Why read this? : We look at the main Adobe alternatives you can use to meet your graphic design needs. Learn which tools are best for illustrations, photo-editing and publishing. Plus, we cover online options aimed at beginners and casual users. Read this to learn which Adobe alternatives best meet your needs.
You need graphic design for many areas of marketing and e-Commerce. From creating logos and icons to enhancing the visual impact of your advertising and sales promotion materials.
Most graphic design work falls into one of these areas :-
- Illustrations – e.g. drawings, icons, symbols and shapes.
- Editing photos – e.g. manipulating or changing photography, combining photos and illustrations.
- Publishing documents – e.g. magazines, brochures or books.
If you do this yourself, you need to find the right graphic design tool to do each type of job.
Adobe is the most common choice. You can use their suite of Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign to meet all your needs. These are advanced tools, with a high level of features and benefits, and which also integrate easily with each other. They set the standard in the market.
But they’re not cheap. Each package is around $30/month. You can get all of them (and more) with Adobe’s Creative Cloud license, but that’s a not insignificant $80/month.
So not every graphic designer uses them. There are alternatives to Adobe which are cheaper, and don’t lock you into a monthly subscription. Many claim to deliver the same quality as Adobe, and depending on your needs, some of them can be faster and easier to use.
Cost of Adobe alternatives
Cost vary wildly with these Adobe alternatives. Some are free, but have less features and benefits, or are clunkier to use. Some match features and benefits with Adobe, but come with similar expensive subscriptions. Many fall somewhere in between these 2 ends of the cost spectrum.
(Note – costs quoted here are at the time of writing. These may change over time).
How much you choose to pay depends on how often you plan to use the tool, and how sophisticated your design needs are. It’s generally better to start out with the free options to learn what you need. You then trade up to more advanced options as your needs get more sophisticated.
However, if Adobe is your base comparison, it’s worth starting by looking at Affinity, its most direct alternative competitor.
Affinity - Adobe’s closest competitor
Cost and usage : $85 one-off for each platform – Mac and PC / $31 one-off for iPad only version.
The Affinity suite has 3 tools – Designer, Photo, and Publisher – which compete directly against Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign.
Affinity Design focusses on illustrations. Affinity Photo on editing photography. And Affinity Publisher on publishing documents.
The names kinda give away what they do, right?
Affinity’s mains selling point is it offers similar levels of graphic design sophistication to Adobe, but without the subscription. You pay once and it’s your’s forever. It’s very popular with those looking for an alternative to paying Adobe’s expensive fees.
The Affinity programs work on Windows, Mac and iPad.
Affinity Designer handles design jobs which require creating raster and vector graphics, such as logo designs and creating icons.
It’s positioned directly against Adobe Illustrator, and closely matches it in terms of features and benefits.
Professional illustrators also use it to do concept art, UI designs and create mock-ups.
It’s fast, customisable, easy to use and promotes itself as having an impressive feature list.
Affinity Photo handles photo editing jobs. It competes directly against Adobe Photoshop.
Examples uses include :-
- market research mock-up concepts.
- brand identity visual assets.
- advertising and sales promotion materials development.
- digital marketing design jobs e.g. photos for your website, social media posts and e-Commerce product pages.
It’s fast, smooth and precise. You can use it to handle quick corrections and delicate retouching as well as more complex layered art jobs. It also has an impressive feature list.
You use Affinity Publisher to create and publish multi-page documents. For example, if you want to create books, brochures, leaflet or magazines.
It’s a direct competitor for Adobe Indesign.
It lets you combine images, graphics and text in professional looking layouts, and prepare them for print. This would include, for example, setting margins, bleed areas and CMYK colour setting.
You set up templates and frames and use these to fine tune the different publishing elements.
It integrates with the other Affinity tools and most standard graphic design file formats. That gives you lots of control over your published documents.
More specific graphic design options
Adobe and Affinity work best as overall packages. They’re good if you have lots of different graphic design needs. But sometimes your need is simpler. More specific. Let’s look at some examples.
Cost and usage : Free – Mac and PC.
Inkscape is an open source tool, which you can use to create vector graphics for illustrations and other types of digital art design work.
It does similar tasks to Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Design. You use it to create basic shapes, symbols, icons and other digitally drawn design elements.
It’s available via the Inkscape website.
It doesn’t have the same design polish as its paid competitors. But it’s free. And it’s surprisingly capable once you get to grips with the user interface. You can match what Illustrator and Designer do for most basic graphic design jobs.
If you don’t want to pay for a tool to do illustrations, it’s a great place to start. It takes a little time to learn how it works. But once you learn it. you can use it for many different types of illustration design work.
Cost and usage : $15 one-off – iPad / $8 one-off – iPhone.
Procreate is an iPad based design package. Its key selling message is it works as a complete art studio for artists and designers.
It tells you, you can use it to create “expressive sketches, rich paintings, gorgeous illustrations and beautiful animations”.
Of course, you still need graphic design skills to actually do those things with this tool.
Procreate has a wide range of design features. You can choose from over 200 brushes, for example. It also has great technical features like colour control and touch control.
This touch control is part of what makes it so popular. You use the iPad pencil and your fingers to create and move elements around the screen. It feels like a more artistic experience than using a mouse and keyboard.
Cost and usage : All annual subscriptions for Mac and PC. $91/year for Corel Vector, $640/year for Standard, $599/year of Graphics Suite or $1,099 for one-off purchase.
Corel’s another well-known name in graphic design. It has 3 main packages :-
- Vector – “an easy to use web-based vector app for design hobbyists and aspiring pros”.
- iDraw Standard – “for graphics enthusiasts and home businesses to satisfy all their design needs”.
- iDraw Graphics Suite – “a fully featured subscription suite of graphics applications for designers who demand the latest and greatest”.
They also offer more specialist and technical design tools e.g. for people who need to do CAD designs.
Corel iDraw is a direct competitor to Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Design with an extensive list of features and capabilities. Similar to Adobe, it’s sold on a subscription basis. The entry level Vector program is $91/year, while the more advanced iDraw is $640/year.
Graphic design and photo editing
Graphic design and photography needs often overlap. These 2 key components of your visual designs usually need to work well together.
Most photo editing platforms let you add or edit text and shapes to your photos.
You’d do this to create print adverts, for example, and for website and social media content.
The most well-known Adobe alternatives for photo-editing are Gimp and Snapseed.
Cost and usage : Free – Mac and PC.
Gimp is an open source program, available at the GIMP website.
It has a large range of photo editing options. It’s good if you only have occasional photo editing needs because it’s free.
You can play around with what it does to see if it meets your needs. You then only go with one of the paid options if you need more advanced features.
Its user interface is quite complex. Plus, it doesn’t do much beyond photo-editing. Creating and adding shapes is fiddly, for example.
Because it has less features than Photoshop, it takes up less memory space on your computer. Do note however, GIMP is mainly for online photo editing. It struggles with colour systems outside the standard RGB screen system, like CMYK for printing, for example.
Cost and usage : Free – PC, iPhone, Android.
Snapseed is an app-based platform which offers a wide range of photo editing features.
For example, you can use it to do masking and colour contrast. It also has a range of advance filters which can make your images really pop on screen.
It’s mainly designed to be used on mobile devices for people who need to edit photos on the go.
You can use its templates to add text and some basic designs to your photos.
However, you can’t directly add lines and shapes. You have to use other tools to do this afterwards.
It’s best used for quick and easy photo editing tasks you need to do on the go.
Other related photo editing tools
Of course, many other programs and packages come with in-built photo-editing options. Most social media platforms which can host photography (e.g. Facebook and Instagram) let you edit photos directly. You can crop, change filters, and add text and basic shapes, for example.
There are also more specialist photography related tools for specific technical jobs. For example, Icons8 which upscales images without losing resolution quality.
You normally only use the photo editing on these tools because you’re already using that platform to do something else. It’s their convenience which makes them useful, not necessarily their technical capability.
Graphic Design and Publishing
In graphic design, publishing is usually a more specialised area. That’s why most of the Adobe alternatives for publishing are paid tools, aimed at professional designers.
You use them to create marketing materials like posters, books, catalogues and magazines. Basically, anything with complex layouts or multiple pages, or which needs to go to print.
The main options we’ve come across are Viva, Xara and Quark Express.
Cost and usage : Mac and OS. Free trial version / Personal version – $179 / Commercial version – $549.
Viva are a German based software business who offers a wide range of advanced publishing tools.
Their main product is VivaDesigner which focuses on improving publishing layouts, and supporting professional designers and businesses.
It works best if your publishing needs involve complex layouts and multiple contributors.
It’s as much a workflow, process and collaboration tool as it is a design tool.
Viva is a good option for those with more specialised and technical needs, but may well be overpowered for the casual user’s needs.
Cost and usage : Subscription – $15 / month.
Xara are another company who offer multiple graphic design platforms for publishing.
But their main product is Xara Designer Pro+ which helps you create printed materials. You use it to create business cards, flyers, posters and brochures, for example.
It comes with many customisable templates, and lets you create and edit text, layouts and other graphic design elements.
It can export to pdf/x, and also works with different colour options such as CMYK and Pantone if you need to physically print materials.
It’s mainly aimed at beginners and occasional users, so it doesn’t offer the same range of technical features as InDesign. But it can be a useful Adobe alternative for those with only occasional publishing needs.
Cost and usage : Annual subscription – $259/year.
Quark has been around a long time in desktop publishing, first appearing in 1987.
It claims to offer “power, speed and reliability for print and digital design jobs”.
Technical features include native-object conversion, conditional styles, synchronized content and automatic backups to improve workflows.
It’s aimed at professional and business users.
Quark can also handle some illustration and photo editing tasks as part of its overall publishing capabilities.
All-round graphic design tools for beginners
Graphic design has become more accessible for casual users in the last 10 years with the arrival of new online graphic design platforms.
These all-round packages come with lots of pre-set graphic design templates. Beginners can easily click, drag and edit these to create professional looking graphic designs. The templates are usually based on good design principles, like alignment and contrast. That means causal users can make high quality designs without being full-on designers.
You can usually change some, but not all parts of the design. For example, it’s usually easy to add your own text, play around with the photography and adjust the colour palette. These adjustments help you personalise your design, and stop it looking generic. This is great if your graphic design needs are relatively low-key. Social media posts and internal presentations, for example.
Pros of all-rounder tools
The main advantage of these tools is they’re quick and easy to use, and are often free.
However, most of them run on a freemium business model. You get the basic tool for free, but pay for more advanced features.
That means lots of prompts to upgrade to the “Pro” paid versions as you use the free version.
It’s a small price to pay for these “free” Adobe alternatives. Some people might find the constant selling messages annoying after a while, though.
For those new to graphic design, or with simple needs, these all-rounder packages are a good place to practice and experiment. You upgrade to something better as your needs get more sophisticated.
Cons of all-rounder tools
The main disadvantage to these tools is your designs will lack uniqueness and originality.
Everyone starts from the same set of templates. So you end up with a design which is an edited version of something already out there.
It’s your call, how much this matters to you. In smaller businesses and for casual needs, it’s not really an issue. But for higher profile projects, the generic nature of the designs means these Adobe alternatives may not be the best option.
You also need to check the usage and licensing terms on each platform.
There can often be limits to where and how you can use the designs. For example, adapting the designs to use on Print on Demand merchandise is usually prohibited.
The main options to choose from are Canva, VistaCreate, Desygner and Pixlr.
Cost and usage : Free, or $165/year for Pro version.
Canva was set up in 2012 in Australia, as a tool to make graphic design simpler for casual users.
Its online platform gives you an easy way to produce your own graphic designs.
The main areas we see people using it are for presentations and social media posts.
It’s also good for designing common Point Of Sale items like business cards, posters and flyers. It makes it easy by offering a wide range of editable templates created by professional designers.
People with little graphic design knowledge can easily adjust these to fit their needs.
So, for example, it only took us a few minutes to create these mock-up designs you can see here.
The left hand design would probably be a social media post. (adding the right message, obviously).
You can also add video and icons to the image as per the middle version here.
However, you often find with Canva, many of the better images and icons you want are in the paid, rather than free version.
Cost and usage : Online usage. Free or USD$10/month for Pro version.
VistaCreate offers a similar service to Canva.
The free version gives you access to 75K+ design elements, 1M+ photos, videos and vectors, and other design elements.
Upgrade to the Pro option and you get lots of extra features above and beyond the starter options. This includes access to 70M+ photos, videos and vectors, unlimited storage and additional technical features.
Its focus is on helping you “quickly create content for social media, blogs, marketing, advertising, and much more without professional design skills”.
Cost and usage : Online usage. Free, or Pro+ at $6.75/month, or Business at $13.25/month.
Desygner is another all-rounder competitor. It offers a wide range of customisable templates. These cover both business uses e.g. logos, business cards and flyers as well as personal uses e.g. greeting cards, invitations and CVs.
It gives you access to free stock images, lets you resize images online and remove backgrounds as well as other more advanced features.
Cost and usage : Online usage. Free or Pro version is $4.90/month.
The last of the Adobe alternatives we’ll mention is Pixlr. It has 3 main options :-
- Pixlr X – for quick and easy design projects.
- Pixlr E – an advanced photo editor.
- Photomash Studio, which offers 1-click image editing, for more impactful social media profile images and improved product images on your e-Commerce product pages.
We haven’t use this tool yet. But the specific focus on social media and e-Commerce usage with Photomash Studio makes it interesting, if that’s where your needs lie.
Conclusion - Adobe alternatives
With this list of the main Adobe alternatives, it’s clear you have lot of choice when it comes to graphic design tools.
To work out which one is right for you, you start by defining what type of design work you need. Different tools are good at different things.
You also need to consider how much you want to spend and how often you plan to use the tool (e.g. for one-off vs regular usage, for personal or business / team use).
There are free or cheap tools in each key area (illustrations, photo editing, publishing). It’s usually best to start with these. You may find they’re enough to meet your graphic design needs.
It’s only as your skills grow, or your needs get more complex that you need to look at the more sophisticated (but expensive) Adobe alternatives.
Check out our graphic design tools guide for more on this topic. Or drop us a line if you need help narrowing down which Adobe alternatives might best suit you.
Sketchpad : Photo by Charlota Blunarova on Unsplash
Black DSLR kit : Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash
Girl reading magazine : Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash
Thumbs up / down (adapted) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
Person holding black marker pen: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash