10 Free or Cheap Adobe Alternatives for Designers on Every Level

By November 1, 2019 Inspiration
10 awesome & affordable applications for designers to try as an Adobe CC alternative

I’ve always been an Adobe girl ever since I had my internship at Walt Disney. I put many hours into mastering all their design apps and never regretted this investment. Adobe is one of the leading providers of industry standard design software. In fact, if you check any graphic designer job postings, you’ll see that employers all require you to know Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. 

But a lot of things happened since my internship – both good and bad – that made me rethink my devotion to Adobe’s awesome apps.  

If you ever thought that Adobe is not for you because it’s too expensive or too complicated, this post is for you. I’ll show you impressive free and cheap design apps that can do the same as the flagship Adobe software trio: Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. 

WHY I’M RETHINKING 

I find it especially important to share with you why I went on a hunt for the best Adobe alternatives and why I’m planning to try many of them. 

It wasn’t because of the price. 

It wasn’t because of the complexity. 

It was because of a moral issue. 

If you follow the news, you might have heard that the US government pressured American corporations to withhold their support of the Venezuelan government. Their corruption really doesn’t need to be supplied with any type of American-made software, products, etc. This is totally understandable. 

However, the way this change was implemented was equally bad. Many companies instead of just stopping supplying the Venezuelan government, left the whole country all together. And this is what Adobe did too. 

Imagine the following situation:  

You are a graphic designer in a country where the economy is in a bad state. Your money doesn’t worth anything, and you struggle to support your family. You decide to go on websites like Upwork or Freelancer to find clients from abroad, and you start selling on online design marketplaces. Soon you start to make decent income from these sources and feel optimistic again. Maybe your government and economy sucks, but in this beautiful global world and the age of internet you can still make a living. 

Then you get a message from Adobe: your Adobe Creative Cloud account is closed, hasta la vista. Oh and by the way, we don’t give you back your money for the remaining part of your yearly subscription. 

Bam! Just in a second a decision made in comfy, top-floor board rooms pulled the rug from under your feet again.  

Yes, Adobe did exactly this 

Luckily, thanks to widespread public backlash, Adobe has taken some extra steps since then and got a special waiver from the US government to keep operating in Venezuela.  

This doesn’t change the fact that big corporations can ruin individuals with their sudden, not comprehensively overthought decisions.  

My opinion: let’s all keep an open eye for new players. These are new, small companies trying to get roots in a market that’s overwhelmingly dominated by the big guys.  

PHOTOSHOP & LIGHTROOM ALTERNATIVES 

GIMP is a totally free photo editor that’s as close to Photoshop as you can get without a credit card. GIMP is available both for Mac and Windows. 

GIMP’s strengths: 

  • Supports Photoshop extensions 

  • Completely free, open source 

  • Regular updates 

  • Full control over image editing 

GIMP’s weaknesses: 

  • Portability – there’s no portable version (e.g. for iPad) 

  • Complexity – it has a steep learning curve, similar to Photoshop 

Level: Beginner to Pro 
Replaces: Photoshop 
Best for: photo editing 
Price: FREE 

Affinity got many raving reviews from professionals and received multiple awards, for example the Apple App of the Year recognition. Affinity Photo is available both for Mac and Windows plus it has portable apps for tablets. 

Pros: 

  • More capable portable version than Photoshop for iPad – great for those working on their tablets

  • Supports RAW format – great if you take photos with DSLR 

  • Works with raster and vector graphics 

Cons: 

  • Workspace – you can save your own workspace arrangement 

Level: Beginner to Pro 
Replaces: Photoshop 
Best for: photo editing 
Price: one-time $49.99 USD (has free trial) 

Procreate got widespread recognition in the past few years, especially since the Apple Pencil got introduced. It’s an amazing app for digital artists and illustrators. 

Pros: 

  • Lots of built in brushes and textures, plus more and more extras can be purchased for example from Creative Market

  • You can record as you draw in a video 

  • Right and lefthanded user interface options 

  • Your work is saved automatically in the background  

  • 250 levels of undo / redo 

Cons: 

  • It doesn’t have a desktop version. It only comes for iPad. 

  • No animation tools 

  • No vector graphics 

  • Some unique features can be hard to find at first, needs some research 

  • For some professional level editing, you might still need a different desktop app 

Level: Beginner to Pro 
Replaces: Photoshop 
Best for: digital art and illustration 
Price: one-time $9.99 USD, no trial. Don’t forget, you need to spend on an iPad and Apple Pencil too. 

Luminar is a revolutionary RAW photo editor that uses AI technology to tackle many advanced photo retouching requirements (for example skin enhancing, erasing unwanted objects from a photo and many more). It comes both as a plugin for Photoshop or as a stand-alone desktop app for Mac and Windows. 

Pros: 

  • Non-destructive RAW editor that provides an excellent range of tools for developing your images 

  • Easy to learn 

  • Artificial intelligence quick fixes enhance most photos 

  • Lots of Looks presets for one-click editing and slider adjusting 

Cons: 

  • Higher price tag (although only a one-time fee) 

  • Info tab has only the bare minimum of camera data 

  • Lag time can be long on some processes 

  • No video support 

Level: Beginner to Pro 
Replaces: Photoshop & Lightroom 
Best for: photo editing 
Price: the desktop app costs one-time $69 USD (Luminar 3). Luminar 4 is rolling out soon and has a pre-order discount of $79 USD. If you want both Luminar 3 and 4, there’s a bundle for $99 USD. 

ILLUSTRATOR ANTERNATIVES 

Another opensource design app like GIMP but Inkscape is aimed for vector graphic design. So it’s perfect for logo design, icon design and vector based illustration. Inkscape is available for both Mac and Windows. 

Pros: 

  • Can convert bitmap images into vectors 
  • Great flexibility when organizing your own work interface 

Cons: 

  • Crowded interface – but you can customize it to only include what you need 
  • Steep learning curve for beginners
  • Object alignment and placing guidelines can be tricky and you might need to calculate their position (Illustrator uses more intuitive smart guides) 
  • When using too many filters the program can slow down or crash 

Level: Beginner to Pro 
Replaces: Illustrator 
Best for: graphic design, logo creation, vector illustration 
Price: FREE 

Affinity Photo’s sibling, Affinity Designer is another award winning design tool that focuses more on vector graphics which makes it a perfect Illustrator substitute. Affinity Designer is available both for Mac and Windows users plus it has portable apps for tablets. 

Pros: 

  • Intuitive to learn it if you are a beginner 

  • Has almost all the basic and pro features as Illustrator and many of them are re-thought to perform better and quicker 

  • Amazing portable version for your tablet (better than Adobe’s tablet version of Illustrator)

  • StudioLink feature gives you a smooth switch between Affinity apps 

Cons: 

  • Very different workflow compared to Illustrator 

  • Much less support and tutorials online than for Illustrator 

  • Lack key features like Knife tool, 

Level: Beginner to Pro 
Replaces: Illustrator 
Best for: graphic design, logo creation, vector illustration 
Price: one-time $49.99 USD (has free trial) 

If you ever wanted to create mangas or animes, Clip Studio Paint Pro is for you. It allows you to draw vector illustrations (so you can scale up or down without quality loss) and has some awesome features specially designated to manga artists. I also love that it comes with a library of brushes, motion and burst lines, speech bubbles and other elements that speed up illustration. Clip Studio Paint Pro is available both for Mac and Windows. 

Pros: 

  • Lots of tools, assets for illustrators 

  • Special rulers for perspective drawing (great when illustrating buildings) 

  • Customizable 3D figures that can be used as a reference for your art (great when drawing people) 

  • Let you create raster or vector graphic illustrations 

  • Has an iPad version – however it comes as a subscription app 

Cons: 

  • Lots of new features that you have to get familiar with – steep learning curve 

  • iPad version has a monthly fee 

  • Not suitable for photo editing 

  • Very basic animation tools 

Level: Beginner to Pro 
Replaces: Photoshop & Illustrator 
Best for: digital art and illustration 
Price: the desktop app costs one-time $49.99 USD (for Clip Studio Paint Pro). They also offer a free trial. 

There’s also a Clip Studio Paint Ex version that has some extra features and lets you create multiple artboards in one document. But these are not necessary if you focus on mainly illustration.  

INDESIGN ALTERNATIVES 

I list Canva here – as an InDesign alternative – because it can’t really do much for photo editing, it also lacks any vector graphic features, but it can help you with online publishing. Especially if your focus is more on social media and shorter – few pages long – workbooks, e-books. 

You can also use Canva to design simple flyers, posters and business cards. 

Canva is a browser-based app so it’s available both for Mac and Windows users plus it has a portable version for tablets and smart phones. 

Pros: 

  • Very intuitive, great for beginners 

  • Has free version 

  • Lots of built-in templates that help you design faster 

  • Easy sharing and collaboration 

Cons: 

  • Lacks many features that more sophisticated design tools have (for example creating gradients) 

  • Free version limits how you can organize your designs and assets.  

  • Free version doesn’t let you upload your own fonts so you have to use what they already have 

Level: Beginner 
Replaces: InDesign 
Best for: social media graphics, blog graphics, simple booklets, flyers, posters 
Price: FREE. Canva’s paid subscription start at $9.95 USD / month 

Scribus is a totally free publishing app that lets you create professional level magazines, books and other publications. Affinity Photo is available both for Mac and Windows. 

Pros: 

  • It is quite capable of scaling down file sizes without losing or compromising in quality. 

  • It has got a well-designed interface, with an Intuitive user interactivity.

  • It is a lightweight program in comparison with what it can do. 

  • It is free and works fine with a good speed 

Cons: 

  • No spell-check feature 

  • Due to the open source nature of this program, the documentation and Help resources are a little scattered. 

Level: Intermediate to Pro 
Replaces: InDesign 
Best for: desktop publishing (magazines, books, newspaper) 
Price: FREE 

A new player in the Affinity family, Publisher is a powerful InDesign alternative. It integrates with Affinity Photo and Design smoothly and only requires a one-time $49.99 USD payment instead of a monthly subscription. Affinity Publisher is available both for Mac and Windows users plus it has portable apps for tablets. 

Pros: 

  • StudioLink feature gives you a smooth switch between Affinity apps. For example, if you want to edit a photo in your magazine, you don’t have to open Affinity Photo separately. You can do this inside Publisher 

  • Fast performance even with bigger documents 

Cons: 

  • No automatic document recovery – if there’s a crash you lose what you haven’t saved 

  • Poor compatibility with InDesign files 

Level: Beginner to Pro 
Replaces: InDesign 
Best for: digital and traditional publishing (magazines, books, newspaper) 
Price: one-time $49.99 USD (has free trial) 

WHICH ADOBE ALTERNATIVES ARE YOU GOING TO TRY? 

Now it’s your turn! Let me know in the comment if you plan to try any of these Adobe alternatives. Also, let me know if there’s an app you love and can replace Photoshop, Illustrator or InDesign. I would love to check them out and keep this list updated with new awesome apps. 

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