We’ve tested graphic design software since 2009. In our most recent testing, we spent over 50 hours comparing these programs' features, tools and interfaces to determine which software creates the most professional work while still being affordable and easy to use. We’ve determined that Corel PaintShop Pro is the best overall program because it offers both vector and pixel-based tools in one inexpensive software.
Corel PaintShop Pro’s powerful mixture of photo editing tools and vector-drawing tools, coupled with its relatively low cost, makes it the best overall graphic design software we tested. You’ll find over 650 photo filters that you can apply to your projects, as well as vector brushes, pen tools and the ability to create custom brushes. This software might be a bit daunting at first because it has so many tools to learn. But the interface is easy to navigate, and the company provides plenty of learning resources to help you become a proficient user.
Although you’ll find advanced photo editing tools, like panorama stitching and HDR image creation, this program does not include automatic vector tracing. This means you need to hand-trace raster images if you want to turn them into vectors. Although this software is compatible with most major image file types, it doesn’t work with SWF files, meaning you can’t make that kind of animation file. PaintShop Pro is only available for Windows, so Mac users will need to look elsewhere.
If you’re familiar with Adobe Illustrator but you’re not keen on paying for the expensive monthly or yearly subscriptions, Serif’s Affinity software is the solution. Affinity Designer only requires a one-time payment, and it’s the least-expensive program we tested. However, there is no free trial period, so you cannot test the software before buying it. This software is comparable to Adobe Illustrator; both are vector-based design programs that are built to work alongside a photo editing program and a desktop publishing program.
Because you’re supposed to use this program in conjunction with Affinity Photo, a photo editing software, pixel tools are limited. However, unlike Illustrator, Affinity Photo has a few pixel-based tools, like a pixel brush and shape tools, which you can access in the Pixel Persona mode. That way, you’re not completely dependent on an outside program for basic image editing tools.
This software’s advanced pen and vector tools allow you to adjust stroke and line density, as well as node and curve positions, to truly give you creative freedom when you’re working on your projects. Many of the tools are the same as Illustrator’s, and many even have the same hot keys. One thing that is missing from Affinity Designer is automatic image tracing, which would turn a raster image into a vector at the click of a button. Affinity’s forum mentions that the company hopes to implement this feature in later versions, but for now, you’ll have to hand-trace images.
Best for professionals
Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard for vector-based graphic design software due to its powerful, professional-grade tools. One of the best features of this software is the raster image tracing, which lets you convert pixelated images into editable vectors with the click of a button. When working with vectors, select the white cursor tool to rearrange node placement and curves. This gives you far more control over vectors than many other programs allow.
Adobe intends this software to be used in conjunction with Photoshop, so it doesn’t really have photo editing tools. This means it lacks color correction, content-aware fill, lens correction tools, HDR image creation and panorama-stitching features. However, you have access to masking tools, a history log and a few templates.
You can test this software using the seven-day trial. This is shorter than the average 30-day trial, but it’s better than nothing. As with most other Adobe software, this program can be used only through subscription payments. You can choose between monthly payments and yearly payments, but there is no way to make a one-time purchase.
How much does graphic design software cost?
You can typically find basic graphic design software between $30 and $100. There are more advanced programs, which can sell for as high as $300 or require a subscription. Some, but not all, of the less-expensive software provided fewer tools. However, other affordable programs, such as Corel PaintShop Pro, have just as many design tools as more expensive software. Just determine which tools you need most, and then purchase the program that provides them.
Why trust us on graphic design software?
In our most recent evaluation, we spent over 50 hours testing and comparing graphic design software to see which programs were the easiest to use and offered the most creative freedom. We also evaluated the tools and features of each program to see if they warranted the cost of the software. To get further insight, we reached out to a professional graphic designer, Brooklyn Parks.
How we tested graphic design software
When you are learning how to use new software, you focus on how easy it is to use and if it can complete your desired tasks in a timely manner. To evaluate the software, we focused on both the illustration tools and the image editing features of each program. We determined which tasks we were able to complete, how long those tasks took and how easy the software was to use.
To explore the different effects the software offered, we used the same three images for all of the programs: a portrait, an image of a landscape and a still image. Then, we used common design tools – such as those for cropping, inserting text and resizing – and applied them to each of the images, noting how long it took to complete each task. The software interface played a significant role in how quickly we could find the tools, with clean and user-friendly workspaces helping the most.
To test the illustration tools in each program, we created a brochure that included text, graphics, gradients and shapes. These common tasks required a combination of tools. We evaluated how quickly we were able to do each of these tasks, as well as the speed of the software and the quality of the image after we had manipulated it. All of these factors made up each program’s ease-of-use score. Programs that lacked illustration tools, such as the pen tool or vector brushes, required more time to create design elements.
Overall, most of the programs performed similarly, but some outshone the rest. If you are looking for software to create dramatic effects on your photos, consider the number of photo filters the software has. Some programs, like Corel PaintShop Pro, provide dozens of filters.
The workspaces and tools differ from one program to the next. However, most allow you to customize your workspace, which helps you navigate the software. We looked for software that came with both predesigned templates and support within the application because these factors make the software easier to use. CorelDRAW comes with hundreds of such templates.
Your specific uses for the graphic design software will determine which program will work best for you. We created an ease-of-use score that reflects how quickly we could complete common tasks. You should also look for a program that has all of the tools you need to create your designs.
Printing: how important is the finished product?
When you’ve finished designing a project and you want to present it to others, you need the best printing features. For printed articles, you should set up your page to “bleed” so that the creases of your magazine appear continuous and colored. Equally important is the option to show your printer’s marks. This will help you immensely in the package-and-print process.
The best graphic design programs offer on-screen color proofs that allow you to preview the colors on your page. For example, it confirms that a rose-red heart you created will print as the right color, and not a dark shade of pink. Using a Pantone swatch significantly helps with this, as Pantone creates the colors with an exact chemical process that ensures the colors print the same anywhere. Another important feature is prepress support, which automatically ensures there are no errors before the project is sent to the printer and alerts you of any necessary changes.
Importing & exporting files: Will you use other files on your software?
Compatibility can be an issue with graphic design software. When you share files, you want people to be able to open them no matter which program they use. Most software supports different file types, especially common ones such as JPEG, BMP and PDF. The more file types the graphic design software offers, the more versatile it is. You should not let file types limit your designs or your learning.