10 tools to use instead of Fireworks

Since its quiet premiere in 1998, Adobe Fireworks has grown into the go-to tool for many. With cross-state layers, easy handling of symbols, great image compression and nimble vector handling, it’s a flexible and essential gem in the web designer’s toolbox.

A gem, you say?

Some designers, including this particular writer, would perhaps call it a gem with rough edges. Or maybe a precious stone held together with old glue and flimsy duct tape. There are many reports of Fireworks as faulty and in need of a polish – users have reported crashes and bugs for years – and it isn’t known as a superb wrestler with large files or complex layouts.

Yet despite these flaws, Fireworks has not only prevailed but become the primary choice of thousands. Its sheer breadth of tools and clearly defined audience mean few reasons for designers to hop elsewhere for further functionality. Until now, that is.

Diamonds are for…a while

As we’ve recently seen, being a versatile maverick is no guarantee for surviving changing business models: On May 6, 2013, Adobe made known that they will not continue to update Fireworks.

Adobe is urging users to sign up for their subscription-based model. This works on an application-per-application basis or, for a slightly higher price, gives users access to the company’s whole range of products. Given this approach, Adobe will be interested in subscribers going for the full list, which in turn makes jack-of-all-trades software such as Fireworks problematic.

In support of their new model, Adobe has suggested that modern web production requires suites of specialised software rather than programs that cater for everything. This view has been met with a chorus of disagreements – scroll down to the comments here for an idea of the general response. However, Adobe’s intentions are clear: Fireworks is destined to sink into the marshlands of abandoned software – discontinued and unpatched, but not unloved.

A second chance?

Soon after Fireworks’s impending demise was announced, collectives formed and rallied to save their favourite tool. Some are calling for Adobe to release Fireworks to open source, however this might remain wishful thinking as it’s unlikely that Adobe wants their own code to turn into a direct competitor.

Forward-thinking designers will want to plan ahead and identify new software. In this deadline-driven industry, getting snagged by sudden incompatibility or gradually more unstable programs is dangerous. Here is a list of alternatives that might fill the gap.

1. Photoshop

The two-tonne gorilla on the block, the leviathan of graphic software, the old-timer who knows it all (or most of it). At a glance, it might appear a logical choice: it’s ubiquitous, so many will already know the ropes, and quite a few already will own it which makes the transition inexpensive. For bitmap perfection, is second to none, and it runs like a purring (albeit oversized) sports car.

But Photoshop was never meant to be a specialized web design tool. Its image compression is sub-Fireworks, symbol libraries are absent, and the vector handling is limited and fiddly. In addition, unless you already do own it, Photoshop will make your wallet run for cover.

2. Illustrator

If Photoshop is a seasoned hockey player who understands its job and gets it done, Illustrator is the ice dancer who pirouettes around in perfect circles. Fast, stable and packing a host of tricks, it deals with vector graphics like a sushi chef slicing ingredients you don’t know the name of.

However, as with Photoshop, Illustrator’s forte is also its bane when talking web design. It is possibly the king of vector graphics, but until SVG has found its way to the corners of the web, the Internet is largely a jungle of bitmaps – and pixels make Illustrator uncomfortable. At best, it’s a terrific complement to your chief web design software.

3. Muse

With the tagline “web design without coding”, the purpose of Muse seems obvious. Many reviews praise its wealth of options, and it comes with a built-in sitemap editor, access to Adobe’s hosted font service, and it can display neat CSS effects such as parallax scrolling.

Unfortunately, it’s not a graphic production tool. While there are facilities for creating images, these are meagre and nowhere near as flexible as those available in Fireworks. Muse is first and foremost an application for those who have little in-depth knowledge (or interest) in graphics. Its purpose is to streamline a website from idea to publication, not to cater for designers who are part of a bigger development team.

4. Sketch

Sketch has much to offer, such as a low learning curve, great vector handling, a high level of precision and support for exporting CSS. Another nice feature is the price – at 50 USD, it won’t dent budgets too much. Unfortunately, Sketch runs only on Macs, a situation that seems unlikely to change.

5. Gimp

Sometimes called the "free Photoshop," GIMP is a powerhouse of a photo editor for costing nothing at all. It ships with a host of tools for painting and drawing, and also supports layers, channels, masks and paths. There is also an abundance of plug-ins and scripts available, and GIMP happily exports in a great number of different file formats.

However, GIMP has a pretty steep learning curve – its interface is the opposite of airy and clean – and there are quite a few reports of bugs.

6. Inkscape

This Open Source software grapples with vector graphics, and it does so pretty well – especially with SVG images, which are the reason Inkscape was developed in the first place. However, reviews point to stability problems, and it has a challenging user interface.

7. Antetype

While not a designer program per se, this sleek prototyping tool might be of interest to who use Fireworks predominantly for wireframes. It’s packed with pre-made elements, many of which can be previewed for different browsers, and it’s ideal for technical, functionality-rich websites.

Weighing in at over 250 USD, it’s not the cheapest of options, but there’s a free demo for UI-keen designers. Sadly, like Sketch, it runs only on Macs.

8. Acorn

With the tagline “built for humans,” Acorn positions itself as a slimmed-down alternative to Photoshop. There’s support for layers, masks, alphas and gradients, and one can also import and export PSD files. The retina display support is a nice feature, too. It will set you back 50 USD, however, and like Antetype above, it’s Mac-only.

9. Design in the browser

A demanding, complicated and, for many designers, intimidating option is creating layouts directly in a browser. Obviously, this method doesn’t do away with the need for graphics software; what’s suggested is moving to coding quicker, and that the coding is done by the designer.

While this may sound daunting, frameworks such as Foundation and Bootstrap give designers solid platforms, and there’s no need to dive headfirst into the process – start out small, and learn as you go along. You might even like it.

Some maintain that this way of working may choke originality, but sketching can help. Also, designs will be sure to work and, if done right, quicker to develop.

10. Future surprises

Given some of the responses to Adobe’s decision, there’s clearly a demand for software that can rival Fireworks. Developers will have noticed, and it’s likely that we’ll see a number of new competitors looking to attract former Fireworks acolytes.

What is your view on Adobe’s decision and possible alternatives? Do you have any tips? Share your ideas here below!

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