Best Graphic Design Software Comparison (Top 10 Tools 2021)
A picture is worth a thousand words. And great graphic design is invaluable.
Brand design and logos must endure in the public’s visual imagination. Ads, social media posts and promotional content have to cut through the oversaturated image landscape. To do this, you need the best graphic design software.
Whether you need the image photo editing tools to do photo manipulation, or you want great illustration and drawing tools, the graphics software choices are huge. You can always try out free graphic design software, or jump right into the top industry standards.
In this article we’ll break down the best graphic design software. First we’ll take you through what graphic design tools can be used for. Then we’ll explain the major types of graphics suites. Finally we do an in-depth comparison of the best graphic design software. We highlight the design elements, features, the ease-of-use, and prices.
Graphic design software comparison chart (top 10)
Professional photo editor
Overall vector graphic design
Free photo editor
Free vector graphic tool
*Starting price where applicable, not including free versions
What is graphic design software?
Graphic design software is for creating visual content or editing existing ones like photographs.
The best graphic design software all share some similarities in look and feel. The basic user interface is intuitive and uses drag-and-drop. It often has a central window and dashboards beside, beneath or above it. The window is like the canvas where you see the graphics that you are working on.
Graphic design tools
The dashboards are like the toolkits. They include color palettes and drawing tools like pens, paintbrushes, paint buckets or spray paint cans. Here you also get tools for things like rotating, resizing, and cropping. There is also pattern matching, filters and typography. To manipulate these tools you can use a mouse, a pen tool or digital stylus, or even with a touch screen for some apps.
Graphic software also helps manage the file formatting of your visual media. While many design files work on SVG files (scalable vector graphics), the best graphic design software can handle many file formats. These include the basics like JPG, TIF, PNG, and GIF, but also formats like PDF for your WordPress site.
Graphic design uses
Graphic design software is used for everything virtual as well as physical. From web design to logos and ads, to print flyers, billboards and even merch like shirts and hats. Some graphics suites have templates for general things like business cards or pitch decks. Others have specific templates for things like Facebook Ads. Even video editing needs graphics for titles cards and other infographics.
Graphic designers can either work as independent designers, with design agencies, or in-house with a company. But today many people are deciding not to outsource to graphic designers. This is probably because of all the great graphic design tools out there, many with quick learning curves.
If you’re thinking of picking up graphic design, it’s good to know the basic kinds of graphic design tools.
What are the different types of graphic design tools?
So you’re shopping for the best graphic design software and are a bit overwhelmed by the choices?
To narrow them down you need to know what kind of graphic design you plan on doing. There are two major categories of graphic design. They are broadly illustrating and photo editing. In other words, you either create lines and shapes to form images from a blank canvas. Or you work with pre-existing images like photos sent from your iPhone or scanned old paper photographs.
The dominant graphic technologies for both categories are vector drawing and raster image editing (respectively).
Vector drawing or vector illustration is a set of drawing tools. The technology is based around marking points on a cartesian 2d plane. From there you make lines and shapes. You can manipulate their size and color and countless other things.
Vector image editor tools have some great advantages. They scale up without degrading the image quality. This is because it is information about the relations between dots, lines and shapes. Vector graphic software has no trouble manipulating this information. It recreates vector images faithfully at whatever size.
This makes vector graphics perfect for print media and other material goods from labels to clothing. You can design a billboard on an iPad or Android tablet and see huge above a highway looking great.
Raster image editing
A photo editor is using different source materials. It is not an image created from information about 2D objects. Raster graphics is a dot matrix. Meaning the image is broken down into dots or pixels and each has its own color. Rats graphics are also called Bitmap.
You can change colors individually or in swathes. But it’s the size of each pixel that is less flexible than with vector graphics. For this reason, you cannot augment the size of a raster graphic without degrading the quality. It’s what we often call pixelated, like when we see a zoom in too much on a digital image.
You need raster image editing software especially when working with non-digital images as your source. Also, most computer displays are raster images. Finally, most completed graphic designs are saved in raster graphic formats like GIF, JPEG, and PNG.
There are some graphic design apps that do both. Other times you have sister apps like Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. Then you have apps that focus on just one or the other. Of course the best graphic design suites have loads of more complex tools and new features.
What is the best graphic design software? Here’s our top 10 list:
Here’s a breakdown comparison of some of the best graphic design tools. It covers graphic design apps that go from easy and cheap to top professional stuff. We dig into the variety of graphic design tools. Then we briefly discuss price and if there are free trials.
Photoshop (most professional graphic design photo editor)
Adobe Photoshop is the biggest name in photo editing software. It was first launched in 1988 and still undergoes constant updates. Today you can use Photoshop on Mac and Windows desktop as well as on the iPad.
Photoshop is a raster or bitmap image editing tool. This makes it easy to zoom in and edit fine details. There are photo manipulation tools that allow you to repair or edit digital images. Most of these work with simple drag and drop. Aside from being a photo editor, Adobe Photoshop has some basic drawing features. Otherwise you can use Photoshop along with other Adobe products from the Creative Cloud, like Adobe Lightroom or desktop publishing tool Adobe InDesign.
There are free trials of Adobe Photoshop. Otherwise it goes for $20.99 per month for Photoshop alone, and $52.99 for a Creative Cloud bundle of more than 20 Adobe apps. There are also many great plugins for Photoshop and other Adobe products.
Photoshop is best for:
Illustrator (best overall vector graphic design tool )
Adobe Illustrator is another huge tool for graphic designers. Like Photoshop it was also first released in the late 80s. Since then it has had over 20 new generations. It can also be used on Mac, Windows or iPad.
While Photoshop was a raster photo editor, Adobe Illustrator uses vector graphics. A simple sidebar lets you choose your drawing or painting tools. Pencil tools let you draw freehand. You can also cut, move, reshape and resize images. Illustrator also has text features with great typography choices. Real-time rendering lets you preview your designs with little fuss. Since this is vector graphics, your images can be scaled up and printed with no loss of quality. Illustrator works alongside other Adobe desktop publishing tools like Adobe InDesign.
Adobe Illustrator costs $20.99 per month with an annual contract. You can also buy the Creative Cloud bundle of apps including Illustrator for $52.99
Illustrator is best for:
Canva (easiest graphic design tool)
Canva is a graphic design software from Australia. The free online version is very popular because it is intuitive and free. This is a good tool for making social media graphics.
Canva is best used with their templates. These include important ones for social media like Facebook Posts and Instagram Stories. There are other useful templates for things like flyers, presentations, logos and posters. Everything works through drag-and-drop functionality. You can also add text with many fonts to choose from. Canva also offers print services. You can get your design printed and delivered on anything from business cards to shirts. Canva is also good for charts for reports. It also has a photo library. Canva can be added to Google Chrome as a plugin.
There is a free version of Canva. Premium versions start at $12.99 per user per month billed annually. These plans get you more templates and a larger photo library.
Canva is best for:
Icons and logos
GIMP (best free photo editor)
GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. GNU is a free collaboration project and GIMP is their free and open-source graphic editor. It first came out in 1996. Today it works on Linux, Windows and macOS.
Gimp uses raster image design tools. It’s good for doing image resizing, retouching and restoring. There are free-from drawing features. There is high-fidelity color management which makes for quality printing. You can select colors based on RGB or CMYK. Another benefit of GIMP is the cross-platform functionality. You can import and export images in BMP, JPEG, PNG, GIF, TIFF and HEIF.
You can download the latest version of GIMP for free. Many people believe that it is as good as Photoshop. One issue is that there is a bit of a longer learning curve with GIMP.
GIMP is best for:
Raster image editor
Free forms drawing
Icons and logos
Inkscape (best free vector graphic tool)
Inkscape is a set of vector graphics design tools that is free and open source. It runs on Linux, macOS and Windows. It’s source codes are hosted on Gitlab.
With Inkscape you create vector objects and manipulate them. There are drawing tools that are freehand as well as for simple paths, lines and curves. You can move, scale, rotate and skew images. You can fill in shapes with patterns that are vector and raster. Other raster tools include bitmap tracing. Inkscape has basic text tools which use installed fonts. The editing format is mainly SVG but you can import other formats too. There is also an InkScape editor which can be added to Google Chrome.
You can download Inkscape for free from their website.
Inkscape is best for:
Vector graphics editor
Icons and logos
CorelDRAW (best graphic design tool for beginners)
Corel as a software company has been around since the mid-80s. They were sort of the incumbent to the then rising Illustrator. The main graphic design software product is CorelDRAW.
CorelDRAW does vector graphic editing. There are basic tools for vector illustration. CorelDRAW has page layout options that are like templates. The typography tools are limited but still very striking. The file formats compatible with CorelDRAW are BMP, PNG, JPG, PDF and GIF. There are some basic photo editing tools too. When you use CorelDRAW you can take advantage of good online tutorials.
There are several CorelDRAW plans. The Essential pricing plan is around $129.
Coreldraw is best for:
Layer-based photo editing
Gravit Designer is another graphic design software from Corel. It’s mainly for vector design but it also includes image and photo editing tools.
Gravit Designer is a pretty professional software. The interface is very busy and there is a learning curve. But the results pay off in the long run. It runs on macOS, Windows, Linux and Chrome. Advanced vector editing includes smart shapes, Boolean operations, vector path manipulation and object styling. Image editing has cropping, scaling and clipping. You can also rasterize selections to bitmap objects.
There’s a free version of Gravit Designer. It only gets you 500 MBs of cloud storage. For unlimited storage there is Gravit Designer Pro at $49 per year.
Gravit designer is best for:
Poster and ad design
Affinity is under the banner of British software company Serif. The Affinity brand has many tools and Affinity Designer is one of their most popular. It works on desktop and iOS.
This is Affinity’s vector design app. It’s a real competitor with Adobe Illustrator, but its formats are also compatible with it. The vector drawing tools are robust. These include 1 Million percent zoom, live effects, and real-time blending. Affinity Designer can handle thousands of objects without slowing down your computer. You can easily toggle between vector-only objects or vector with raster. The typography is also very artistic. For image editing there is Affinity Photo, a separate app.
The Windows or Mac versions of Affinity Designer are $49, and the iPad version costs less. Affinity Design also offers free trials on the desktop versions.
Affinity Designer is best for:
Pixar is owned by 123RF whose roots are in license-free stock image content. Today Pixlr is one of the most popular free and easy online graphic design tools. It works not only on desktop and tablet, but mobile too.
Pixlr is a photo editing software. The dashboard is very intuitive. It uses simple toggling and sliding for most image editing tools. Pixlr also offers users a large content library. You pick from ready-made borders, stickers, decorative texts, icons and more. It also has an AI tool add-on. This takes over repetitive tasks like background removal. It’s great for unleashing speedy creativity.
There’s a free version of Pixlr with basic image editing tools. The Pro version is $4.90 per month and the Premium is $14.99 per month. Check the site for promotions.
Pixlr is best for:
Vectr is a totally free vector design platform. You can use it online or download it to your desktop. It’s part of the 123RF and Inmagine tech family along with Pixlr.
Vectr has a very quick learning curve. There are helpful tutorials but the tools are intuitive too. As for vector design it’s toolkit is basic but enough for basic graphic design. You can share your ongoing projects in real time with a unique URL. It’s great for team collaboration. Vectr is a cross-platform app. It will sync between online edits and the desktop.
There will always be a free version of Vectr. The website says they are working on a pro version with new features to “keep the lights on.”
Vectr is best for:
Vector graphic design
Choosing the best graphic design apps for your needs: key takeaways
Now that you’ve gone through our list, we hope you have a better idea of the best graphic design software out there. And that you are closer to picking the right graphics software for your needs.
Here are some of the key takeaways. Adobe is still an industry standard and a dominant brand for all things graphic design. For photo editing software Photoshop is still very popular. If you are looking for something free and open-source, GIMP by GNU is worth checking out.
While for illustration and vector graphics, Illustrator remains a favorite. However when it comes to the more professional apps, Affinity Designer and Gravit Designer are good competitors for Adobe Illustrator. On the other hand, if you are on a budget, look into InkScape and Canva.
Another option is to consider the duo of Pixlr and Vectr. Between these two light and simple apps you get both photo editing tools and illustration tools.
Graphic design software may be a necessary app to help your business or organization. You need to create a striking visual impression of your brand that sticks in the public’s mind’s eye. But it goes beyond that one perfect logo. For this you don’t just need the most powerful graphic design tools, but also easy ones.
You want a graphics suite that can help you create a constant flow of new visual content. These days we are so bombarded with images that staying front-of-mind means always producing new material.
Balancing powerful and professional features with simplicity and speed is a core decision in choosing the best graphic design software. For this you need to know what your graphic designers require, and how each different app helps them be creative and productive.
And finally, if you are planning on learning graphic design yourself, learning curves are a big deal. We hope this piece gives you an idea of how to take your first graphic design steps.
It won’t be long before you are on your way to becoming a digital artist. All it takes is a little technical know-how and a good deal of personal creativity. Who knows, you might make the next swoosh, arches or bitten apple.