Graphic design is a field so wide that it’s hard to say exactly what a typical graphic designer might be doing at any given time. You might find a typical graphic designer working on web design, layout, illustration, logo creation, working with type, or in general combining space, colors, images, and type to communicate something clear and memorable, visually.
In other words, graphic designers wear many hats, and every one of those hats needs to look good, from every angle. To accomplish this, quite a variety of software is employed. Yes, graphic design is another field in which doing things “the old-fashioned way,” with pen, ink, exacto knife, and paint has been permanently supplanted by technology. In this case, however, almost no one is sitting around grumbling about it. The use of software suites like those from Adobe and Corel has made graphic design simpler, faster, easier, and infinitely more forgiving of mistakes than it ever was “in real life.”
In fact, the computer-driven rebirth of graphic design has redefined the very concept so radically that if one wishes to enter the field, one often learns the software first, before the pure design elements.
Today, we’ll look at the best and most-used software for all of the various tasks that graphic designers might typically need to work on.
We have to begin with a brief disclaimer: graphic artists still do work “the old-fashioned way” sometimes. Many prefer to render illustrations, for example, by hand, and then scan them in so that they can process the images they’ve created with the incredibly powerful software available to them. Software is a tool, not a crutch, and in skilled hands, it can be used to create astounding results.
If you’re interested in becoming a graphic designer, there’s an online class called “Design Like a Pro” that will help you get started organizing your ideas into designs that work. If you’re a beginner, it might be a good idea to start with a review of basic “Graphic Design Terms,” outlined in a blog post by Kathy Murdock. To get an overview of what, exactly, graphic designers do, there’s also a great blog post by Kimberly Pendergrass, called, appropriately enough, “What Does a Graphic Designer Do?”
Narrowing it Down
There are a tremendous variety of options in terms of software for graphic designers. And yes, each manufacturer offers something unique, something specific, some feature or tool or way of organizing things that could make that particular application the best choice for you. But while there are a plethora of applications to choose from, if you ask anyone who makes a living as a graphic designer what they use, things narrow down quickly to three choices: Adobe, Corel, and Gimp.
We’ll talk about each of these in the context of what they are used for, and which ones most graphic designers prefer for those tasks, and why. There are, of course, a few other names that will pop up, but the “big three” listed above will dominate our discussion.
Illustration and Image Manipulation
Generally, creating images can be done in two ways. Raster images are created with pixels, and vector images are created with curves. Raster images are rendered pixel by pixel, and can produce marvelously rich images that are almost photographic in quality. The problem is they do not resize well. Enlarging them makes raster images look, well, pixelated. Vector images are another thing altogether. They are much smaller than raster images, since they are simply a series of points that are connected by curves. The computer only has to remember where the points are, and when you enlarge the image, the application simply redraws it. Typically, logos and other relatively simple multi-purpose images would be done with vectors, and more detailed images would be in the raster realm. Generally speaking, images created in a vector-based application are then edited or modified or given color and texture in a raster-based application.
Adobe Illustrator is the industry standard for creating vector art, and has been for more than twenty years. It is flexible, powerful, and has precise and customizable tools for drawing and typography. In particular, the Pathfinder palette allows the used to render complex shapes easily and neatly by combining shapes and curves through Boolean operations. Images created in Illustrator can easily be imported into Adobe’s Photoshop, which is a raster-based application, for additional editing and processing. While Photoshop may be thought of as more of an image editing and photograph processing application, it is also capable of creating raster-type illustrations. As you might expect, as the industry standard, this Adobe combo doesn’t come cheaply, although the CC versions of these applications (accessible through the cloud) give users less-expensive subscription options, of which more later. Both are also available bundled into a larger package, the Adobe Creative Suite, of which, also, more later.
The primary usage of Photoshop, for most designers, is in editing images, whether they are illustrations or photographs, and combining them in various ways and applying a dizzying number of filters and effects to them. Photoshop was the first and is still the most widely-imitated such application, and holds the dubious distinction of having been the most pirated software application in history, inspiring Adobe’s switch to cloud-based use. Photoshop can do almost everything a graphic designer needs, aside from creating vector art. Most designers will use it, in fact, for something like sixty or seventy percent of the work they do.
There are many excellent online classes to help you learn Illustrator and Photoshop, including “Adobe Illustrator” and “Adobe Photoshop.” While they aren’t creatively named, they’ll get you on your way with these applications.
Corel’s analogue of Adobe’s Illustrator and Photoshop one-two-punch consists of CorelDRAW and Corel PHOTOPAINT. These are less expensive than their Adobe counterparts, but in general are less favored by graphic designers. Most find the Adobe interface to be more intuitive and easier to learn, and many find some strange glitches in functionality in the Corel applications, especially when applying gradients. That said, you will find staunch supporters of CorelDRAW and PHOTOPAINT, although Adobe tends to dominate the industry, at least among professionals, with a significantly larger market share.
And of course, there are free, open source options, like Inkscape and GIMP. Inkscape is vector-based and Gimp is raster-based, and for many on a budget, including those dabbling in graphic design at home, these two applications, which do not, we should mention again, cost ANYTHING, are the Illustrator and Photoshop of the freeware world. Many swear by them, and both are certainly a better choice than buying hacked and unlicensed versions of the other products we’ve been talking about. Many users who believe on principle that no application should cost as much as the Adobe or Corel products use Inkscape and GIMP to protest corporate rule over artists. Whether you are in this camp or not, any piece of free software that is as powerful as these two is worth checking out.
Layout used to mean one thing: designing for printed media. Now, for the most part, it means designing for the web. Either way, graphic artists need to assemble the various elements they’ve created and manipulated into a cohesive whole that will be practical, functional, and pleasing to the eye. Adobe’s longtime dominance in the field leads most designers to use their InDesign application for layout, since it works so well with Illustrator and Photoshop. CorelDRAW can do layout as well, but is not highly regarded for this usage. Most users describe it in comparison with InDesign as “clunky,” not a ringing endorsement.
The old-timers among the readership will no doubt remember Quark Xpress, the original “desktop publishing” application (even the term “desktop publishing” now sounds quaint), and may be surprised to learn that it is still around, although most of its users made the switch to InDesign as layout for print gave way to layout for the web. There are XPress fans, but Quark’s market share is small.
A layout application that many have not heard about, but which is simple, powerful, and interacts well with Adobe products is Mockups, by Balsamiq. In a nutshell, Mockups creates wireframe layouts that are intentionally kept simple and minimal, with few distractions. Mockups does fewer things than most applications, but it does them well, and the wireframes can be imported into Photoshop and used as a tracing layer. Yes, there are some who use Photoshop for layout, simply because they already spend so much time there in the first place. Many who are loyal to Illustrator and Photoshop switch to Balsamiq’s Mockups for stage one of layout and then back to Photoshop to finish up, bypassing InDesign entirely.
If you’ve made it this far, you must be serious about graphic design. It is a lucrative field, especially for freelancers, provided you know how to sell yourself. There is a great online course on just that topic, called “How to Market Yourself as a Graphic Designer” that will fit the bill nicely.
When All is Said and Done
It should be noted that no one involved in the production of this article is in any way associated with Adobe or their products. The simple fact is that Illustrator and Photoshop are what professional graphic designers use. Very few use Corel products in comparison. While the freeware apps are certainly worth a look-see, if you’re planning on paying for your software (and pirates only hurt the industry—pros don’t use pirated software for any reason), it probably is worth shelling out for the industry standard.
With the advent of cloud-based graphic design suites, users can now subscribe to complete suites of applications or choose the apps they want, a la carte, so to speak, for either a monthly or yearly subscription fee. Yes, the apps are then not “on” your computer, and if your Internet goes out or the host has issues with connectivity you may encounter problems, but in general, flexibility is a very good thing. Both Adobe and Corel offer cloud-based setups, and Adobe, for its part, will no longer issue updates or new editions of its software in “box” form, for installation on your machine. The cloud is the future, like it or not, and if it gives you flexibility, then why not take a look at the options?
Whatever software you use, to whichever company you are loyal for whatever reason, the purpose of all the software we’ve talked about today is the same: making your ideas into a reality for artistic, commercial, or public service purposes. If you wish to become a graphic designer, talk to those who are already established. Find out what they use, and why, and then decide for yourself.