The best graphic design software is generally expensive, but worth every penny. These industry-standard tools are powerful, feature-rich and will optimise your workflow. So if you're a graphic designer student, freelancer or full-time employee, they're basically a must-have. (Plus there are always savings to be had; check out our guides to Black Friday deals and Creative Cloud discounts for the latest discounts.)
That said, if you only need to design occasionally, for example as part of a marketing job, a free tool may be all you need. So, we've included the best free graphic design software on our list too, alongside paid-for apps.
So read on to discover the best graphic design software available today. For more great tools, also check out our roundups of the digital art software and the best video editing apps; not to mention our looks at the best 3D modelling software and the best free logo designer software.
The best graphic design software
Paid for vector software
If you're working with vectors, Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard. First released in 1987, it allows you to create everything from simple logos and icons to detailed, multi-layered artwork.
Since October 2020, there's been an accompanying iPad app. That means that you can also start work on a project on your iPad to get all the basics in place, then transfer your work to the desktop for fine-tuning.
Illustrator requires a Creative Cloud subscription, which may put some people off. But as a business expense, it's a fair amount to pay. Plus, because it's subscription-based software, you'll get all the latest updates for free. Since July, for instance, Illustrator now allows you to rotate your view of the canvas.
The monthly subscription to Adobe Illustrator can be just a little too expensive for some people, so many pros are now turning to Affinity Designer. It may not have all of Illustrator's features (see our Affinity Designer review for full details), but it's close enough for many creatives.
Affinity Designer works with both AI and PSD files so you don't need to worry about compatibility. And it generally runs faster than Illustrator, depending on what kind of hardware you're using.
Affinity Designer also has features you won't find in Illustrator, including infinite redos and one-million+ per cent zoom. But the most attractive difference is the fact that it's a one-off purchase and requires no subscription. Despite this, updates have until now been passed on to users for free. The latest update in August (1.10) means that rendering is now up to 10 times faster for complex documents.
Finding the best graphic design software is about finding the right tool for your needs. Illustrator and Affinity Designer might be overkill if you're just interested in UI design, prototyping or making icons. In which case Sketch may suit you much better (as long as you use a Mac, as it's not available for Windows).
Sketch features a streamlined set of tools that are easy to get to grips with than more full-featured design apps. And if you need to design a website rather than create detailed vector illustrations, it's a great fit.
Free vector software
From the people behind Corel Draw, Gravit Designer is the free best graphic design software you'll find today.
Even if it doesn't have the mass appeal of Illustrator or Affinity Designer, Gravit Designer has a clean and intuitive interface and should easily cope with most design jobs, from icon design and prototyping to vector illustration and animation.
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.
However, Gravit Designer's free version is still excellent. You can export files as PDF, SVG or bitmap, and you access your work wherever you are via the Gravit Cloud. See the full comparison between the Pro and free versions here.
Need a painless way to get started with vectors? Vecteezy is a free, in-browser vector editor. Work with ready-made vectors that you can customise to suit your needs, or build your own designs from the ground up. Either way, this tool is easy to use and has some nice features such as advanced transformations and keyboard shortcuts. Signing up for the Pro version, meanwhile, gets you a bunch more tools and resources.
Vectr is the best free graphic design software for working collaboratively. Along with vector tools, filters, shadows and fonts, it includes a great set of live collaboration and synchronisation options. These make it easy to team up with colleagues or clients, to let them see what you're doing, and provide feedback on your work.
Based in the browser, SVG-Edit lets you edit and create SVG files using a standard vector toolset. It's not the most sophisticated of vector apps, but it doesn't really need to be. For simple vectors, or even slightly more detailed ones, it'll do the job just fine.
Inkscape is another SVG editor, with advanced features such as markers, cloned objects and alpha blending. There's support for various colour modes so that you can output just what you're need, whether you're designing for digital or print. It'll import Illustrator files too, as well as enabling you to trace bitmap images. Among the best free graphic design software available today, Inkscape's interface is simpler than Illustrator's, but it's still capable of producing quite sophisticated artwork.
Paid for image editing software
Just as Illustrator is the best graphic design software for vector work, Photoshop is the number one choice for image editing. It's the de facto standard for pretty much all image work, from touching up photos through to drawing and painting, and packs in all manner of tools that'll make your creative life easier, including powerful AI tools for seamlessly replacing bits of images you want to get rid of. If you're a working designer then an Adobe subscription is basically a must-have.
If the cost of Photoshop's too much for you then the closest alternative is Affinity Photo. Available for a (low) one-off payment for the desktop app, and a separate payment for the iPad app, it packs in a whole lot of features and top-end performance.
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. As with all Affinity apps, users get updates for free, and that includes the latest one in August (1.10), which brought greater layer blending efficiency while retaining a non-destructive workflow.
Nowadays, versions of both Photoshop and Affinity Photo are available for the iPad. But if all you need is a set of drawing tools, without a bunch of design-related extras, Procreate's what you need.
It's made with artists in mind and you'll find plenty of beautiful brushes and helpful tools. Among the latter are QuickShape, which give you perfect shapes every time, and StreamLine for turning your rough strokes into smooth curves. Procreate also lets you paint filters straight onto your canvas. At a price that's even more attractive than Affinity Photo's, this is an essential iPad app. (And the iPhone version, Procreate Pocket, is worth checking out too).
Free image editing software
Canva is among the best free graphic design software for editing images. It's perfect for making quick changes such as cropping and resizing images, or adding filters, frames, text, and effects. You can do everything in the browser, or via a mobile app, and there are no restrictions on editing images with the free version; for example, no watermarks are applied.
Canva is also more than an image editor, though: it's fully fledged graphic design software featuring a colour palette tool, font combination picker, a photo collage maker, and more. There's even a dedicated infographic maker.
While it doesn't quite match the abilities of Photoshop, Canva is the perfect alternative if you want something easy to use. You can use it in the browser for the full experience, but most tools are available for both Android and iOS.
RawTherapee is an excellent way to fix up your photos. You can use it to correct distortion, boost colours, recover details and much more. This free, open-source software also speeds up your workflow by allowing you to batch process images. Plus you can also send images to other software, such as GIMP.
Sometimes simple is best, and that's certainly the case with Photo Pos Pro. A free and easy to use image editor, it boasts an extremely user-friendly interface, as well as an in-depth help system, to get you started. It's built with image enhancement and editing in mind, but it'll also stretch to more advanced techniques, with plenty of expansions and plugins available.
Krita is a free and open source painting tool that's been around since 1999 and has found a niche within the VFX industry and with concept artists, illustrators, matte and texture artists. It has plenty of brushes to choose from, as well as brush stabilisers for smoothing out shaky lines. And if you have specific requirements, there are loads of plugins available, from advanced filters to painting assistants for perspective work.
Pixlr is a powerful suite of online services that work in the browser and via iOS and Android apps. Pixlr X is a quick and easy photo editing tool and ideal for giving your work a quick boost with one-click edits and artistic effects. Pixlr E is a more substantial image editing app with a collection of useful editing tools. Pixlr BG is an AI-powered tool designed to remove the backgrounds from photos.
They're all free to use. Plus you get advanced tools, along with extra overlays, stickers and even a stock library, with the subscription options.
Paint.NET started out as an updated version of the Paint app included with early versions of Windows. And while it's not super-sophisticated, it's actually pretty capable as long as you don't get your hopes up too high. It's easy to use, and there's 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.
Sumo Paint is a browser-based image editor, with just enough clout to make it into our best graphic design software picks. All the standard features you'd expect from a desktop tool are present and correct, including brushes, pencils, shapes, text, cloning and gradients, accessible from the Photoshop-style floating toolbar. A Pro version is available for a monthly subscription, and Sumo also offers other online tools, including a photo editor and a 3D editor.
Even the best free graphic design software doesn't really come close to Photoshop's abilities. But GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) comes the closest. By default, it's nowhere near as pleasant to use as Photoshop, but it's easy to update it to a more Adobe-style feel. And once you get into it, you'll find a powerful toolset.
The team that oversees development has worked hard to ensure compatibility, so you'll be able to work with all the popular file formats without any trouble at all. And you'll find a very capable file manager built in, along similar lines to Adobe's Bridge.
Paid for 3D software
Autodesk Maya is the best graphic design software for 3D work, and it can be found in top studios like Pixar or Framestore. There's a huge range of tools and features covering pretty much the entire 3D workflow, from modelling through to rendering and animation.
Be warned: the price and the time it'll take you to learn its ways will be off-putting to anyone who's not already well-versed in 3D. That said, if you're a student or educator, you can sign up for free educational access to the Autodesk range.
Looking for the best graphic design software for 3D, but want something easier to learn than Autodesk Maya? Maxon's Cinema 4D is worth investigating. It's relatively easy to get to grips with, with a huge and supportive community as well as loads of tutorials and a dedicated training site.
The software 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.
3ds Max is a Windows-only app with a powerful 3D toolset. Easier to learn than Maya but no less capable, it features modelling, fluid simulation, hair and fur, and pretty much everything you need for character rigging and animation. There's a 30-day trial version available, and you can use the software for free if you're in education.
Free 3D software
For the best free graphic design software for 3D, there's only one serious choice. Blender is a full 3D content creation suite with a hugely impressive stack of tools. 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.
SketchUp Free provides a friendly and forgiving introduction to building stuff in 3D. It starts you off by simply drawing lines and shapes, which you can then push and pull around to turn them into 3D forms. If you need inspiration, you can search the SketchUp 3D Warehouse's huge library of models and download them for free.
If you want to create 3D work but can't face all that fiddly modelling and texturing, Daz Studio could be the solution you need. It's a 3D figure customisation, posing and animation tool that enables artists of all skill levels to create 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 – making it one of the best graphic design software choices out there. See what the free version offers compared to the paid one here).
Ideal for those just getting started with 3D, Hexagon is a free modelling tool from Daz 3D that features all the tools you need for creating impressive 3D models, including 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.
Want to get a feel for digital sculping? Pixologic's ZBrushCoreMini is a fantastic starting point that's suitable for all skill levels, from beginners through to pros who need a quick and easy tool for banging out concepts. It's 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, skills learned here can be directly translated into ZBrush.
A professional VFX and 3D animation tool that's popular across the media industry, Houdini's a very expensive piece of software. However, its developers, SideFX, provide 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 non-commercial use and learning purposes.
Want to try some digital sculpting right now without having to download anything? You need to head directly for 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 plenty of sculpting tools as well as PBR vertex painting and alpha texture support.
SculptGL supports multi-resolution 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 work, SculptGL is well worth having to hand.
Paid for data visualisation
For the best graphic design software for data visualisation, take a look at Genially. It's built for creating everything from infographics through to quizzes and presentations, and enables you to make engaging, visually-appealing and delightfully shareable content quickly and easily.
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.
Infogram is a useful free tool for creating all manner of graphs, charts and maps, with the added bonus of adding images and videos if you want to create engaging infographics. You can arrange your data in a simple spreadsheet that you can then edit to see the results in real time. And when you're satisfied with the result you can publish it to the Infogram website to embed it on your own site, or share via social media.