We spent over 50 hours testing each program’s features and tools to determine which was the easiest to use and helped us achieve the most professional-looking results. Serif DrawPlus is the best program overall because it offers advanced tools while still maintaining easy usability. It also has both vector tracing and brushes, which most of the other programs lack. Vector tools offer creative control and let you create truly unique designs.
If you are hesitant to make an investment in learning graphic design, then the ACDSee Photo Editor serves as an affordable option. The software costs significantly less than the other programs we reviewed and still comes with the basic tools and features necessary to create polished designs.
Adobe Photoshop Elements is intended to help you transition from beginner to experienced graphic designer. This program’s three different modes – Quick, Guided and Expert – are designed to teach you how to create various effects until you no longer need assistance and are ready to use more advanced software. This is an especially nice tool if you eventually want to use Adobe’s Creative Cloud for advanced programs like Photoshop and Illustrator. There are also dozens of tutorials online, and the program itself is well organized and easy to use.
To provide the fairest comparison of software, we evaluated entry-level graphic design software that falls between $20 and $130. We also offer reviews on photo editing software, which is similar in design and function to graphic design software.
Graphic Design Software: How We Tested, What We Found
When you are learning how to use new software, you focus on how easy the software is to use and if it can complete the tasks you want in a timely manner. To evaluate the software, we focused on both the illustration tools and the photo and image editing features each program has. We focused on what tasks we were able to complete and how long it took to complete them and scored how easy the software is to use.
In our testing, we used the same three control images on each of the programs. To explore the different effects the software offers we used a portrait, an image of a landscape and a still image. We then used common design tools, such as 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 plays 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, we created a poster, a blog header and a logo. These common tasks required a combination of tools. We not only evaluated how quickly we were able to do each of these tasks, but we also focused on the speed of the software and the quality of the image after manipulating it, which all make up our ease of use score. The software that lacked illustration tools, such as the pen tool or vector brushes, required more time to create logos, posters and headers.
Overall, most of the programs performed similarly. Each software program offers photo editing tools that produce similar results. If you are looking for software to create dramatic effects on your photos, you should 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 create your own custom workspace, which helps you navigate the software. Software with pre-designed templates or support within the application helps with usability because it shows how to do certain tasks or create an effective design. For example, Xara Photo & Graphic Designer offers 1,000 predesigned layouts.
How you will use your graphic design software will impact which software will work best for you. We created an ease of use score that reflects how quickly we were able to complete common tasks with the design software. In addition to ease of use, you should find a program that has all of the tools you will need to create your designs. Our comparison chart displays the various tools each software has.
You can typically find graphic design software between $30 and $100. There are more advanced programs on the market, which can sell for as high as $300 or require a subscription, but we didn’t review any programs in that price range. We noticed that some of the less expensive programs might provide fewer tools but this is not typical across the board. Some economical graphic design programs, like Corel PaintShop Pro, provide just as many design tools as more expensive ones. You will simply need to determine what tools you need most and then purchase the program that provides them.
Printing: How Important Is the Finished Product?
When you have finished designing a project and all that is left is to present it to others, you want the best printing features available. When creating print articles, you will want the ability to set up your page to bleed so that the creases of your magazine will 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 software has an on-screen color proof that confirms the colors on your page are what you think they are. 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 problem as Pantone creates the colors with an exact chemical process that ensures it will print as the same color from anywhere. Prepress support is also important when you are printing your design. The software will automatically ensure there are no errors before the project is sent to the printer and alert you of any changes that need to be made if there are any.
Importing & Exporting Files: Will You Use Other Files on Your Software?
Compatibility can be an issue with graphic design software. You do not want to find yourself sharing files with others that they cannot open because they don’t have the same program as you. Most software supports different file types, especially the common ones such as JPEG, BMP and PDF. The more file types the graphic software offers, the more versatile it becomes. You do not want to limit your designs or your learning by file types.
Our comparison chart takes into account the different types of illustrations and designs you will create using the software and the tools that are necessary to do so. It also focuses on support options, particularly video tutorials, manuals and in-application support. Any program will have a learning curve, and having a variety of support options helps troubleshoot problems. It also helps significantly as you learn how to use the software in an efficient manner.