Being a designer isn’t a cheap profession. Whether you are a freelancer, a member of a marketing department, or you lead an agency, you have to invest in high performance, quality hardware as well as good software that can serve all your (sometimes very diverse) needs. While it may be difficult to cut the cost of the hardware without sacrificing performance (for example, think about the nightmare of using a cheap monitor in color-critical applications), you have plenty of options when it comes to choosing design tools.
Full-Featured But Not Fully Used
Nice as they are, not all creative professionals need a full-featured, expensive suite of design applications. Not when the majority of designers and marketers focus on tasks that only use a small portion of the suite’s features. There are many interesting and less expensive alternatives, both open-source and commercial, that have the majority of features of their big brothers, while sporting approachable pricing plans.
Here is my hand-picked list of high-quality, yet affordable, design applications for those with a taste for champagne but stuck with a beer budget. They run the gamut from open-source and freeware to commercial while costing no more than $50 for a perpetual license. I call it my “Dom Beerignon” list of design apps.
Darktable is an open-source app for developing RAW images and images management. Available for Linux and Mac OS X (and some other platforms too, unfortunately, no Windows compilation). It offers a non-destructive workflow, huge set of photo processing tools, support for wide range of file formats (including high dynamic range images) and even tethered shooting.
2. Raw Therapee
Open-Source, cross-platform (Windows, Mac OSX, and Linux) RAW and general image processing program with a set of professional features, like built-in color management system, 96-bit floating point engine, and non-destructive editing.
Another powerful open-source digital darkroom software, available for all major platforms. The program is more beginner friendly than Darktable and Raw Therapee. Photo editing is where it shines, with its intuitive yet powerful features like selective editing and ZoneMapper.
Full featured photo editor, expandable with hundreds of plugins, including the ability to run some third-party Photoshop filters. Cross-platform and open-source, so a good choice for beginners or professionals on a budget. Unfortunately, it lacks real CMYK support.
In my opinion, Affinity Photo is the best Photoshop alternative. It has everything a designer may need: RAW editing, support for many file formats including PSD, non-destructive filters application, real-time preview of all effects, ICC color management, CMYK, LAB, 16-bit per channel and many, many more. Available only for Mac, so my Windows-oriented heart is slightly broken, but rumors say that a Windows version is in the works.
Krita is a powerful open-source painting program that is popular among digital artists. It offers an extremely customizable brush engine, artist-oriented interface, symmetry painting, perspective assistant, cage transform, full support of professional drawing tablets, color management and many more. It also has some image editing features. In my mind, Krita is probably the best alternative to commercial painting programs. Available for Windows and Linux.
An open-source app that used to be the number one choice for artists looking for a free painting software, before Krita made a huge leap by focusing solely on painting (instead of being a full featured photo editing app). Now the choice between these two is rather a matter of personal preferences. MyPaint is a little more beginner-friendly, and includes a highly configurable brush engine, several predefined brush presets and a unique feature – unlimited canvas. Available on Windows and Linux, also for Mac in MacPorts (may have some issues though).
Interesting and affordable painting program that has natural painting tools, perfectly mimicking real world media. Very easy to learn, with distraction-free interface and support for all high-end features of Wacom styluses like tilt and barrel rotation. Available for Windows and Mac, slightly simplified versions available also for iPad and Android tablets.
Very affordable app for Windows and Mac, offering natural looking bristle brushes, full control of brush options, stroke stabilizer, perspective tools, close gaps function, custom panels, to name a few.
10. Manga Studio
Also known as Clip Studio Paint Pro, Manga Studio is a very popular painting app aimed towards comic and manga artists. It has many tools and features that distinguish it from other programs: post correction of lines, advanced gradient tools, word balloons, various drawing rulers, speed and focus lines, 3D drawing dolls, frame cut tools and more. Available for Windows and Mac.
This open-source program is an obvious choice when you need a free vector editor. It has all the tools you would expect from a vector editor, uses SVG as its native file format, has numerous creative filters, and an exceptional measurement tool. Just like GIMP, it lacks direct CMYK support (what a pity). Available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
My heart is breaking again! Affinity Designer is a Mac-only professional graphic design software. Impressive speed and precision, cool vector and raster brushes, adjustment layers, powerful non-destructive booleans, corner tool, CMYK, live filters extensive file formats support – this is just a sneak peek of what you can get for $49.99.
Open-source page layout program available for more platforms than you can imagine. Scribus features a huge arsenal of text layout tools, vector editing tools, CMYK and spot colors support, and color management to help you prepare professional looking documents for publishing. Its recent 1.5.0 version brings significant improvements like tables support, import filters for commercial file formats, several new text tools, 3D objects support, PDF/X-4 output and more. For almost all production work, I recommend that you use the stable version (the unstable version is their development version).
Blender is the best-managed open-source project EVER, period. Full-featured 3D suite for modeling, sculpting, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering (introduction of Cycles rendering engine was a real game changer), compositing, motion tracking and video editing. Blender even has a built-in game engine (although there are better choices in this area). Blender is capable of competing with commercial 3D programs in many areas and is consistently adopted by more and more professional studios, especially in gamedev. Available for all leading operating systems.
User-friendly app for digital sculpting and 3D painting. An extensive set of sculpting brushes, dynamic tessellation, and symmetry mode allows you to immerse fully into your creative process, without distractions or worrying about high polygon count. While not a full-featured 3D program, it can be a good solution for sculptors for the creation of concepts or assets that they can further develop in other apps. Available for free for both Windows and Mac users.
Modeling humanoid characters can be a real pain. This open-source tool gives you a helping hand in this process. It offers fully parametric modeling of features like age, gender, face and body shape. High-quality models with loops optimized for animation are ready to use in your preferred 3D suite or as a base mesh for detailed sculpting. You can download versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Font Management and Editing
Full-featured font editor with all the necessary bells and whistles. It lets you create and edit PostScript, TrueType, OpenType, SVG and many other font types while also allowing you to convert between them. Users have full control over spacing, metrics, kerning, hinting and advanced OpenType features (like ligatures). There are also some very handy features like font interpolation for creating intermediate weights, spiro drawing and many more. FontForge is open-source and is free for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
18. FontLab TypeTool
FontLab TypeTool is a stripped-down version of the premium FontLab Studio, but still has all essentials tools for occasional font creation and editing. It supports most popular font types, has a very high glyphs limit (65,500), offers a full set of vector paint tools, automatic and manual kerning, and spacing. Relatively easy to use, it is a good choice as long as you don’t need advanced typographic OpenType features.
A must have Windows application for everyone using more than system fonts. This free font manager allows you to browse, preview and compare fonts, organize them into groups and sets, and to import and use fonts without the need for installing them in the system.
Miscellaneous Design Tools
All the tools listed above are for more common design tasks. But what if you need to add something extra to the project you are working on, like barcodes, scores, charts or chemical molecules?
I’m sure you don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars for a commercial program that you will use only for a specific project, so the list of open-source apps below can be a valuable resource for you. All of these apps have one common feature – they offer a high-quality vector output so that you can use these files in your work.
Very easy to use barcode generator that supports over 50 types of codes. Everything is fully customizable, and you can export to PNG, EPS, and SVG. Available for Windows and Linux.
Professional WYSIWYG music notation software for all platforms. Notations can be entered using a mouse, a virtual keyboard, or MIDI. You can choose from numerous sheet music templates, add lyrics, expression markings, chord symbols, percussion notation and so on. Quality SVG output gives you the freedom to edit files in other design or page layout programs.
Veusz is a 2D plotting program that allows you to create publication-quality scientific graphs that are unfeasible in popular spreadsheets. Virtually every part of a chart is fully customizable; a feature not found in many commercial packages. Very clean vector export allows further tweaking in your preferred design program. You can download Veusz for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
23 – 25: BKChem, SketchEl, JChemPaint
These three apps are chemical molecule sketching tools that require some basic chemistry knowledge. BKChem offers the best, most clean SVG output while JChemPaint has a very useful database of ready to use popular molecules (amino acids, lipids, etc.). All of these have predefined basic structures that simplify and accelerate drawing. You can use MOL file format to exchange molecules between these programs. These three applications are available for all popular platforms, but keep in mind that the last two require the installation of Java.
What’s On Your Dom Beerignon List of Design Tools
This list of design tools is a small sample of the available applications. They are, in my opinion, the creme de la creme among programs suitable for professional designers that just so happen to be affordable. If you think I missed something, feel free to add it in the comments below.