Graphic design software has been a linchpin for thousands of businesses and artists all over the world for decades. From web design, advertising, cover art, and personal creative works, the possibilities are truly endless.
Next time you’re out in public or shopping in town, take a quick look around you. Be mindful of all the book covers, posters, and billboards that surround you — all use some form of graphic design software to grab your attention. Even simple text-only flyers require precise design and more planning than most would assume.
Graphic design software is no longer an expensive and professional-only tool, with many free graphic design software tools now offering for free what would have cost an arm and a leg just ten years ago.
In-home graphic design is useful for cartoonists, animators, marketers, architects, interior designers, and just about any hobby or job that requires the use of imagery or blueprints. From social media posts to advertising and even structural designs, graphic design software is more accessible, inexpensive, and easier to use than ever.
The creative nature of graphic design means that there are no uniform rules for the software, making no two all that alike. Unlike simpler writing software, graphic design software varies widely in complexity and usefulness.
While ‘photoshopping’ may be a common term, there is an impressive array of graphic design software specialized for certain purposes and professions. Some focus on image editing, while others are geared towards web design and architecture — so deciding on which is the best graphic design software can be difficult.
While free graphic design software is often suited for more casual purposes like cropping and resizing, some features available in paid software prove to be valuable for more professional uses.
So here we’re going to look at both paid and free graphic design software to choose from depending on your needs, starting with the best free software.
Free Graphic Design Software
While most of the more complex and professional-grade tools like refocusing and high-resolution exporting are not commonly found in free products, there are many useful examples of graphic design software available without having to break out your wallet.
Depending on your uses, free software may provide you with all the tools you need for cropping, resizing, and image enhancement.
Here we’re going to look at some of the best free graphic design software you can download today.
Inkscape is an open-source graphic design software with a minimalist design that adds to its simplicity.
While it’s probably the best graphic design software for beginners, Inkscape may be on the limited side, but those who only need the most basic of functions in their software, the $0 price can’t be beat.
Inkscape is mainly used for creating vectors — images that can be scaled up or down without affecting the quality, unlike other file formats that get blurrier as you enlarge them. This makes it ideal for creating designs that need to be in specific or different sizes, like Twitch emotes and multi-format advertisements.
- See also: our ranking of the best drawing software
To those used to more complex programs, Inkscape’s UI may seem a little ugly. Fortunately, the toolbars are easily customizable and unwanted tools and features can be hidden from sight to reduce the clutter.
GIMP, shortened from GNU Image Manipulation Program, is a popular open-source graphic design and image manipulation software that’s been consistently updated since 1996.
Free graphic design software doesn’t get better than GIMP. Its multitude of tools and features go beyond just cropping and resizing. These include layered editing and multi-image manipulation, all running smoothly due to the software’s unexpectedly small size.
A host of additional features are available as free and optional add-ons that make GIMP an easy competitor for the pricier professional tools like Photoshop. These add-ons include layer duplication, filters, and refocus tools to help remove motion blur.
While GIMP’s UI and basic tools are easy enough to get used to, beginners may be overwhelmed by the complicated plethora of options. The menus and terms likely aren’t recognizable to those who are new to graphic design software or those who only need the simplest of tools.
Some searching around for tutorials may be necessary for newer designers, but that doesn’t stop GIMP from being one of the best free graphic design software programs available to download today.
It is worth noting, however, that despite GIMP’s impressive compatibility with popular operating systems like Windows and Linux, Mac users have reported some difficulty using the layer editing options with the iOS version.
Another free graphic design software option that rivals its paid competitors is Gravit Designer, a program that prioritizes precision and efficiency.
Gravit Designer is not as complicated as some others, and is designed for professional use, making it a good choice for freelancers or small business owners who are new to graphic design but still want access to top-level design features.
Gravit Designer’s main selling point is the precision with which images can be edited — with such precise measurements not often possible in free software. The multi-dimensional presets also make getting started very easy depending on your needs and skill levels.
For those who don’t want to or can’t download a new app, Gravit Designer also works as an in-browser program that allows you to design, edit, and export directly from the web. The browser version is also a bonus for those working with an incompatible operating system.
More experienced designers will appreciate Gravit’s customizable UI and impressive editing tools for organizing your layout just how you want it, while beginners will appreciate the shallower learning curve.
Made by the same team behind Gravit Designer, Klex is a great option for free graphic design software that’s only suitable for the most basic of uses, so professional users will need to look elsewhere for more expert-level design purposes.
Klex was designed as a more simplistic counterpart to Gravit, making it one of the best examples of graphic design software for beginners to use for basic tasks.
While this may make Klex seem like a downgrade, it actually makes it ideal for anyone who only needs to make rudimentary edits. Unneeded tools and features don’t clutter up the UI or get in the way of searching for the things you need.
Despite this, there are still a good number of tools at your disposal. For simple edits and designs, Klex focuses on quick one-shot edits that don’t need to be revisited or finished over multiple sessions.
Despite this, Klex shouldn’t be seen simply as a counterpart to Paint. Using preset templates, Klex focuses on speed over substance and allows for users to make fast designs that could still be used for professional purposes.
Canva — best free graphic design software overall
For more complicated designs, Canva is the go-to graphic design software for people who need to make professional-level designs on their browser or in an app.
While Canva is available for free, the more advanced Pro version is paid software. Here we’re only going to look at the features included in the free version.
Canva prides itself in being a jack-of-all-trades graphic design software, and this is evident in its hundreds of preset ‘design types’ which include standard templates ideal for social media posts, professional presentations and PowerPoints, marketing productions, and even video.
The pre-designed templates are there for almost any purpose, and personal templates and sizes can also be created and saved for future use even on the browser version via a simple and non-invasive signup system.
It’s so widely used by both businesses and individuals — if you see a fake-deep quote by any celebrity or influencer on Instagram, chances are it was made on Canva.
Canva allows for image uploads that are also saved on your personal library, and different images can be added to the same template for multi-image editing which can be resized and fixed to a specific size.
The image editing tools available in Canva are fairly basic, but they are simple to grasp and work well for those who may not have a full idea of what they’re doing when it comes to graphic design software.
Image creation is not a strong feature of Canva, but the guided resizing and cropping tools are useful for simple presentations like blog posts and online scrapbooking.
Some argue that images exported from the browser-based version of Canva lose quality, though this issue can easily be fixed with simple screenshotting and downloading.
Often seen as the most Photoshop-esque and one of the best free graphic design software available, Pixlr is one of the most popular options for people who need to create professional-quality designs without breaking the bank.
Pixlr’s well-designed UI isn’t too overwhelming, and the left toolbar includes shortcuts to 23 different editing tools as standard. These include pen, eraser, cropping, resizing, color replacement, and many other tools available for quick access to the most used features in graphic design.
Pixlr X is the most used version, as it works from your browser and so doesn’t slow down your computer as much as an app would. Its massive list of features and shallow learning curve make it an impressive program.
Beginners will be happy to know that Pixlr includes small tutorials within their toolbars. By hovering over an icon with your mouse and you’ll be greeted with an explanation of the feature you’re selecting and how it works.
While even the best free graphic design software is mostly only geared to non- or semi-professional use, Pixlr is similar to GIMP in that it acts as a competitor to many paid programs. However, Pixlr is constantly being updated and improved, so many features are still in beta.
Pixlr’s unfinished status has led many to believe its lack of price tag may not last that long. Examples of free software later costing money as features are added and finished are all over the internet, and some argue Pixlr may go the same way.
Despite this hypothetical future cost, Pixlr is still an incredibly useful free graphic design software that offers for free what many others lock behind paywalls.
Paid Graphic Design Software for Professionals
While some of the free examples we’ve seen so far can hold their own against many paid programs, there are some that offer features that free versions either can’t or don’t.
Here we’re going to look at some of the best professional graphic design software and why they’re worth the price tags.
- Price: $19.99 – $49.99 per month
Why it’s worth paying for:
- Adobe’s pedigree ensures quality software
- Multi-platform shared library
- Accurate editing tools
Beginning with likely the best-known software on the market, Adobe Illustrator is the graphic design counterpart to Photoshop that uses vectors to resize images without affecting quality. This is ideal for making flyers and posters using the same image or logo without losing crisp resolution or clear lines while resizing.
Adobe is famous for its design software, and Illustrator arguably is the most in-depth of them all. The shared libraries between the desktop and mobile versions make continuing design projects when moving away from your desk a breeze.
Transferring images from PC to tablets without the need for cables or memory sticks makes for a seamless experience that saves more hassle than you’d think.
The editing tools are very complex and offer incredibly accurate image manipulation. These include precise angling tools that let you either use sliders or enter in custom degrees for an exact angle. This is important for architectural blueprints and interior design, which need precise measurements.
This, coupled with the vectors system, allows for an impressively designed image that can be used for anything from business cards to billboard advertisements. It also includes spell checking for all text formats, taking the pressure off graphic designers who aren’t confident in their writing skills.
One of the main drawbacks of Adobe Illustrator is its price. It can no longer be paid for with a one-off license, and now involves a monthly payment, the hefty cost of which is a turn-off for many users.
CorelDRAW Graphics Suite
- Price: $249+ depending on package, monthly subscription available.
Why it’s worth paying for:
- Multiple apps in one purchase
- Accessible to a range of budgets
- Highly accurate vector platforms
Rather than a single app, CorelDRAW is, as the name implies, a suite of different applications with distinct uses. This not only simplifies projects that require different tools but also lets users transfer projects between different software to perform step-by-step designs.
Not only does this compartmentalization make long-term projects easier to track, but it also ensures that each step in the design process is perfect before moving on.
The graphic design software included in this suite includes CorelDRAW app, Photo-Paint, PowerTRACE, and AfterShot.
Photo-Paint is a standard photo-editing software; its pixel-based design is useful for editing images to precise specifications.
CorelDRAW is where the main focus is as one of the best vector-based illustration and layout programs available for purchase. Its precision and efficiency are arguably unmatched, and you can select specific areas of any design to edit separately. This allows for background and foreground manipulation without interfering with the design as a whole.
As well as image creation and manipulation, CorelDRAW also includes an in-depth text and font editor, allowing for more than simple type-and-save text additions present in other software. This is the perfect option for advertisements such as brochures that need to stand out and grab attention.
PowerTRACE is a conversion program for adding vector-based design formats to pre-existing images, allowing for the importation and restructuring of pictures for anything from scrapbooking to marketing campaigns. PowerTRACE can be used alongside AfterShot for more general editing like adding filters, light effects, and sharpening.
While the price is steep, the CorelDRAW design suite is available as a monthly subscription for those who can’t afford the one-off licensing payments, or just need it temporarily. CorelDRAW also comes with a 14-day no commitment-free trial, so it’s worth checking out.
- Price: $24.99 for desktop, $9.99 for mobile app one-off payments.
Why it’s worth paying for:
- Best graphic design software for the price
- Fast and efficient
Most paid graphic design software is created with professionals and veterans in mind, and that’s why Affinity Designer stands out as professional-grade software that’s approachable for beginners.
Affinity works on a grid system with optional smart-snapping for easy manipulation of multiple images make it one of the best available graphic design software for things like blog posts and website design.
The constant updates focus on efficiency and speed, with things like zooming, dragging, and resizing being immediate and accurate. As of the 1.7 version, different parts of an image can be selected and altered without affecting the rest of the design, similar to CorelDRAW.
The learning curve and simplicity of Affinity’s UI are selling points for beginners who need professional software for complicated and impressive projects, but it won’t turn off graphic design veterans as it includes many tools and features one would expect from paid software.
Post-processing of images is also a highlight, as the in-depth brush tools are excellent for touching up designs to make them as impressive as they can be for a variety of uses for artists, marketers, programmers, and designers.
A rival to Adobe and at a fraction of the cost, Affinity Designer doesn’t quite have all the features that Illustrator does, but it’s the best value for graphics design software that we could find.