The 7 Best Graphic Design Software (Free & Paid)

best graphic design software

It used to be that text was everything: words were king and the accompanying visuals were merely an afterthought. But, a lot has changed since then and in many cases how a website, magazine or poster looks is more important than the content within.

As a graphic designer, this probably isn’t news to you, and you’ll know how important it is to create visuals that catch people’s attention. You’ll also know how important it is to find the right software and graphic design hardware that allows you to design to your full potential.

The following programs are our top picks for free and paid-for graphic design software.

When you think ‘creative software’ you probably think Adobe Creative Cloud and, with good reason: it’s our favorite software out there.

Price: $599.88 per year
Trial: Downloadable trial versions available

  • Compatible with Windows and iOS
  • Paid as an annual subscription
  • Apps integrate well with each other
adobe creative cloud

We’ve chosen to cover Adobe’s offerings as one, otherwise, this list would be dominated by their various excellent apps. The great thing about sticking with Adobe is that the various tools integrate so well with each other that you’ll have a complete seamless design solution at your fingertips. If you decide you only need one of their apps you don’t have to pay for the entire package though: single apps are available at $20.99 per month.

If you use photography in your designs, you need this tool in your life.

This multitalented bit of kit is suitable for beginners and experts: newcomers can crop and straighten images and use the 20 one-touch filters to instantly upgrade their images, and pro graphic designers can combine multiple images, alter perspective and, well, anything else that they can dream up.

photoshop

All the usual tools such as the clone stamp and color controls are included, RAW format is supported, and you can share directly to social media. The lack of a progress bar for some features can be irritating, but other than that we have no complaints about this wonder-tool.

If you use vector art to create sketches, lettering, logos or icons, Illustrator will make the job easier and more efficient.

Precision is the name of the game with Illustrator, and whether you’re starting from scratch or importing existing assets, you’ll have the tools available to manipulate your design exactly as you want.

illustrator

The Free Transform tool is one of our favorites and allows you to rotate, scale, reflect, shear or distort an image. You can also distort an image and play with perspective. Touch Type is another handy feature which allows you to adjust the kerning of text. It also allows you to manipulate the shape of individual letters, which can save you a lot of time while making powerful edits.

It’s also possible to create complex illustrations for video, so if there’s any crossover into videography in your role you’ll get twice as much use out of this heavy-duty software.

Note that beginners won’t be able to just leap in and get going with Illustrator, it’s a steep learning curve but it’s well worth the effort.

Our third and final graphic design tool from Adobe is perhaps the first choice of designers, publishers, and artists.

This page layout software combines graphics and text easily on pages of any size, which makes it the perfect partner for anything from flyers to billboard posters.

adobe indesign logo

This is a flexible tool, and you can easily drag and drop isolated layers and resize elements and images. The Liquid Layout feature is great if you design for digital formats such as eReader content, as you can select from pre-designed templates which are pre-sized especially for this output. Newly added features include support for endnotes and text management in Creative Cloud libraries.

One thing that makes this design software stand out against its competitors is the ability to create master page templates. If you apply a change to this template, it will ripple through to any other pages using it which saves time and increases consistency.

As with Illustrator, it’ll take time for you to get to grips with Indesign, and there’s always the concern with cost, but for us, there are no other downsides to this incredible design program.

4. GIMP

GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is free, flexible and has a superb online support community, making it the Photoshop alternative for beginners.

Price: Free
Trial: None

  • Comprehensive tool for visual artists
  • Compatible with a wide range of OS
  • Open source lets users add and improve features
GIMP logo

GIMP delivers many of the tools you’ll need as a graphic designer. You can produce icons, art, and other graphical design elements easily with this comprehensive program. You can also create original artwork and manipulate photography to suit your project. A nice benefit of this software is that you can customize the interface to suit what you’re working on. Considering GIMP is aimed at artists in various fields, it’s a great touch to be able to tailor your own UX to suit your particular type of work.

There are lots of third-party plugins available for GIMP, and it can be linked with other free software including Scribus and Inkscape to deliver a well-rounded graphic design solution.

Another awesome thing about GIMP is that it’s open source, so you can change features and distribute your version for other users to download. This means that the software is constantly evolving, so if there’s a feature you feel is missing, it probably won’t be for long. One thing to bear in mind with this though is that community-created versions won’t always have been subjected to rigorous testing, so they can be a little buggy. But other than that, we have no complaints; especially considering that this is free software.

What GIMP is to Photoshop, Inkscape is to Illustrator: a brilliant alternative without the Adobe price tag.

Price: Free
Trial: None

  • Compatible with Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux
  • Open source code is great for developers
  • Superb file format support including PNG, DXF, sk1, and EPS
inkscape logo

This powerful tool is a credible alternative to Adobe’s industry-standard software, and it has all the features you’ll need to create vector-based graphics.

This open source program gives you everything you need to create and manipulate objects and add and adjust text, and there’s a wide range of vector-editing tools. It’s easy to fill shapes with gradients and group them with other layers, and you can also convert them into paths and take advantage of endless filters including bevels, overlays, and textures. There’s also all the expected drawing tools neatly laid out in the user-friendly interface, including layers, text, shapes, and fills.

This software is free and is also relatively simple to use, so it’s suitable for all designers: whatever your level. The program does have a reputation for being slow though, so if you’re using vector design every day it might be worth paying for a faster program.

Still, for a free piece of software that can do pretty much anything that Illustrator can do, it’s absolutely worth a download. After all, if you don’t love it, you haven’t really lost anything.

For Adobe-standard software with a one-off payment option, CorelDRAW is our pick of the bunch.

Trial: 15-day free trial

  • Streamlined tool is built for productivity
  • A solid Adobe Illustrator alternative
  • Fresh new tools for the 2018 release


Delivering vector arts and image-editing tools that even almighty Illustrator can’t manage without additional plugins, even the most dedicated Adobe fans are showing interest in this smart software.

Last update on 2018-11-11

LiveSketch allows you to create line drawings at the source without having to first make them on paper first, and the Block Shadow effect delivers instant 3D shadows to text and objects.

Bad news for Mac users, this software isn’t compatible with iOS (which seems like a huge oversight on Corel’s part). It’s also fairly expensive when compared to other options on our list, but it’s possible to do a monthly subscription if you don’t want to cough up so much money up front. However, if you like the software after using the free trial it makes much more sense to splash out and buy the package.

CorelDRAW isn’t really breaking the mold when compared to Adobe, but it’s a solid program with impressive features and a smaller price tag that’s definitely worth your consideration.

For graphic design software at an incredibly low price, Affinity Designer has got you covered.

Price: $49.99
Trial: Can be downloaded from Affinity’s website

  • Buy for a one-off payment with no subscription fees
  • Compatible with Windows and Mac
  • Great on-the-go features

Windows and rope stabilizers make the pen super useful when you’re working on basic vector lines or customized live objects. You can make all the adjustments you need with Affinity, including changing hues and colors as well as thickness and bleed. If you work with typography or logos, you’re sure to love this feature.

Last update on 2018-11-11

The software is easy to use once you get the hang of it, and there are loads of onboard shortcuts including the ability to turn a single node into a sharp corner with just a single-finger hold. Affinity is optimized for Apple iPad Pro and iPad Pencil, so if you like to work on the go this is an excellent tool for you.

If you’re new to vector work, Serif’s extensive online video tutorial library will teach you all you need to know to get the most from this tool. Affinity might not be a totally Illustrator killer, but it’s so much cheaper which makes it worth a try at the very least. We don’t think you’ll regret it.

Wrapping it up

Choosing the correct software is an important step in creating professional-standard graphic designs.

You’ll need to consider your skill level and your budget, along with which features you need to complete your projects. Follow our guide and you’ll find the tools you need for your artwork to shine.

What’s your favorite graphic design software (free and paid for)? Let us know in the comments.

About the author

John Thatch

John Thatcher is a computer science educated artist. He uses technology to solve artist problems. His friends don't like it when he speaks of himself in the third person. But John does it anyway, because he's a rebel.

Leave a comment: