Adobe's software might be the industry standard, but Illustrator alternatives are available. Why is Adobe's vector graphics editor so popular? Well, Illustrator was first released in 1987 and has dominated digital art, illustration and graphic design for several decades. There are many benefits of using the software, you can find out more via our download Illustrator post.
However, as it's part of Adobe's Creative Cloud, to use Illustrator, you'll need a monthly subscription, either to the app itself or to the Creative Cloud suite as a whole.
If that's a red line for you, then don't worry. There are a number of decent alternatives to Illustrator to consider instead, which are either free or available for a one-off fee. In this article, we round up six of the best, explain what the differences are, and outline which will most closely match your needs.
01. Affinity Designer
- Price model: One-off purchase
- System: Windows, Mac, iPad
- Pros: Feature-rich, cheap, works on iPad
- Cons: Not the industry standard
- Recommended for: Professional designers
In our view, the best all-round alternative to Illustrator is Affinity Designer. First launched in 2014, this vector editor from British software company Serif has gradually grown in popularity and influence, and for good reason. Not only is it powerful and feature-rich, its one-off purchase price (£48.99, but discounts are sometimes available) is far cheaper than taking out an Illustrator subscription.
Unencumbered by legacy code, the software generally runs a little bit faster than Illustrator, and if you have a relatively new Mac, a lot faster (which is largely why it won an Apple Design Award). But can it do everything that Illustrator can? Although there are some gaps, which we detail in our Affinity Designer review, the answer is: generally yes. And working with other designers using Illustrator isn’t usually a problem either, as Affinity Designer can import and export AI and PSD files.
Affinity Designer can also boast a few unique features that Illustrator doesn’t have, including the ability to switch between raster and vector workspaces within the same tool, one-million plus zoom, and unlimited redos. And while Illustrator still isn’t available on iPad (although it's coming soon, and it looks very cool), you can now use the full version of Affinity Designer on iPad (for £19.99), with optimised features for the Apple Pencil.
- Price model: One-off purchase
- System: Mac
- Pros: Great for UI and icon design
- Cons: Mac-only, not as comprehensive as Illustrator
- Recommended for: UI designers, UX designers, web designers, app designers
If your need for a vector drawing program is primarily for digital design, then Sketch is probably your best alternative to Illustrator: as long as you’re using a Mac. First launched in 2010, Sketch has a strong focus on UI and icon design that quickly led it to become the industry’s go-to for app and website prototyping.
It’s not a fully comprehensive drawing program, with all the features offered by Illustrator, so you wouldn’t use it to create complex illustrations or art. But by the same token, this means it has a simpler and more user-friendly interface that makes icon and UI design quick and easy.
A Sketch licence costs $99 and will give you one year of free updates. Once your licence has expired you can still use the app for as long as you want, but you will need to renew if you want the latest updates.
- Price model: One-off purchase or subscription
- System: Windows, Mac
- Pros: Feature-rich, strong community of users
- Cons: Not the industry standard, expensive
- Recommended for: Illustrators and artists
First launched in 1989, CorelDRAW is a vector drawing program with a big following among artists and illustrators. For most of this time, it was Windows-only, but this Spring a Mac version was finally released too.
There’s no easy way to say whether CorelDRAW or Illustrator is the 'better' tool. Both are packed with features and both have their passionate advocates. Because the interfaces and approaches are quite different, fans of each tool will argue, with equal vehemence, that theirs is the easiest to use, but there’s no real objective way of settling this.
What is objective fact is that Illustrator is the standard software for the design and illustration industry, but that said, you can easily import and export AI and PDF files to CorelDRAW. The two tools can’t easily be separated on price, either. CorelDRAW is available for a one-off fee, but the upfront cost is relatively large: £599 at time of writing. So you’d have to use it for a number of years to make it cheaper overall than an Adobe Illustrator subscription. Alternatively, you can subscribe to CorelDRAW for £16.67 monthly, billed annually, which is only slightly cheaper than an Adobe Illustrator subscription.
Essentially, then, the main reason to buy Corel Draw over Illustrator seems to be if you prefer the interface and workflow. So if you’ve never used it, you might want to take advantage of the free trial and just see how it feels in practice.
04. Gravit Designer
- Price model: Freemium
- System: Web browser
- Pros: Free version, can be used online and on desktop
- Cons: Limitations to free version
- Recommended for: Chromebook and Linux users; budget-conscious designers and illustrators
Gravit Designer is a tool that allows you to work on a diverse range of design tasks, including illustration, UI and screen design, printed artwork and logo design. It has a lot of similar features to Illustrator, including a freehand drawing tool that smooths the paths as you draw, the ability to create custom shapes and the equivalent of the Pen tool .
Gravit Designer is available either online in your browser or on your desktop as a downloadable app for Mac OS, Windows, Linux or Chrome OS. The tool supports a number of vector and raster file formats, including AI and Sketch files. You save your work onto your computer in the .gvdesign format, and you can export it as SVG, PDV, PNG or JPEG files.
Gravit Designer operates on a freemium model, so while the free version is quite capable, you need to pay for a Pro subscription (£75 a year at full price) to get unlimited cloud storage and features such as PDF export above 150dpi, CMYK colour space, version history and the ability to work offline.
- Price model: Free
- System: Windows, Mac, Linux
- Pros: Free, lightweight, runs on Linux
- Cons: Slow and laggy
- Recommended for: Linux users, cash-poor students and startups
Inkscape is a free and open source vector editor using Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) as the native format. It’s lightweight, so will run on quite low-powered computers, but it’s surprisingly capable for a free tool, with a lot of useful features including layers, object grouping, drawing, shape, calligraphy, pencil and pen tools, path simplification with variable threshold, bitmap tracing and Boolean operations.
Inkscape natively supports opening or importing a range of formats, including SVG, PDF, EPS, AI (Adobe Illustrator) and CDR (CorelDraw). As well as Windows and Mac, it will also run on Linux. The main downside lies in its performance: it can be quite slow and laggy at times. But for a student or beginner wanting to create digital illustrations and vector graphics for free, and not wanting to spend any money, it’s an excellent choice.
- Price model: Free
- System: Web browser
- Pros: Free, browser-based, simple to use
- Cons: Lacks sophisticated features
- Recommended for: Cash and time-poor beginners
Vectr is a totally free, browser-based tool that offers a quick and easy way to get started with vector editing via an intuitive interface. Because it’s based in the web browser, anyone with an internet connection can use it, and that makes it quite straightforward for multiple people to collaborate on a design, too. Each image has a bespoke URL you can share with others, and you can export your finished work as an SVG, PNG or JPEG file.
Overall, Vectr is super-simple, which can be viewed as a positive or a negative. In other words, it’s never going to replace the feature-rich capabilities of Illustrator, Affinity Designer or Corel Draw, but that also means a very low learning curve (there are very good tutorials featured within the app itself). So if you’re a total newbie looking to create, say, a social media graphic with the minimum of time and effort, this is an excellent option.