The best graphic design software is a must for professional graphic designers and anyone else who wants to unleash the creative options that current technology allows to make quality design pieces of any kind. There are numerous programs available to create print and digital design these days, from versatile multi-purpose software packages to specialist tools aimed at more specific types of design.
Unsurprisingly, most of the best graphic design software has a cost. Developing, maintaining and updating such powerful tools involves a lot of work. The best free graphic design software has come a long way but it still can't compete with the breadth of tools offered by professional packages. That said, while you'll definitely want to pay for professional graphic design software if you're working, or plan to work in the field, the best free graphic design software can serve certain purposes, particularly if you're only interested in creating an occasional piece of design for a personal project and you can't justify paying for a more complete solution.
Free graphic design software can also a good introduction for those looking to experiment without the learning curve invovled with more complex tools. In the guide below, we've chosen the best graphic design software overall and the best free graphic design software based on our reviewers' own experiences with each program. Our reviewers have spent time exploring and testing each program's features to see how they measure up in terms of usability, power and features, compatibility and use of resources and value for money.
We've split the list into sections for different types of tools, from the best vector software to the best image editing software, the best 3D software, and the best software for data visualisation. In each case, we've evaluated the pros and cons of each tool to help you choose the best graphic design software for you, and in many cases, we've linked to more detailed hands-on reviews of the programs in case you want a more in-depth look at how they work.
For tips on how to choose the best graphic design software for you, see the questions section at the bottom of this article. Meanwhile, if you're looking for design inspiration, see our pick of the best graphic design books. And for more software options for other purposes, see our guides to the best digital art software and the best video editing apps.
The best graphic design software today
The best vector software
If you want the best graphic design software for vector drawing and editing, there's little need to look further than Adobe Illustrator. It remains the industry-standard software for a reason and still offers the most powerful range of tools and features for vector editing. Compatible with PC, Mac and even the iPads, Illustrator allows you to create everything from illustrations to logos with all the creative freedom you could wish for, while it has tons of features and shortcuts to help speed up your workflow.
Illustrator is part of Adobe Creative Cloud, and to use it you'll need to subscribe, either for Illustrator alone or to Adobe's full suite of creative apps, which includes Photoshop, InDesign and many more. The advantage of the subscription model is that you automatically get the latest updates to the software. The downside is that it's fairly pricey, although Adobe does run regular offers and there's a discount for students. See our guide to how to download Adobe Illustrator for more.
If you feel Adobe's subscription model is a little too pricy then Serif's Affinity Designer is a very strong alternative. The best graphic designs software available for a one-off payment, Affinity Designer has become very popular as it adds more and more features, coming close to rivalling Illustrator. In fact, it actually offers some tools you don't find on Illustrator, such as infinite redos and one million per cent-plus zoom.
Affinity Designer works with both Illustrator AI and Photoshop PSD files, so you don't have to worry about compatibility if colleagues or clients work with Adobe's software. Chances are that you'll find Affinity Designer runs faster than Adobe illustrator too. But the best part, of course, is that you only have to make a one-time outlay and a fairly reasonable one at that. There are no subscription fees, but you still get software updates included.
See our full Affinity Designer review for more details.
If you're looking for the best graphic design software specifically for UI design, prototyping and/or making icons, then you might well want to consider Sketch – if you work on a Mac, that is. While it doesn't have the depth of software like Adobe Illustrator or Affinity Designer, Sketch has everything you need for UI design, and is easier to use if you have that one specific purpose. It has a minimal interface, which makes it easy to get started, but it offers a wide range of features if you need them thanks to a big library of plugins.
The software came in for a major revamp in 2021, with the addition of new features focusing on better collaboration. For example, developers can now view, inspect, and measure your Sketch designs in any browser, on any operating system, all for free.
Read our full Sketch review for more details on this piece of software.
First launched in 1989, CorelDRAW lost some of its popularity to Adobe Illustrator but it still has legions of fans, and the 2021 version of the software introduced some major updates. Long available for Windows only, a Mac version has been available since 2019, serving to broaden the appeal of a package that now has a lot of Illustrator's features, and at a slightly more affordable price. You have more flexibility in how you pay too since you can choose between a one-off payment or a subscription.
So why is CorelDraw lower on our list of the best graphic design software? It's actually hard to decide which is whether CorelDRAW or Illustrator is the 'better' tool. Both have tons of features, but the interfaces are quite different. While fans of CorelDRAW insist that it's easier to use than Illustrator, the fact remains that Illustrator is the industry-standard tool, and in many jobs, you'll be expected to use it.
That said, there's no issue with importing and exporting AI and PDF files to CorelDRAW. The main reason to choose one over the other however is because you prefer the interface and workflow. If you've never used either and you have the time, we'd suggest signing up for the free trial of both so you can compare them for yourself.
See our full CorelDRAW review for a more detailed evaluation.
Formerly Adobe Spark, Adobe Creative Cloud Express (or CC Express) is the newest addition to the Adobe family, and the brand's attempt to compete with affordable entry-level graphic design software like Canva and Picsart. Available online and as a mobile app for both iOS and Android, it takes the basic photo/video editing tools and the Asset library from across Adobe's suite of apps and puts them into an accessible one-stop package.
Best of all the app is free to download and free to use forever – for a limited number of basic tools. You can unlock more features if you sign up for a premium CC express account for $9.99 / £10.10 a month or $99.99 / £101.15 per year. There's a 30-day free trial of the premium version so you can try it out before you commit.
See our Adobe Creative Cloud Express review for more details.
From the people behind Corel Draw, Gravit Designer is the best free graphic design software specifically for vectors. With a clean and intuitive interface, it can cope with most design jobs, from icon design and prototyping to vector illustration and animation. On the free version, you can export files as PDF, SVG or bitmap, and you access your work wherever you are via the Gravit Cloud.
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. See the full comparison between the Pro and free versions here.
Vecteezy is a free, in-browser vector editor. It allows you to work with ready-made vectors that you can customise to suit your needs, or build your own designs from the ground up. Either way, it's easy to use and has some nice features such as advanced transformations and keyboard shortcuts. A subscription to the Pro version gets you more tools and resources. See more about how it works in our guide to how to use Vecteezy.
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, so they can see what you're doing and provide feedback on your work.
SVG-Edit lets you edit and create SVG files using a standard vector toolset. There's nothing to download, as the software works straight in your web browser. It's not the most comprehensive 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 an SVG editor that boasts advanced features such as markers, cloned objects and alpha blending. Its interface is simpler than Illustrator's, but it's still capable of producing quite sophisticated artwork. There's support for various colour modes, so you can output just what you need, whether you're designing for digital or print. It'll import Illustrator files too, as well as enable you to trace bitmap images.
VectorStyler is a relative newcomer among the best vector software. Initially available only for Mac, it's now available for Windows too. Its big selling point is a wide range of scalable vector brushes plus the inclusion of some of the tools that are missing in other alternatives to Adobe Illustrator, such as shape builder, a blend tool and pattern tool. It can open and import Illustrator files, and you can import AI brush collections as well as create vector brushes from artwork and dynamically link brush content to editable artwork.
We found the user interface to be very easy to understand, and tools like the warp options are very intuitive. However, while we found some of the unique filters and tools certainly very interesting, priced at $95, VectorStyler is twice the price of Affinity Designer, our top pick as the best non-subscription vector software. It does offer some of the tools that Affinity Designer lacks, so it's worth considering if you need them, but we find it's usually possible to find a work around.
Another downside is that unlike Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer, you don't have that wider ecosystem that lets you switch quickly and easily between different apps (with Affinity you have that in Affinity Photo, Publisher and Designer). While VectorStyle can do a lot, it doesn't have the pixel tools that you get with Affinity and Photoshop. There's also no iPad app, a big advantage of Illustrator and Affinity Designer for graphic designers who work on the go or with a stylus.
The best image editing software
You probably don't need us to tell you that Adobe's Photoshop is the industry-standard software for image editing. The package has long been a household name and just as Illustrator remains the best graphic design software for vector work thanks to its regular updates, Photoshop continues to dominate in image editing. In fact, it can do a lot more than just image editing: everything from touching up photos to digital drawing and painting, 3D modelling and UX design. It's a fully featured package, and Adobe's been adding powerful AI tools under its Adobe Sensei banner to allow you to do things like remove backgrounds in just a couple of clicks.
As with Illustrator, you'll need a subscription, but then if you're a working designer a subscription to Creative Cloud is almost a must, granting you access to Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and more. As with all Creative Cloud tools, you get regular updates for free. The latest release in October 2021 (version 23.0) added automatic selections on hover, the ability to share documents for commenting, and increased interoperability with Illustrator. See our full Photoshop 2022 review for more details. For help understanding the different payment options, see our article on How to download Photoshop.
Again, if you don't want the regular cost of a subscription, the best option comes from Serif's Affinity series. Affinity Photo is available for a very reasonable one-off payment for the desktop app, and a separate payment for the iPad app, and it offers a close match for most of Photoshop's features, it has all the photo retouching tools most people need, as well as advanced painting tools with a huge library of brushes. You can import and export PSD files and even smart objects. Users get updates for free, with the latest big revamp in August (1.10) adding greater layer blending efficiency.
See our full Affinity Photo review for more details.
Both Photoshop and Affinity Photo are now available for the iPad. But if all you need is a set of drawing tools, without a bunch of design-related extras, Procreate's probably the best graphic design software for you. Procreate has a great reputation within the artist community, and for good reason. It offers lots of beautiful brushes and helpful tools, such as QuickShape, which give you perfect shapes every time, and StreamLine, for turning your rough strokes into smooth curves. You can even paint filters straight onto your canvas.
At a price that's even lower than Affinity Photo's, this is an essential iPad app. The iPhone version, Procreate Pocket, is well worth checking out too.
Check out our complete Procreate review.
Even the best free graphic design software can't really come close to Photoshop's abilities. but, despite the offputting name, GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) does a very good job. By default, the interface is kind of clunky, but it's easy to update it to a more Adobe-style feel. Either way, GIMP contains a lot of powerful design tools. You'll be able to work with all the popular file formats without trouble. And you'll find a very capable file manager built in, along similar lines to Adobe's Bridge. See our full GIMP review for more details.
Canva is among the best free graphic design software for editing images. We found it makes it very easy to carry out 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, 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 (see our guide to the best infographic makers for more options there). While it doesn't quite match all the abilities of Photoshop, Canva is pretty impressive for a free app. You can use it in the browser for the full experience, but most of its tools are also available for both Android and iOS.
The paid version, Canva Pro, also has some interesting features. When we reviewed it, we liked Canva Pro’s Brand Kit, which could be a useful feature to help small companies stay on-brand across their designs, allowing you to set pre-set brand fonts, logos, colours and pre-designed templates. We also found the resize and the background remover tools very easy to use, and perfect for those with little experience of using design software. See our full Canva review for more details.
RawTherapee is free, open-source software that makes it easy to fix your photos. It's not fully fledged image editing software, but you can use it to correct distortion, boost colours, recover details and much more. It can also speed up your workflow by allowing you to batch process images. You can also send images to other software, such as GIMP (number 21 below).
Photo Pos Pro is simple, but perfect for amateurs and enthusiasts looking for an easy way to edit their images. This free software boasts a very 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. It's popular in the VFX industry and with concept artists, illustrators, matte and texture artists. It's famous for its huge collection of brushes, as well as brush stabilisers for smoothing out shaky lines. And if you want to tweak things further, there are loads of plugins available, ranging from advanced filters to painting assistants for perspective work. When we reviewed the latest version, 5.0, we found that it's stability has been much approved and doesn't suck up resources like it could in the past. See our full Krita review for more details, and see our Krita tutorial.
Pixlr is a suite of three apps that work in the browser or via iOS and Android apps. You don't have to sign up to use them, and you can get going straight away.
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 couldn't be easier to use. And the only downside with the free version is that you'll get intrusive ads, and a six-second delay when downloading your work. Both are removed with subscriptions, which also you give you advanced tools, extra overlays, stickers and a stock library,
Paint.NET started out as an updated version of the Paint app included with early versions of Windows. And that may not fill you with hope, it's actually pretty capable. It's easy to use, for one, and there's a range of effects available, allowing you to easily create fake perspective, blend and push pixels around the canvas, tile and repeat selections, and more.
Sumo Paint is a browser-based image editor, with all the standard features you'd expect from a desktop tool. These include brushes, pencils, shapes, text, cloning and gradients, accessible from a floating toolbar. A Pro version is available for a monthly sub, and Sumo also offers other online tools, including a photo editor and a 3D editor.
The best 3D software
Autodesk Maya is the best graphic design software for 3D work, and is commonly used across the industry, right up to top studios like Pixar or Framestore. It contains huge range of tools and features covering pretty much the entire 3D workflow, from modelling through to rendering and animation. Be warned, though, the price and the time it'll take you to learn will be off-putting to anyone who's not well-versed in 3D. However, if you're a student or educator, you can sign up for free educational access to the Autodesk range. See our full Maya 2020 review.
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. It plays nicely with many Adobe tools, most strikingly After Effects. And as its maker Maxon is in the process of acquiring Zbrush, we expect there'll be some nice integrations there soon, too. Like all good 3D software, Cinema 4D is expensive, but there's a 14-day trial version as well as a free education version for students and teachers. See our selection of Cinema 4D tutorials for more details.
Another industry standard tool, 3ds Max is a Windows-only app with a powerful set of features. 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. See our selection of 3ds Max tutorials for more details.
Blender is hands-down the best free graphic design software for 3D work. Free and open source, it's a full 3D content creation suite with a hugely impressive stack of tools. Its makers are constantly working on its development, and you can pretty much do anything 3D related with this software, including modelling, texturing, animation, rendering and compositing. Although it's not widely used at the top level of the industry, a number of major films have been made with it, including Netflix's Next Gen. See our collection of Blender tutorials.
Getting started in 3D can be quite the learning curve. SketchUp Free provides a friendly and gentle introduction. This free software starts you off by simply drawing lines and shapes, which you can then push and pull around to turn into 3D forms. For extra inspiration, you can search the SketchUp 3D Warehouse's huge 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 create digital art using virtual people, animals, props, vehicles, accessories and environments. It allows you to 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.
Here's another great choice for anyone new to 3D. Hexagon is free modelling software from Daz 3D that includes a range of powerful tools, 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.
If you want to get a feel for digital sculpting, Pixologic's ZBrushCoreMini is a fantastic starting point. If you're a 3D pro, meanwhile, you'll find it a quick and easy tool for banging out 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, skills learned here can be directly translated into ZBrush. Note that this 3D software is free for non-commercial use only.
Houdini is a professional VFX and 3D animation tool that's popular across the media industry. It's very expensive piece of software, but you can get Apprentice version for free. The only drawback is that it's purely for learning purposes, so you can't use what you create for commercial purposes.
Want to try some digital sculpting right now without having to download anything? Stéphane Ginier's SculptGL runs right in the browser; although there's also a downloadable version and a Chrome app. And it provides you with 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 as a free app, SculptGL is well worth having to hand.
The best data visualisation software
Looking for the best graphic design software for data visualisation? We recommend Genially. Perfect creating everything from infographics to quizzes and presentations, it enables you to make engaging, visually-appealing and delightfully shareable content quickly and easily.
There's a free version to get you started, with plenty of free templates and resources, but your designs will be watermarked. To remove this, and enjoy advanced features such as offline viewing, you'll need to move to a paid plan.
Infogram is a useful free tool for creating 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. Also see our guide to the best infographic maker.
What software do graphic designers use?
For most working graphic designers, Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite of apps is the standard choice. Its main tools for graphic design are Photoshop (raster image editing), Illustrator (vector image editing), InDesign (desktop publishing) and After Effects (motion design). You can subscribe to the Creative Cloud suite as a whole, or take out a single-app subscription. Either way, you'll also get the Behance portfolio service and access to Adobe Fonts. See our guide to getting a Creative Cloud discount to make sure you find the best price.
For graphic designers on a budget, Affinity's suite of apps provide a close approximation to Adobe's tools, namely Affinity Photo (which rivals Photoshop), Affinity Designer (which rivals Illustator) and Affinity Publisher (which rivals InDesign). There is no equivalent, however, to After Effects.
What's the best graphic design software for beginners?
If you're new to graphic design, there are a number of apps that allow you to get started for free. One of our top recommendations is Canva, a lightweight app for making quick designs in your browser. You don’t need to download anything, and you don’t have to pay either, unless you want to unlock advanced features and extra resources.
While you learn graphic design theory, Canva will allow you to put it into practice. Once you've reached a certain level of expertise, you'll then naturally gravitate towards one of the paid apps on our list to get more sophisticated tools.