There was a time when, if you wanted to do professional work on a Windows PC, then Adobe's design apps were the only game in town. In the 2010s, however, all that started to change, with rival software companies upping their game. But Adobe, in turn, hasn't taken this lying down; fighting back with both new features and brand new design apps.
In this post, we select – in no particular order – what we consider the best design apps for Windows on the market today, and explain how to choose between them.
Or if you'd like to flex your artistic muscles and get painting digitally, check out our guide to the best digital art software out there right now.
01. Adobe Photoshop CC
First launched in February 1990, Photoshop is the grand old warhorse of the design industry. Although it was originally focused on image editing, it’s grown over the years into a sophisticated tool for graphic design in general.
Now in 2019, its longevity is both a blessing and a curse.
Dominating the profession for the last three decades, Photoshop is undeniably the go-to software for design studios, and you'll struggle get a job without knowing how to use it. If you’re a freelancer, of course, you have more scope for using other tools in your day to day, but it will probably be difficult to avoid it altogether.
Beyond that, though, is it any good? Well, you don’t stay on top in an ever-expanding industry for nothing, and Adobe has made strident efforts to update its tool to keep it relevant over the years, recently adding powerful 3D modelling and 3D printing capabilities, for example.
It’s also been made faster and more efficient in operation, and perhaps most significantly, the latest version contains small but important tweaks to speed up your workflow. To take one example, you are now able to undo multiple times simply by pressing Ctrl+Z, which might not sound revolutionary, but actually saves a lot of time in practice.
The main reason to consider an alternative is price. Photoshop, like other Adobe tools including numbers 2 and 6 on our list, is now only available as part of a Creative Cloud subscription, and those monthly amounts can really add up.
Having said that, there are discounts to be had (check out the latest deals here), and if you’re using multiple CC tools, then the interoperability between them, and other services like Adobe Fonts and Adobe Stock, can often make the extra cost worth it in terms of reducing work time and stress.
02. Adobe Illustrator CC
First launched in 1987, Illustrator has been the natural companion to Photoshop for generations of illustrators and graphic designers, and it’s long been considered the standard vector drawing tool for the industry.
That dominance has started to fray quite a bit in recent years, though, with a rush of new rivals into the space.
As with Photoshop, this has been largely about price, and for those whom money is less important than efficiency, Illustrator remains a hugely powerful and versatile tool, that Adobe is constantly making efforts to improve further.
The latest version, for example, comes with a Freeform Gradients tool that makes it super-easy to create rich gradients, and a Global Editing feature that lets you simultaneously make changes across all instances of a similar object.
There’s also a smart cropping tool that automatically suggests crops based on AI, and the ability to customise your toolbar.
More broadly, the same issues that apply to Photoshop apply to Illustrator too. On the plus side, its industry ubiquity makes it a good tool to learn for your career, and the integration with the Creative Cloud as a whole can help make your workflow smooth and speedy. On the downside, well, there’s that monthly subscription.
03. Affinity Designer
For most of Illustrator and Photoshop’s life, its rivals have been low-cost and low quality. For designers who didn’t need all that much power, and just wanted to do some simple tasks, there were many alternatives... but none ever came close to offering the breadth and depth of what Adobe’s software could offer.
In the 2010s, however, that all changed. First, in 2010, came Sketch, a sophisticated vector graphics editor that wasn’t just cheaper, it was actually free. It was, however, purely aimed at digital design rather than print, and only available for Mac.
Then in 2014 came Affinity Designer, a vector graphics tool that was fast, powerful and intuitive, and as useful for print design as it was digital. Just one problem: this one was also Mac-only.
Finally, in November 2016, Affinity Designer was released for Windows. Now PC users at last had a decent alternative to Illustrator, which included a complete vector and pixel editing toolset, 10 million percent zoom, non-destructive effects and adjustment layers, and more.
While some capabilities in Illustrator are missing, such as object warping, the majority of what you can do in Adobe’s tool, you can do in Affinity Designer. And to anyone who’s used Illustrator in the past, the Affinity Designer interface is similar enough that it’s easy to pick up and use intuitively.
Coded for the latest chipsets, makers Serif claim that Affinity Designer runs faster than Adobe’s products, and many designers have told us that’s the case, although obviously this depends on the equipment you’re using. Affinity Designer is also staggeringly cheap, and you only pay once: there’s no subscription fee.
That said, Illustrator remains the industry standard, and so there’s somewhat of a chicken-and-egg problem; most studios don’t want to use it until most studios are using it.
Also, while Affinity Designer is interoperable with sister tools Affinity Photo and Affinity Publisher (see below), there’s not yet anything approaching the complexity of the Creative Cloud ecosystem, with its endless number of tools, and integrated Adobe Fonts and Adobe Stock options.
For freelancers who have more freedom to organise how they work, though, Affinity Designer certainly worth considering, especially as you can import and export .ai files when necessary.
04. Affinity Photo
Just as Affinity Designer rivals Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Photo provides an alternative to Photoshop for image editing. And it’s a pretty familiar experience. Brushes, layers, masks, for example, are all treated in the same way as in Adobe’s tool.
Affinity Photo is not, however, a carbon copy of Photoshop by any means. Indeed, while some designers will complain that Affinity Photo doesn't do everything that Photoshop does, that's kind of missing the point.
Essentially, makers Serif have set out to create an app that's not weighed down with hundreds of features that try to please everyone, but is more streamlined for specific tasks. Affinity Photo, then, is better described as an photo editing tool with some good art and design features, along with some unique features like a saveable undo history and PSD Import/Export options (this Envato video walks through the tool's best features in detail).
If you're looking for a fully fledged graphic design tool, then, you'll be better off - as the name suggests - with Affinity Designer, which has pixel design capabilities alongside its range of vector tools. But for photo editing, Affinity Photo offers some excellent tools and capabilities, at a low price; and there's a free trial option if you'd like to take it for a spin first.
05. CorelDRAW Graphics Suite 2019
First launched in 1987, CorelDRAW is a vector-based illustration tool that’s mainly focused on Windows (although in 2019 it did finally launch on MacOS).
It’s difficult to recommend it over Adobe Illustrator for features, while Affinity Designer easily beats it on value for money. But CorelDRAW continues to be popular amongst everyone from artists to graphic designers, so its makers are clearly doing something right.
In recent years, its standout improvement has been the LiveSketch tool: an innovative line drawing solution for designers and illustrators who want to bypass producing thumbnails on paper and freely sketch-out vector art at the source; this is particularly useful on a drawing tablet.
Other cool features in CorelDRAW include Colour Harmony, which lets you change the look of an object from one group of complementary colours to another; Pointiliser, which lets you create vector mosaics; and the way that every layer is represented with a thumbnail representation of the shape in question.
06. Adobe InDesign
Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator were pioneers in their respective fields of image editing and vector graphics. But when InDesign arrived on the scene in 1999, it was somewhat late to the party. The market for desktop publishing software at that time was dominated by QuarkXpress. But InDesign quickly took over, largely because of its lower price.
For two decades now, InDesign has been the undisputed king of print publishing, and has evolved over the years to include some pretty nifty digital publishing features too. The main recent innovations have been small but important ones, such as support for endnotes and better font filtering, as well as better integration with the Creative Cloud.
But on the whole, Adobe has avoided too much radical change. Which is actually smart, because one of the biggest appeals of InDesign is its familiarity to designers who’ve been using it for years, if not their entire careers.
07. Affinity Publisher
Launched last year, Affinity Publisher is a low-priced alternative to InDesign, and the sister app to Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo.
This relatively young tool enables you to work with dynamic photo frames, tables, baseline grids and linked resources, all backed up with end-to-end CMYK, and headline features include advanced typography options, linked text frames, master pages, and facing page spreads.
The focus is very much on print publishing, and this isn’t a particular useful for digital design, not yet anyway. Nor is it as powerful or feature-rich as InDesign. But it’s nicely integrated with the other two Affinity apps, it’s cheap, and it’s nicely intuitive and responsive in use.
08. Adobe XD
As we mentioned earlier, the launch of Sketch has been the biggest challenge to Adobe’s dominance in this decade, and it was inevitable that they would develop a competitor. That eventually became Adobe XD, which launched in 2016, and remains to this day delightfully free.
Dedicated to making it easy for designers to prototype apps and websites, XD was a powerful tool on launch, and Adobe has continued to add newer and better features on a regular basis. Which is good news for Windows users, because not only has Sketch not developed a Windows version, it's specifically ruled out doing so.
The next lot of improvements to XD will focus on co-editing capabilities, which means a whole team of designers will be able to work together on a document at the same time, and making it easier to create design systems.
09. Photoshop Elements
Like Photoshop, but don’t need all the features and want to save some money? Photoshop Elements is a raster graphics editor for entry-level photographers, image editors and hobbyists which contains most of the features of the professional version but with fewer and simpler options.
Photoshop Elements is still about twice as expensive as Affinity Photo, so we’d suggest you take out a free 10-day trial of the latter first before committing. But if you’re really familiar with the Photoshop interface and don’t want to mess around learning something new, it may well be worth the money.
If you’re in the market for a free graphic design tool for Windows, then don’t overlook Inkscape. This open source vector editor comes with a surprisingly advanced feature set, including complex path operations, node editing, bitmap tracing and path-based text.
The main downside of Inkscape, and the reason you might prefer to pay for a more sophisticated tool instead, is the speed of its operation, which is relatively slow and clunky.
As always, though, that depends on the equipment you have. If you’re using a super-speedy machine, you might find it’s not a problem, and the fact it’s free means it’s certainly worth giving it a go.