Every creative wants the best graphic design software, but when money's tight or if you're just starting out then you might have to make do with the best free graphic design software. Luckily here's where we can sort you out either way.
For working creatives, paying for industry-standard packages is a no-brainer; you'll be working with tried and tested toolsets and you won't need to worry about outputting compatible files. Plus, however much you have to spend, they should pay for themselves in short order. However if you're learning your trade, or thinking about branching out into a new discipline, testing the water with the best free graphic design software is a valid option.
Whether you're after the best graphic design software full stop, or searching for a free alternative that'll still do a great job, we've found all the top options for you here. If you can't find what you're looking for, though, our best digital art software and best 3D modelling software posts have lots of great options too.
You could also check out our list of the best video editing apps or the best free logo designer software around. Want to splash out on Adobe's software? Make sure you visit our Creative Cloud discount page.
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Best graphic design software: Vector art
Best graphic design software: Paid vector software
It's hard to argue with the industry standard vector package for the first entry in this best graphic design software list. Adobe Illustrator is the best graphic design software if you want to create artwork, logos, icons or any other visual design that needs to scale to all sizes without sacrificing quality. Whether you want to build everything from scratch using paths and shapes, or automatically trace existing artwork, Illustrator makes it all straightforward, and you can even start creating on iPad then transfer your work to the desktop for fine-tuning. Of course, Illustrator requires a Creative Cloud subscription which may put some people off, but a large number of working creatives will agree that it's entirely worth the expense.
While Illustrator's had the vector game pretty much to itself for ages, in recent years a new challenger has arrived and there's a lot to be said for it. Affinity Designer from Serif doesn't quite do everything Illustrator can (see our Affinity Designer review for all the details), but it generally runs faster and it'll import AI and PSD files, so you should be able to work with files from designers who use Illustrator. It also has features you won't find in Illustrator, including infinite redos and one-million-plus zoom, but the most attractive difference is the price: a one-off payment of £48.99/$49.99 on desktop or £19.99/$19.99 on iPad, and at the time of writing there's a 50 per cent discount available.
Both Illustrator and Affinity Designer offer a full suite of vector tools suitable for everything from illustration to digital design. However if all you need is something for digital design – and if you have a Mac – then Sketch, with its more streamlined set of tools, might suit you better. With a focus on UI and icon design it's ideal for serious design tasks including app and website prototyping, and it's a lot easier to get to grips with than its more heavyweight counterparts.
Best graphic design software: Free vector software
Gravit Designer is a full-featured vector design app from the company behind Corel Draw. One of the best graphic design software options around, it's suitable for all sorts of design jobs, from screen, app and icon designs to presentations, illustration and animation.
With a clean and intuitive interface that adjusts itself as you need it, this free graphic design software packs a wealth of tools for creating detailed and beautiful vector imagery, including non-destructive booleans, a knife tool and path graphs, plus multiple fills and blending modes, and a powerful text engine.
You can use Gravit Designer online or download a copy to your computer; note that you automatically start out on a (free) trial of Gravit Designer Pro when you sign up, and once your trial is over you transition to the free version, but lose the Pro features – unless you pay for a subscription of course.
However, Gravit Designer's free version is still excellent. You can export as PDF, SVG or bitmap, and you get access to the Gravit Cloud service that enables you to get to your work wherever you are. See the full comparison between the Pro and free versions here.
Vecteezy is a free, in-browser online editor, which allows you to edit and customise Vecteezy's existing vectors or create vector designs from scratch. It's incredibly easy to use and is surprisingly powerful for a free tool, with keyboard shortcuts and advanced transformations built into the feature set. You need to create an account to save your work, and joining the pro version gets you a bunch more tools and resources.
Available both as a browser-based web app and as a stand-alone desktop app, Vectr is quite possibly the best free graphic design software for creating 2D vector graphics. With all the vector features you'd expect, plus a wealth of options for using filters, shadows and fonts, it's versatile enough for day-to-day design tasks. Its live collaboration and synchronisation options are particularly handy, as they essentially enable anyone to watch you design, live, meaning it's really easy to create in tandem or send feedback. This is a genuine alternative to Adobe Illustrator CC.
If you're looking to quickly output SVG or edit an existing SVG file, there are a few online editors that will do the job just as well as Adobe Illustrator. But SVG (scalable vector graphics) is a one of our picks for the best graphic design software out there. It's open format, allows you to reproduce your Vector drawings programmatically, and one of the nicest projects is SVG-Edit.
The standard – albeit basic – toolset of every vector-image editor is here, and although it's limited to the SVG format, it's surprisingly capable. Note that if you're not familiar with code, this option probably isn't for you.
As with many of the free best graphic design software options available, Inkscape focuses on the SVG format as its primary file format. This highly capable editor has a very good SVG integration, supporting many of the more advanced features that aren't always available in other apps – such as alpha blending, cloned objects and markers.
Full support for different colour modes means this is a viable alternative to Illustrator for both print and web design, and although the interface is somewhat simpler than Illustrator, it's still possible to achieve extremely sophisticated artwork. Of particular note is the ability to trace bitmap images, support for variable width strokes and native import of Illustrator files.
Best graphic design software: Image creating and editing
Best graphic design software: Paid image editing software
As Illustrator is to vector art, so is Photoshop to image editing. It's the best graphic design software for image editing, with a massive suite of powerful tools making it suitable for everything from drawing and painting through to retouching photography, and it's packed with features to make most creative's lives easier, including AI-powered tools such as content-aware fill and sky replacement. If you can afford it – and if you're a working designer then an Adobe CC subscription's a pretty reasonable expense – then it's simply a must-have.
There's only really one serious alternative image editor to Photoshop, and that's Affinity Photo. Its headline feature is that it's a lot cheaper than Adobe's industry standard package – like Affinity Designer it'll cost you a one-off payment of £48.99/$49.99 on desktop and £19.99/ $19.99 for iPad, and again at time of writing there's a 50 percent discount available – but that doesn't mean it skimps on features. It has all the photo retouching tools you're likely to need as well as advanced painting tools with a huge library of brushes, and it'll import and export PSD files and even smart objects.
If you're an iPad owner and you want the best graphic design software to sketch and paint with, both Photoshop and Affinity Photo will serve you well. However if you don't need all their additional design tools then there's really only one choice, and that's Procreate. It's made for artists, with a whole stack of beautiful brushes at your fingertips, as well as a load of really helpful tools including QuickShape, which will give you perfect shapes every time, and StreamLine for turning your rough strokes into smooth curves. It'll also let you paint filters straight onto your canvas, as well as offering all the typography tools you need. At a price that's even more attractive than Affinity Photo's, it's an essential iPad app (and the iPhone version, Procreate Pocket, is worth checking out too).
Best graphic design software: Free image editing software
It seems harsh to place Canva under the 'Image Editing Software' heading in the best graphic design software rankings because it does so much more. Canva is a photo editor, colour palette tool, font combination picker, learning resource, and photo collage maker, and it even features a dedicated infographic maker with hundreds of free design elements and fonts at your fingertips.
It's really more of a full graphic design suite than a photo editor, and while it comes some way short of offering the breadth of abilities of Adobe Creative Cloud, its simplicity, variety of useful tools, and inspirational learning assets make Canva a hit. You can use Canva in the browser for the full experience, but most tools are available for both Android and iOS.
RawTherapee enables users to correct distortion, boost colours, recover details and much more, meaning users can make tweaks to their photos until they're looking exactly how they want.
This free, open-source software also speeds up your workflow by allowing you to batch process images. You can also send images to other software, such as GIMP, if you wish to.
If you're on a Windows PC and need a decent set of image editing tools without Photoshop's price tag or GIMP's immense toolset, Photo Pos Pro should hit the spot. A best graphic design software option that has image enhancement and editing in mind, it's perfect for typical photo editing tasks such as fixing contrast, lighting and saturation, but it'll also stretch to more advanced techniques (which make it one of our favourite best graphic design software choices).
It boasts an extremely user-friendly interface as well as an in-depth help system to get you started, and if you want to expand its tools to fit your needs, there are plenty of expansions and plugins available.
Designed with the VFX industry and concept artists, illustrators, matte and texture artists in mind, Krita is a free and open source painting tool that's been in development since 1999. It comes with a full set of brushes suitable for all manner of work, and there's a whole host of plugins available, from advanced filters to painting assistants for perspective work.
Notable features include brush stabilisers to smooth out any shaky lines, a wrap-around mode for creating seamless textures and patterns, and a pop-up palette for quick colour-picking.
Pixlr has changed quite a bit since we last looked at it, and now it's an even more powerful online photo editor than before. As well as offering both iOS and Android apps, it also now comes as a browser-based service too, with three distinct versions to choose from.
If you want a quick and easy photo editing tool then Pixlr X is the one to go with; it's designed for delivering one-click edits and artistic effects for an instant visual boost. Pixlr E, meanwhile, gives you a suite of more detailed editing tools in the style of Photoshop. And if all you want is to remove the background from a photo, there's also Pixlr BG, an AI-powered tool that'll automatically do it in seconds. They're all free to use; however if you want more advanced tools, plus extra overlays, stickers and even a stock library, check out Pixlr's subscription options.
Paint.NET is a Windows-based alternative to the Paint editor that Microsoft shipped with versions of Windows. Don't let that put you off, though, as it's surprisingly capable and useful, and surprisingly worthy of this best graphic design software roundup.
The focus is on ease of use, and there's a definite tendency towards photo editing rather than artistic creation. That said, there are a range of special effects available, allowing you to easily create fake perspective, blend and push pixels around the canvas, tile and repeat selections, and so on.
A good range of selection tools, support for layers, and adjustments such as curves and brightness/contrast mean that Paint.NET is a great alternative to Photoshop for photo editing, especially if you can do without some of the more recent additions to Photoshop's toolset.
Sumo Paint is a highly capable browser-based image editor, which has enough clout to make it into the best graphic design software picks. All the standard features you'd expect from a desktop tool are present and correct.
Previously built using Flash, Sumo Paint is now a proper web app that'll run in any browser, so now you can use it on your iPad as well as on your desktop. There's still a downloadable Pro version that you can get if you subscribe for $9/month, and Sumo has been busy creating more online tools, including a photo editor and a 3D editor.
Back to Sumo Paint, you'll find that the standard range of tools and adjustments you'd expect are all included. Brushes, pencils, shapes, text, cloning, gradients and so on are all quickly accessed from the Photoshop-esque floating toolbar. It can also open saved documents from your hard drive, making Sumo Paint a perfectly viable option for editing and re-editing.
Open-source free graphic design software that debuted on Unix-based platforms, GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. Today it's available in versions for Linux, Windows and Mac.
GIMP's interface differs somewhat from Photoshop, but a version of GIMP is available that mimics Adobe's look and feel, making it easier to migrate over if you're ditching Photoshop. The full suite of tools is available here – everything you're accustomed to is within easy reach, including painting tools, colour correction, cloning, selection and enhancement.
The team that oversees development has worked hard to ensure compatibility too, so you'll be able to work with all the popular file formats without any trouble at all. You'll also find a very capable file manager built in, along similar lines to Adobe's Bridge.
Best graphic design software: 3D
Best graphic design software: Paid 3D software
Autodesk Maya's the best graphic design software for 3D, but if you're not already well-versed in 3D then honestly, it's not for you. It's the super-heavyweight of the VFX business, used at all the top studios, and it has an immense range of tools and features covering everything from modelling through to texturing, lighting, rendering and animation. It's probably the most comprehensive assembly of 3D tools you can get, and its price – not to mention the time it'll take you to master even a fraction of its features – reflects that. That said, if you have to have the very best 3D functionality – or if you want to learn to use the software that'll get you in at Pixar or Framestore – then its eye-watering price is well worth paying, although if you're a student or educator you can sign up for free educational access to the Autodesk range.
If you want a pro 3D package that's relatively easy to get to grips with, Maxon's Cinema 4D should be high on your shopping list. It's been around for ages and has huge, supportive community as well as loads of tutorials and a dedicated training site to help you learn your way around its features, and it's widely regarded as being reasonably painless to learn while delivering incredible results.
Cinema 4D features volumetric modelling tools that make it easier to get impressive results when you're starting out, as well as a full-featured parametric modelling toolset and the ability to extend its functionality with plugins. Like all the top 3D options it's far from cheap, but there's a 14-day trial version as well as a free education version for students and teachers.
Another Autodesk package, 3ds Max is a Windows-only 3D program that's suitable for everything from product visualisation through to visuals for film and TV. With a powerful 3D toolset that covers not only modelling but also fluid simulation, hair and fur, and everything you need for character rigging and animation, it's a little easier to get to grips with than Maya but no less accomplished in its end results.
It's better suited to less experienced 3D artists than Maya, however it's still a pro package at the same pro price point you'd pay for Maya. Still, there's a 30-day trial version available, and as with Maya you can use it for free if you're in education.
Best graphic design software: Free 3D software
For getting your first foothold in the world of 3D, it's hard to go wrong with SketchUp, and its free version, Sketchup Free, is an ideal starting point. It provides a friendly and forgiving introduction to building stuff in 3D, starting you off by simply drawing lines and shapes that you can then push and pull around to turn them into 3D forms.
If you need a bit of inspiration, you can search the SketchUp 3D Warehouse's immense library of models and download them for free.
Daz Studio is a 3D figure customisation, posing and animation tool that enables artists of all skill levels to creating digital art using virtual people, animals, props, vehicles, accessories and environments.
With Daz Studio, you can create custom 3D characters and avatars, design virtual environments, produce graphic design elements and much more – hence why it's one of the best graphic design software choices out there. There's also a handy table that shows you what this free tool offers in comparison to its paid alternatives (scroll down to the comparison table here).
Also from Daz 3D is Hexagon, a free 3D modelling tool. Hexagon includes everything you need to create detailed 3D models ready for final render. Features include Daz Studio 3D Bridge, sculpted primitives, freehand modelling brushes, micro-displacement modelling tools, comprehensive UV-mapping modules, advanced 3D paint, and instant ambient occlusion.
Use it alongside Daz Studio for a complete 3D suite, for free – ideal for those just getting started with 3D.
If you're serious about 3D but struggling to afford any of the paid best graphic design software, then you're in luck. Blender is the best free graphic design software for 3D: an open source 3D content creation suite, available for all major operating systems.
Started by Blender Foundation founder Ton Roosendaal back in 2002, Blender is now largest open source tool for 3D creation. Its makers are constantly working on its development, but you can pretty much do anything 3D related with this software, including modelling, texturing, animation, rendering and compositing.
If you're interested in the art of digital sculpting, check out 3D software ZBrushCoreMini from Pixologic. Perfect for all skill levels, the software is a great starting point for users new to the discipline, while more experienced CG artists will find the it a quick and easy way to realise concepts.
ZBrushCoreMini is based on Pixologic's ZBrush, the most widely-used digital sculpting application in today's market. So, when you're ready to move on to the next level of detailing, skills learned in ZBrushCoreMini can be directly translated into ZBrush.
Houdini is a 3D animation and visual effects tool, used widely throughout the media industry for film, broadcast, entertainment and visualisation. And its cheapest version costs just a little under $2,000.
But the makers of the program – SideFX – are a good bunch and, knowing that cost can be an issue, offer an Apprentice version for free. With this you can access all the features of the full version in order to develop your skills and work on personal projects. The program is purely for use non-commercial and learning purposes.
For a quick and easy way to get into digital sculpting, look no further than Stéphane Ginier's SculptGL. One of the best graphic design software options for 3D, it runs in the browser (there's a downloadable version too as well as a Chrome app) and it gives you a decent set of standard sculpting tools, PBR vertex painting and alpha texture support.
SculptGL supports multiresolution sculpting and is capable of voxel remeshing and dynamic retopology, and it'll import and export OBJ, PLY and STL files. There are more powerful free 3D tools to be had, but if you want something you can get to grips with straight away and which can produce great-looking results with a bit of a work, SculptGL is well worth having to hand.
Best graphic design software: data visualisation
Best graphic design software: Data visualisation software
If you're after a tool for creating everything from infographics through to online quizzes, presentations and learning experiences, Genially is well worth checking out. It's one of the best graphic design software options for data visualisation; a versatile and powerful online platform that's already attracted over 12 million users, and it enables you to quickly create all manner of visually appealing and thoroughly shareable content, complete with the option to integrate content from external providers including Google Maps, Instagram and Pinterest.
There's a free version of Genially that lets you start creating with plenty of free templates and resources; however if you want advanced features such as offline viewing and the option to remove the Genially watermark from your creations, you'll want to check out the paid plans starting at €7.49/month.
Google Charts tools may be a surprising choice for our guide to the best graphic design software around, but they are powerful, simple to use, and free. You can choose from a variety of charts and configure an extensive set of options to perfectly match the look and feel of your website. By connecting your data in real time, Google Charts is the perfect infographic generator for your website (see our best infographics here).
Infogram is a great free tool that offers access to a wide variety of graphs, charts and maps as well as the ability to upload pictures and videos to create cool infographics.
The data upon which the infographics are based can be found in an Excel-style spreadsheet, which the user can easily edit and see the results change in real time. When you're happy with your infographic you can publish it to the Infogram website for all to enjoy, embed it in to your own website or share it via social media.
Best graphic design software: Other free tools
Made by the people behind Gravit Design, and sharing the same engine, Klex is an easy-to-learn and accessible tool for anyone who wants to create impressive graphics in just a few clicks. While obviously not aimed at pro designers, it's the perfect tool for anyone who wants to quickly bang out memorable designs.
There's a plethora of ready made templates to choose from, plus thousands of assets and a great selection of effects and filters, as well as customisation options and a load of fonts and text assets.
The Google Web Fonts project – renamed Google Fonts – is an extensive catalogue of free and open source designer web fonts, presented in an intuitive directory (and a super-useful best graphic design software option). The initiative invites users to explore and test fonts in more than 135 languages, and create their own customised collections of font families.
With millions of views each month, online creative community Behance is a key resource for artists of all disciplines. It's a fantastic way to see what your peers are up to, as well as finding new work and creative inspiration from top web and graphic designers, agencies and illustrators.
There are a whole lot of designers who don't have their own blog, but Wordpress is a great way to showcase your fantastic work, get recognition in your industry, earn extra income and get new clients. Don't believe us? See our examples of WordPress websites. WordPress is the most popular platform for blogging, and while it can be a little fiddly to set up, there's lots of helpful information online to get you going, including these brilliant WordPress tutorials.
The last entry in our best graphic design software list is Dribbble. This tool enables designers to share their creations easily, and is a good source of inspiration as well as a great way to promote your own work.