Top 10 most essential software for artists and designers

Not everyone has the cash to spend kitting themselves out with the most expensive graphic design software, particularly when starting a new business or embarking on a new career in design. There’s no denying that paid-for creative software – like Adobe’s fantastic Creative Cloud suite of applications – will always be better than a freebie.

But for those who don’t want to pay and have time to do the groundwork, there is some free graphic design software out there that will do the job well. To save you from doing said groundwork, we’ve compiled this list and divided it into ten sections.

GRAVIT DESIGNER

Previously known as plain old Gravit, Gravit Designer is a full-featured vector design app suitable for all manner of jobs, from screen and icon designs through to presentations, illustration and animation.

With a clean and intuitive interface that adjusts itself as you need it, this free graphic design software packs a wealth of tools for creating detailed and beautiful vector imagery, including non-destructive booleans, a knife tool and path graphs, plus multiple fills and blending modes and a powerful text engine.

It’ll export as PDF, SVG or bitmap, and if you need to access a project on the go there’s the Gravit Cloud service that enables you to get to your work wherever you are.

VECTR

Available both as a browser-based web app and as a stand-alone desktop app, Vectr is a free editor for creating 2D vector graphics. With all the vector features you’d hope for, plus plenty of options for using filters, shadows and fonts, it’s versatile enough for day-to-day design tasks.

Particularly useful are its live collaboration and synchronisation options, which enabling you to hook up with anyone, anywhere, to create in tandem.

GO ANIMATE

This web software is a do-it-yourself animation package that has over five million users and I’d bet half of them don’t even consider themselves “artists” because that’s how damn easy GoAnimate is to use. Sign up to their site and you have access to thousands of character models, scene backdrops, audio recording, lip-syncing features, and art asset props. Some users have become so famous in its community that they can even make a living by selling their art props back to the community for widespread use.

Be it YouTube, Vine, or video ad popups, video content continues to rise as a top form of communication on the Internet, and GoAnimate hopes that Internet users – not just ‘artists’ – from all walks of life embrace their tools to join in on the fun.

SKETCH BOOK PRO

Yes, Autodesk isn’t just dominating the 3D industry anymore, and with a few SketchBook Pro iterations under their belt in the past few years they’ve quickly assembled a digital drawing and painting application that’s essential for every form of 2D artist. It still needs a few more versions of updates to propel it to the top of the charts against its competition, but it’s well on its way. What it currently lacks in true power, it makes up for in speed.

This is a program that really understands that a good artist doesn’t need 50 brushes and menu options to make good art, and that the most important thing for a new concept is to let an artist draw as much as possible as quick as possible. With its simple brush setup, awesome steady stroke tool, and incredibly helpful magnetic shape guiders, it’s hard to believe how much you can accomplish with a limited time budget. Throw as much on the screen as you want without a single stutter.

You can zoom all the way in, all the way out, and rotate the entire screen’s canvas exactly how you want in the middle of your workflow without any hiccups. If it can keep up those speeds while continuing to add more presets and tools, SketchBook Pro will quickly be competing for the throne.

MUDBOX

As the 3D art industry began to boom a decade ago, the software companies had to adapt to new and grandiose demands from the studios that were redefining what digital art was, and what it was capable of accomplishing. Polygon limits were quickly evaporating as computer technology removed render restrictions and Weta Digital created Mudbox to help them make the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Originally called Skymatter, it later made its sculpting and texture painting tools available to the public as a revolutionary solution for the time consuming tasks of making displacement and normal maps. Then in 2007, Autodesk acquired Skymatter Inc. in their ongoing mission of dominating all of their competition in the industry.

SVG-EDIT

If you’re looking to quickly output SVG or edit an existing SVG file, there are a few online editors that will do the job just as well as Adobe Illustrator. SVG (scalable vector graphics) is an open format that allows you to reproduce your Vector drawings programmatically, and one of the nicest projects is SVG-Edit.

This is built entirely on HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript without requiring any server-side processing. So not only can you use it to create and edit documents, but as it’s open source you can also download and modify the code – making your own version if you want. The standard – albeit basic – toolset of every vector-image editor is here, and although it’s limited to the SVG format it’s surprisingly capable.

BLENDER

Blender is the perfect introduction to all that 3D software has to offer animators. It has most of the features you’ll find on the top-of-line 3D modeling programs’ bullet point boast lists, but it’s 100% free. There are no extra features that have price tags or any other forms of financial trickery.

Blender is free. It’s also small in size by comparison to its competitors, and its gigantic online community has hundreds of tutorials available publicly, which are also all free. Speaking of free, anything you make in Blender, ever, is yours and you’re free to use or sell it without paying licensing fees.

FLIP BOOK

So you just clicked on that link and think I’m crazy. A site that ancient looking can’t possibly have a product that’s worth using in today’s art industry? You’re wrong. Don’t let DigiCel’s outdated looking Web site for FlipBook fool you; they’re convinced in the belief that if something isn’t broke, then there’s nothing to fix.

While every other art program you’ve used over the years sees consistent annual updates that change every inch of the user interface, FlipBook still looks mostly the same as it did over a decade ago. If you’re a 2D animator then you’re limiting your career and your creations if you don’t try FlipBook.

INKSCAPE

As with many of the free options available, Inkscape focuses on the SVG format as its primary file format. This highly capable editor has a very good SVG integration, supporting many of the more advanced features that aren’t always available in other apps – such as alpha blending, cloned objects, and markers.

Full support for different colour modes means this is a viable alternative to Illustrator for both print and web design, and although the interface is somewhat simpler than Illustrator, it’s still possible to achieve extremely sophisticated artwork. Of particular note is the ability to trace bitmap images, support for variable width strokes and native import of Illustrator files. There are source binaries available for Windows, Linux and Mac, and compiled versions currently offered for Windows and Linux.

FL STUDIO

When’s the last time you watched a TV show or a film without the audio on? Musicians are just as integral to the entertainment industries as the visual artists are, and FL Studio gives them unlimited tools. Originally known as Fruity Loops, it began in late 1997 as nothing more than a MIDI program, and slowly underwent several huge updates that gave it legs to compete with the industry’s top names.

However, the community consensus was still that it was more of a beginner’s software than a fully developed professional set of tools, but that didn’t stop Fruity Loops. It changed its name to FL Studio and underwent another round of updates that, in recent years, has catapulted it to the top of the industry. The best part? While other companies on this list like Adobe have shifted towards subscription-based fees that charge you endlessly to use the programs you need to use over the span of your entire career, FL Studio instead has lifetime free updates for its programs.

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