 

We then used the Shapebuilder tool to remove extra lines and the offset path tool to create the evenly spaced 3 lines which link the 3 circles.

And finally, we used both the ‘effects’ tool and adjusted both the ‘stroke’ – the line around the outside of the shape and the ‘fill’ – the colour inside the stroke line, to create the unique and interesting ‘explosion’ circles. 

As an aside, these are meant to symbolise the connections that happen when parts of the brain come together. But they also help create the effect of eyes and mouth in the head shape. We liked this because one of our favourite sayings is “You’ve got two eyes and only one mouth” which means you should look (and listen) more and talk less. 

Shapes and symbols in designs

You can take these shapes and symbols to an even higher level when you add colour, shading and other effects. This turns the shapes and symbols into something more like digital art and drawings.

We use this technique for example on our T-shirt and merchandise designs that sell in our shop. 

So, for example, the controller in this game player design T-shirt was drawn out in Adobe Illustrator.

The different colours, textures and shading were all hand-drawn using Adobe Illustrator.

And the layout with the font and font styles, were all created in Adobe Illustrator. 

You can also read more about the specific tools we use within Adobe Illustrator on each design by looking at our design notes.

Game player Red Controller T-shirt design

Logo design

Obviously, icons, shapes and symbols also have multiple uses in websites and advertising. But the most common place to see them is when they’re combined with text to create logos for companies and brands. 

We cover logo design in much more detail in our guide to the logo design process. But let’s look at a simplified example of how we created the Three-Brains logo in Adobe Illustrator.

We started with the basic words we needed to convey. Then we looked at them with multiple different typography options.

At this point, there’s no colour or visual. We just want to apply the psychology of fonts to see which font style seemed to “fit” the brand best. 

At the next stage, we narrowed our choices to a few likely fonts. And we started to mock up some graphic icons to see how they might work with the fonts.

Visual showing 4 steps of logo development for graphic design - 1 Typography options 2 Test icon and text combination ideas 3 Identity a winning idea 4. Refine idea eg effects, colours, dimensions

So, given three-brains stands for the “head”, “heart” and “gut”, we looked to see how we could combine some elements of those into an icon, for example. And given we also sell T-shirts we also looked at a version that used a T-shirt for the letter “T”. Though we tested all of these designs, none of them were quite right. So, we eventually settled on the three-circle adaptation you can see here as the best fit.

But that wasn’t the end of the process 

We also looked at how we could add colour to the design. We applied some “Warp” effects to the three-brains text to make it look more rounded rather than flat. It was also important to have a logo that could work in multiple space dimensions. For example, for a square profile picture on social media and the long rectangular banner in our website’s top navigation bar.

Adobe Illustrator gave us the flexibility to create, edit and manipulate all these sorts of options. And even more importantly to be able to export them as useable files in the right dimensions and formats for all the places they needed to appear. 


And finally, on Adobe Illustrator we come to the use of the tool which gives it its name, illustration.

Creating specific illustrations takes a combination of artistic skills to visualise and create the base design, technical skills to be able to add colour, effects and composition, and the patience to create these in digital formats. 

But in essence, ALL illustrations at the very simplest level will have 3 key steps. 

The first step will be the very rough draft layout of the idea. This may be a pencil sketch or a rough outline of the shape or idea behind the illustration.

Graphic design tools - Illustration - examples showing sketch, work in progress and final illustration

The second step then creates each element of the design, usually as separate layers. Layering is a very important element of creating illustrations in Illustrator. As you can see in our example above, all the different elements have separate layers – the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the jacket and so on. 

This has several benefits. 

It’s easier to isolate and edit specific elements. You can ‘hide’ elements when you are not working on them so that you don’t accidentally change something. You can also change the order of the layers so that some layers sit over the top of others effectively hiding what’s behind them.

Layer masks

And you can create more advanced effects like layer masks, where you can combine design elements.

So, in this example from one of our early T-shirt designs, the outline of the mum juggler and the repeated word “mum” are on two separate layers in the original Illustrator file.

The “mum” text is actually just a rectangular text box.

But when you create a layer mask with the mum juggler in front, it only pulls through the text visible within the front cut-out section. 

Adobe Illustrator lets you do very advanced vector-based designs, which for the cases we’ve outlined above like icons, logo designs and illustrations, make it a great choice. 

Three brains Mumjuggling t-shirt design

However, sometimes you may want to include these design elements with photography or to include them in a whole document. If so, then you need to find other graphic design tools, as Adobe Illustrator is less good for those tasks.

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is a raster-based program for photo editing. It’s the most commonly used photo editing software. It has multiple uses in marketing and e-commerce. 

Where Illustrator tends to stand with a blank page, Photoshop starts with existing imagery. You use it to edit and update imagery. Let’s have a look at some example uses where you’d need to do this. 

Combine images to create new images

One of the most commonly used tools in Photoshop is the object selection tool.

This is where you cut out an image from its background to place it on top of another image. You combine different parts of images to create a ‘new’ image.

So, for example, the suppliers of the print on demand T-shirts we provide for our shop provide model images like the one on the left for their base T-shirts.

But with object selection, you add both the design and the background so the image you use on the website looks more like it was shot in natural surroundings than in a studio.

Powerpoint slide showing an example of using graphic design tools for object section and layering

This makes the image more interesting, appealing and unique.

In Photoshop, all you need to do to achieve this is to choose the Object Selection tool. You drag it over the part of the object you want to cut out. In this case, the model. Most times, the software is smart enough to recognise what you want to do. So, this type of cut-and-paste job is usually quick and easy to do. 

Sometimes, you need to make some more specific and manual edits using the magic eraser or lasso tool. You may need to play around with the photography defaults if you want the lighting to look a specific way. But overall, it’s a relatively quick and easy skill to learn and use. 

Tidy up photography

Photoshop is also very helpful in tidying up photos. 

So you can remove spots and blemishes, or subtly alter the tone, contrast and colour mix of your photography to change the way it looks.

When you adjust multiple features of an image such as brightness, exposure, colour balance and hue, and add effects like gradients, Photoshop can transform images into professional-quality output.

If you look at the example here, on the left we have an image of a rusted old car in a yard. On the right, the same image, but with adjustments to the brightness and colour mix to make the picture stand out more. Making things look good is what Photoshop does best. 

Powerpoint slide showing a before and after example of using graphic design tools to tidy up images

You can add text to images

Adobe Photoshop also gives you the ability to create and add text to images

You’ve access to every font that you have through Adobe Creative Cloud’s license. And, you can also use the software to adjust colours and add effects to the text.  

So, in this example, we wanted to create a header image for our brand activation guide. This was a combination of a background image and graphic design for the “signs”.

Of course, Adobe Photoshop has many more capabilities beyond the basic use cases we’ve covered here. 

Man leaping between two cliff edges with signs for planning on one edge and action on the other edge

There are many YouTube guides and online courses you can use to learn the skills and techniques in Photoshop. We used the Graphic Design Masterclass on Udemy when we started to learn it. This was a great introduction to Photoshop and how to use it. (See also our initial thoughts on photo editing article for more on Photoshop).

Adobe InDesign

The final tool most commonly used by graphic designers in the Adobe suite of products is Adobe InDesign. InDesign is mostly used in publishing.

It shares some common functionality with both Photoshop and Illustrator. But where it comes into its own is when you have a project where you need to manage multiple pages (such as an e-book or magazine article).

It lets you create page ‘masters’ that act as a template across multiple pages. For example, think of page numbering, margins and borders, text style across headers and body copy. 

It usually exports to a PDF format as this is the most common form of document reader. However, it has the flexibility to export publishing-ready content featuring formatted text and images in multiple formats. 

If you go on a website and there’s an offer to download a free e-book, the chances are it was created in Adobe InDesign. 

You can see from this example where we wanted to create a set of Buzzword Bingo cards related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though we could have easily created any one of these images in Illustrator, it would have been complex to create ALL of the images in Illustrator. Illustrator would consider them as separate and unconnected elements. 

With InDesign though, it’s much easier to connect design elements, such as the formatting on the page.

So, if you want to apply consistent elements across multiple pages and also export a single, collated final document, Adobe InDesign is a better option than Illustrator. 

Powerpoint slide showing the 2 key steps in using graphic design tools for documents - creating individual pages and collating / exporting them as pdf documents.

You can change the format of the page numbering for example, and have it change throughout the whole document. In Illustrator, you would need to do this page by page.

Conclusion - graphic design tools

Though we’ve given several examples of use cases where a single graphic design tool can help you to get the job done, in reality, you often need to use a combination of tools to create the final output. You might design a logo in Illustrator, overlay it on an image in Photoshop and then paste that in as a front cover for your document in InDesign. 

Where the Adobe Creative Cloud comes into its own is the way the different software options integrate. They work really well together. Because they come from the same ‘owner’, you can easily switch between them, and pull in design elements from one tool into another.

The only Adobe alternative which can match this level of integration is the Affinity suite of products. With Affinity Design, Photo and Publisher, they’ve set themselves up as a direct competitor for Adobe. 

There are many other graphic design tools out there which do specific jobs and are often cheaper and faster than Adobe’s. However, they don’t have the same depth of features or degree of integration. 

As we said at the start, your choice of graphic design tools depends on the job to be done, your budget and the quantity and quality of the designs you need. This guide should have given you ideas on which tools will best meet your needs. 

Three-Brains and Graphic Design

Though our focus is on marketing and e-Commerce consulting,  we have picked up lots of knowledge about graphic design from doing this. This means we can and often do include graphic design as part of our overall business service if it’s quicker and easier for our customers.

We can coach and advise you on how to best meet your graphic design needs e.g. using graphic designers, managing it in-house or building your own graphic design skills to create more effective designs.

Get in touch to learn how we can support your graphic design needs via our coaching and consulting services.

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