Free Graphic Design Programs

Start learning the basics of graphic design with these free programs.

The term “graphic design” covers dozens of individual disciplines. A typical graphic designer uses a handful of powerful programs to manipulate and create digital content; however, professional programs are expensive. Photoshop, the industry-standard raster image editor, costs $700 USD retail as of 2011. If you can’t afford that kind of investment, you can get started with a collection of free, community-supported programs. The following programs are divided by category and all download links are in the Resources section.

Raster Image Editors

Raster image editors modify static images on a pixel-per-pixel level and are the most commonly used graphic design programs. Examples of retail software include Adobe Photoshop and Corel Paint Shop Pro. The most powerful free alternative is called GIMP. GIMP features almost all of the primary functions of Photoshop while being free and open source. The interface is difficult to navigate at first, but learning it is well worth the effort. GIMP is available for Windows, OSX and Linux .If you don’t need all the features offered in GIMP and you want something easier, Paint.Net falls somewhere between Photoshop and Microsoft’s free Paint program as far as capability and difficulty is concerned. only runs on Windows PCs.

Vector Editors

Vector images are created with algorithmic functions of lines, rays and points. Vector editors are used often in scalable design, like logo creation, signage and typographical modification. The standard professional vector editors are Adobe Illustrator and Corel Draw. The best free alternative to these programs is Inkscape. Inkscape offers most of the capabilities of its commercial counterparts and uses the standard SVG vector file format. Inkscape is available free for Windows and OSX computers. Another free alternative is DrawPlus Starter, a feature-limited version of the commercial software DrawPlus. It’s available on Windows and OSX.

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Web Design Software

Some graphic designers double as Web developers and use software packages to help them code websites. The most commonly used programs for Web design are Microsoft Visual Studio and Adobe Dreamweaver. Free alternatives to these programs include Aptana and KompoZer, both available for Windows, OSX and Linux. Microsoft also makes a free, limited version of Visual Studio called Visual Web Developer Express for Windows users. It’s important to note that you don’t necessarily need a special program to write code (any text editor will do), but they’re often helpful for beginners and those with complicated projects.

3D Design

Graphic designers sometimes need to take their work into three-dimensional for industrial or animation projects. The leading 3-D design programs are Autodesk Maya and 3DS Max. The most powerful free alternative is called Blender. Blender’s interface is very challenging — but all of the 3-D programs are challenging to learn — and it has enough features to compete with the commercial offerings. Blender is available for Windows, OSX and Linux. If you need something simpler, Google Sketchup can handle basic 3-D modeling and animation, and it has a more user-friendly interface. It is available for Windows and OSX.