Essential Graphic Design Software – The top tools for every designer’s toolkit


Graphic design software empowers visual creators to develop stunning designs, illustrations, layouts, animations and more. Today’s tools offer immense capabilities for both professional and amateur designers. However, the multitude of options can overwhelm new users. In this essay, I highlight the most versatile, capable and easy-to-use graphic design programs that should be in every designer’s toolkit.

Raster Graphics Editors

Raster or bitmap editors are essential for working with photo-based images and designs:

• Adobe Photoshop – The industry standard loaded with advanced capabilities for image editing, compositing and touch-ups. However, the app is expensive and overpowered for casual users.
• GIMP – Open source Photoshop alternative with a dense feature set and community-built plugins. The interface is dated but highly customizable.
• Affinity Photo – A modern Photoshop challenger at a lower cost. Slick UI and excellent RAW editing plus key retouching tools.
• Pixelmator – Streamlined UI and machine learning-enhanced tools built for Mac. Good Photoshop alternative at an affordable price.
• Canva – Browser-based design app with drag-and-drop simplicity. Minimal learning curve with many templates and assets. Lacks fine-tuned control.
These tools form the core of photo editing and bitmap-based design work like web or mobile app interfaces.

Vector Graphics Apps

Vector tools create infinitely scalable graphics and illustrations based on lines and curves:

• Adobe Illustrator – The premium vector editor tightly integrated into Creative Cloud. Gives designers maximum control over illustrations and logos.
• Affinity Designer – High-performance Illustrator alternative at a lower price. Excellent precision and smooth UI optimized for artists.
• Inkscape – Capable open source vector tool with SVG support. Great free option but the learning curve is steeper.
• Gravit Designer – Full-featured free browser-based vector editor with shared team functionality. More accessible than Inkscape for beginners.
• Vectornator – Intuitive vector design app for the iPad and Mac ecologies with built-in collaboration.
Vector apps enable illustrators, logo creators, and layout designers through versatile pen and shape tools.

Digital Painting Software

For natural media painting and drawing:

• Adobe Photoshop – Remains a preferred choice for painting due to its versatile brush engine and mixer toolset. Works with graphics tablets.
• Procreate – Feature-packed painting app made for the iPad and Apple Pencil. Smooth and responsive with intuitive UX. Advanced brush customization.
• Adobe Fresco – Cloud-based digital drawing and painting tool with realistic live brushes. Integrates with Photoshop.
• Autodesk Sketchbook – Cross-platform painting software with highly customizable brushes. Support for rulers and symmetrical drawing aids.
• Corel Painter – Replicates natural media feel with bristle tips, blenders, color palettes and unique tools like impasto.
Painting-focused apps provide digital equivalents of watercolors, oils, charcoal and other traditional media.

Design and Layout Software

Tools to arrange text, images and elements in appealing layouts:

• Adobe InDesign – The publishing industry standard for multi-page documents and layouts like books, magazines and presentations.
• Affinity Publisher – InDesign alternative at a lower price yet with pro layout and typography tools. Good for brochures, reports and more.
• Adobe Illustrator – Surprisingly robust page layout capabilities alongside its vector graphics strengths. A decent lighter-weight substitute for basic layout projects.
• Scribus – Open source equivalents of InDesign. Capable typesetting and page layout but has a steeper learning curve.
• Lucidpress – Intuitive browser-based design and layout creation with real-time collaboration. Drag-and-drop simplicity.
Robust alignment, document structure and typography controls make these programs indispensable for page and print layout work.

Animation and Motion Graphics

Tools to create animated content, VFX and 2D motion design:

• Adobe After Effects – Industry standard for motion graphics, VFX and cinematic visual effects with comprehensive capabilities.
• Adobe Animate – Vector animation app for web, TV and ads. Integrates well with other Adobe tools.
• Toon Boom Harmony – Premium 2D animation software for studios. Advanced cutout rigging and bone armature-driven animation.
• Blender – Open source 3D creation platform with a robust 2D animation and compositing toolset. More learning required but extremely capable.
• Animaker – Browser-based 2D animation maker. Easy drag-and-drop interface ideal for beginners. Large looping GIF creation.
Animation tools bring visuals to life and enable the creation of short videos, GIFs, marketing content and animated interfaces.

Design Collaboration Platforms

Connect and collaborate with teammates:

• Adobe Creative Cloud – Tightly integrated collection of apps that creative teams can access and share via the cloud.
• Figma – Real-time collaborative design and prototyping tool. Great for UI/UX teams to co-create.
• Miro – Online infinite virtual whiteboard for visual collaboration. Brainstorming, wireframing, workshops and more.
• Milanote – Digital mood boards to collect ideas and assets. Visual project planning.
• Notion – All-in-one workspace for notes, docs, wikis, and databases to organize projects.
Work together in real-time, gather feedback quickly, and present concepts using collaborative design platforms.


Graphic design software empowers visual communication through countless creative possibilities. Mastering the leading tools for vector graphics, photo editing, digital painting, layout, animation and team collaboration enables designers to bring ideas to life more quickly and powerfully. With this application toolkit, anyone can elevate their creative abilities to a professional grade. Technology and software increasingly democratize design – with the right tools, anyone can now become a skilled visual thinker and creator.

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