Many students and designers new to professional graphic design are surprised to discover the high costs of design software.

Design firms can usually expense software as part of the cost of doing business, but for independent and beginning designers, sometimes these costs can be prohibitive.

Programs like the Creative Suite from Adobe are considered the standard in the profession, and rightly so, with many features and plugins that make them versatile, powerful tools for many tasks.

But if you don’t have a budget of thousands for software purchases, or ongoing fees of hundreds of dollars for subscriptions, there are other stable, feature-rich programs to consider. Here are just a few of the best:

Image Manipulation
(Alternative to Adobe Photoshop)

GIMP — GNU Image Manipulation Program


An entirely free, open-source project, with good features, including layers, masks, customizable brushes, color balance, histograms, and more. From the website:

GIMP is an acronym for GNU Image Manipulation Program. It is a freely distributed program for such tasks as photo retouching, image composition and image authoring.

It has many capabilities. It can be used as a simple paint program, an expert quality photo retouching program, an online batch processing system, a mass production image renderer, an image format converter, etc.

GIMP is expandable and extensible. It is designed to be augmented with plug-ins and extensions to do just about anything. The advanced scripting interface allows everything from the simplest task to the most complex image manipulation procedures to be easily scripted.

GIMP is written and developed under X11 on UNIX platforms. But basically the same code also runs on MS Windows and Mac OS X.

For users who prefer the Photoshop interface, a product called Gimpshop is a nice alternative. A release of GIMP with most of the functionality, menus, and workflow of Photoshop. Download GIMP. Download Gimpshop.

This program is currently being tested by our team, and we will hope to post a walkthrough once we complete our review process.

Vector Design
(Alternative to Adobe Illustrator)



Powerful vector design and manipulation program, with some interesting differences, including tools for etching and line hatching. From the site:

An Open Source vector graphics editor, with capabilities similar to Illustrator, CorelDraw, or Xara X, using the W3C standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file format.

Inkscape supports many advanced SVG features (markers, clones, alpha blending, etc.) and great care is taken in designing a streamlined interface. It is very easy to edit nodes, perform complex path operations, trace bitmaps and much more. We also aim to maintain a thriving user and developer community by using open, community-oriented development.

Running InkScape requires the X11 platform. Mac OS X users with Lion or Mountain Lion will need to install XQuartz. Download Inkscape.

The major issue with InkScape so far is that it doesn’t run natively in the OS, so font management can be a problem. I have yet to find a full compatible font program for use with InkScape.

Font Management

Linotype FontExplorer X (Free)


A solid, easy to use font management program with quick response and clear organization. From the Linotype FontExplorer website:

FontExplorer X sets a new standard for font management software. After several relatively sad years for all font users who were looking for a professional font manager, Linotype is pleased to fill the gap with the new FontExplorer X.

Font management has never been so simple, and font sorting, font shopping and font discovery are now more fun than ever.

FontExplorer X will give computer users all the font functions they could need, and will allow them to decide how deeply they wish to dive into various font themes.

Some key features of Linotype FontExplorer X include powerful font handling, detailed font information, font management with sets and toggling switches for activation, auto-activation of fonts embedded in documents, and decent system integration. As mentioned above, this does not resolve the issue with InkScape, so alternatives or patches might be necessary for full functionality. Download the free version of Linotype FontExplorer X at

Zachary Creative Studio. Brooklyn, New York Graphic Design.