Graphic design tools

There are three key factors when it comes to your choice of graphic design tools. The job to be done, your budget and your expectations on the quality of the outputs. In this guide, we share examples of graphic design jobs to be done. And show how to do these with Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. And we finish with an exploration of alternative graphic design tool options like GIMP, Inkscape, Affinity and Canva.com.

Graphic design tools

How this guide raises your game.

  1. Learn more about the three key considerations to decide which graphic design tools you need for your business.
  2. See examples of where you can use graphic design tools like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign to improve your marketing activities.
  3. Explore other graphic design tool options if you don’t want to pay for an Adobe subscription. 

While traditional graphic design techniques like sketching and painting are still common, nowadays, you also need to know how to deliver most graphic designs in digital formats.

And that means anyone interested in graphic design also needs to know which graphic design tools do which jobs.

If you work with marketing agencies, professional photographers and video makers, they will already use graphic design tools.

It’s impossible to do the jobs they need to do without these tools. They use graphic design tools to create, edit and share graphic files. But the question is, if you want to leave all that in the hands of external partners. Or if you want some control of that yourself.  

Adobe photoshop screenshot

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Your choice of graphic design tools

If you do want to manage some of those jobs yourself, and not be wholly reliant on external partners, you’ll also need to source your own graphic design tools. And your choice of which graphic design tools will very much depend on these three things.

Firstly, the design job to be done. Secondly, how much you want to spend. And finally, the quality and quantity of the designs you need.

The design job to be done

The majority of graphic design projects fall into one of three categories. When you are clear on the job to be done, this can help you identify which tools you might need to use. 

Firstly, there are projects in which you need to create designs from scratch. These are usually illustrations, symbols or shapes.

When you start with a blank page and draw or create something new, you would normally use a graphic design tool like Adobe Illustrator. But there are alternatives like Inkscape, Affinity Designer or ProCreate.

Graphic design tools - jobs to be done - illustrations, photographs or documents

Then, there are those projects which need you to manipulate, edit or change photography and to combine photographs and other design elements together. The most well-known of these is Adobe Photoshop. But there are alternatives like GIMP or Affinity Photo. 

Finally, there are projects where you may look to create graphic documents with multiple pages, like magazines or books. Graphic design tools like Illustrator or Photoshop work well when you need to work on a single page. But, they don’t work so well when you need to create multiple pages. For these sorts of projects, you would normally use a publishing software package like Adobe InDesign. These types of graphic design tools are best suited to working across multiple complex pages rather than single pages. An alternative to InDesign would be Affinity Publisher. 

The budget you want to spend

Adobe is the most well-known provider of graphic design technology. It provides the highest level of sophistication for most needs in graphic design. And because they offer the widest range of packages, there is a high level of integration between the packages. 

However, that quality, sophistication and integration comes at a cost. 

Adobe sell their individual pieces of software on a subscription-only basis. You buy these on a monthly or annual basis. The price ranges from A$15 to A$30 per software program per month

Burning money

The subscription includes automatic updates at no extra charge. So, you always have the latest version. And you get access to a number of extra services like guided tutorials and Adobe fonts.

There are around 20 different tools you can choose from. These cover graphic design, photo editing, publishing, web design, animation and other skills. 

Rather than buy packages on a package-by-package basis, you can also choose to buy an Adobe Creative Cloud license. This gives you access to ALL 20 of the Adobe Creative solutions for around $80 a month as an individual. 

This includes other programs beyond graphic design packages such as Adobe Animate, Adobe Dreamweaver (for websites) and Adobe XD (for experience design).

The subscription nature of the Adobe package means you essentially never “own” the software. You have to keep paying for it to be able to access and change the base files created within Adobe software. So, while you will can always view the jpgs, png and pdfs you create, you need to keep paying the subscription to be able to go in and edit them.

Also, the monthly payments are essentially locked in a year in advance. There are quite punitive exit fees if you decide to pull out of the agreement early. 

Adobe alternatives

It’s for these reasons, that alternatives to Adobe are also popular. The biggest competitor is the Affinity suite of tools. With Photo, Designer and Publisher, they offer software that provides a viable alternative to Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. Each program comes with a one-off AUD$80 up-front cost. But then the software is “yours” to own forever.

For specific needs, you can also look at open source and free software like GIMP for photography and Inkscape for Illustrations. 

And then there is canva.com. On this platform, you can take templated designs and edit key elements like fonts and colours to create your own customised designs. You use Canva either as a free tool with limited useability. Or you use the Pro version with enhanced features for a small monthly charge. 

The quantity and quality of the designs

Of course, your final considerations will be how often you will use the software. And what your expectations of the quality of the designs will be.

For example, if your website, e-Commerce platform and social media platforms depend on high quality and original visuals delivered on a regular basis, joined up packages like those from Adobe or Affinity will give you the best all-round solution.

But these packages have steep learning curves. You need to devote time to learning how to use them. And you need to use them regularly enough to justify the cost.

It’s for this reason, that many businesses use freelancers. Or they use their marketing agencies to do this work for them. But of course, any time you do this, you have to pay for the time it takes the graphic designer to produce the work. 

And while Canva might seem like a cheaper option overall, it does suffer from the fact that anyone can use it. So, it’s hard to be original and truly creative. If you pull from the same set of base designs as many other people, you will not stand out.

Where and how will you use the graphic design? 

The quality of the output is also influenced by where and how you will use the graphic design.

There’s quite a difference between the quality needed to appear on a social media post that will mainly be seen on a mobile phone, and a graphic for a 96 sheet billboard for example.

It’s also important to understand that graphic files can come in one of two formats. Raster or vector. And how and where you use these different graphic file types also impacts on your choice of graphic design tools.

Blank billboard

Raster graphics

Raster based graphics are based on a series of rectangles or pixels which are used to create an image. The term raster originates from the world of television. Most images you would now see on a computer screen would be raster generated. 

Common raster-based file formats include .jpeg, .gif, .bmp, .tif and .png.

When you need to use an image or graphic on a small screen (such as a mobile phone or a laptop), and especially where the image is used on a website, the raster image format will give you good enough image quality. And it will be efficient from a computer memory point of view. It won’t have a negative impact on the speed of your website for example. Most websites will display their images in .jpg and .png file formats. 

However, the challenge with raster graphic file types comes when you want to expand the image. Let’s say to use the image on larger surfaces, like a T-shirt or a billboard. When you expand the raster-based graphic or image, it can lose its sharpness and appear “blocky”.

You can mitigate this if you create a raster image with a high resolution, such as a high quality photo taken on a DSLR camera for example. This would typically produce an image with a high resolution or a high number of pixels. But remember, this also means the image would take up a lot of memory.

As you can see from the image we have here, this high quality image we downloaded from unsplash.com was over 22MB when we went to export it. This would give you the maximum amount of edit capability without losing the sharpness of the image.

But 22MB is a large file size. Most website images are less than 400Kb.

Graphic design tools - export as a high res large file size

Vector graphics

For graphics such as text, shapes, symbols or icons, you can also use another type of graphics format called vector graphics. 

Vector graphics are stored not as pixels but as paths. Common vector graphic file types include .eps, .svg, .pdf, .ai and .dxf. Because the graphics are not stored as blocks, they retain their integrity no matter the size of where they are used. There’s a great technical explanation of the difference between vector and raster graphics here. 

But for practical purposes, you just need to know that vector graphics will stay sharp no matter the size you use them at. Compared to raster images or graphics, they will retain their sharpness, and not go “blocky”.

It’s important to understand that vector graphics are much more scaleable because you may need to create or source these types of files for particular uses. For example, you would commonly create and store logo designs in vector formats as logos appear on objects of multiple sizes. So anything from a matchbox to a 96 sheet billboard might feature a company logo. And you need that logo in a vector format to make sure the resolution and quality remains the same at any size.

Raster vs vector example

So, if you look at this example, we wrote the words Raster in Adobe Photoshop and Vector in Adobe Illustrator. You may need to zoom in on the image to see the difference more clearly.

On screen, the full words of each look identical in quality of the resolution.

However, when we take the first letter of each word, and “blow it up” as large as we can make it on screen, you can start to see the differences. 

The curve inside the “R” of Raster and the diagonal slope of the leg, look relatively blurred and blocky when scaled up.

Compare that to the the diagonal line of the “V” of Vector. Even when scaled up at the same level as the R, because the original image was created in a Vector format, it has retained its sharpness.

Graphic design tools and jobs to be done

Now that we’ve covered the basics of how you’d decide on the type of graphic design tools you need and where you’d use them, let’s go over a few examples.

As Adobe are the market leader, and offer the widest range of services, we’ll use their tools as the benchmark to show how you can use their graphic design tools to complete the jobs you need to have done. 

So, let’s start with some example’s where your graphic design needs mean starting from scratch. Let’s say, you need to create a new icon, a new logo and a new illustration based on a sketch. For these types of jobs, you would use a graphic design tool like Adobe Illustrator. 

Adobe Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based program for drawing, you guessed it, illustrations. You can use it to create illustrations such as shapes, symbols and icons from scratch. For designer who like non-digital tools like pen and paper or brushes, you can also take a picture and import it into Illustrator.

Illustrator is particularly good for those designers who work with typography and who like to create graphic elements like geometric shapes and patterns, logos and digital artwork.

Our most commonly used tools in Illustrator include the Pen and Anchor point tool, the Shape Builder tool and the many Effects which can added to create vibrant and striking designs. We have a separate article on the many function of Adobe Illustrator which you can read here. 

Icons – Shapes and symbols

While most people can draw shapes like squares, circles and rectangles with basic software like Powerpoint or Keynote, graphic design tools like Adobe Illustrator come with a large range of features to edit, manipulate, cut, paste and redesign those shapes into something much more interesting and exciting. 

For example, it you look at how we created the icon we use within our logo, it’s all done in Adobe Illustrator.

Our ideas was that we wanted an icon that was reminiscent of a head or brain shape. After some trial and error we settled more on a head than a brain shape. The icon also had to involve the use of “three”.

And we wanted it to look unusual and unique. 

Graphic design tools - Symbols - step by step how the three brains symbol was created in Adobe Illustrator

From idea to graphic design icon

So, to get to this icon, we started with only three basic circles. We went through eight steps to get to the point where it becomes a unique graphic design that is part of our brand identity. We used a lot of the inbuilt tools in Adobe Illustrator to create this visual. For example, we used the alignment and distribution tools to make sure the initial circles were evenly balanced. 

We then used the Shapebuilder tool to remove extra lines and the offset path tool to create the evenly spaced three lines that link the three circles.

And finally, we used both the ‘effects’ tool and adjusted both the ‘stroke’ – the line round the outside of the shape and the ‘fill’ – the colour inside the stroke line, to create the unique and interesting ‘explosion’ circles. 

As an aside, these are meant to symbolise the connections that happen when parts of the brain come together. But they also help create the effect of eyes and mouth in the head shape. We liked this because one of our favourite expressions is the one that goes “you’ve got two eyes and only one mouth” to mean you should look (and listen) more and talk less. 

Shapes and symbols in designs

You can take these shapes and symbols to an even higher level, when you start adding colour, shading and other effects. This turns the shapes and symbols into something more like digital art and drawings.

We use this technique for example on our T-shirt and merchandise designs that sell in our shop. 

So, for example, the controller in this game player design T-shirt, was drawn out in Adobe Illustrator. The different colours, textures and shading were all hand-drawn using Adobe Illustrator. And the layout with the font and font styles, all created in Adobe Illustrator. 

You can also read more on the specific tools we use within Adobe Illustrator on each design by looking at our design notes.

Game player Red Controller T-shirt design

Logo design

Obviously, icons, shapes and symbols also have multiple uses in websites, and in advertising. But the most common place to see them is when they are then combined with text to create logos for companies and brands. 

We cover logo design in much more detail in our guide to the logo design process. But let’s look at a simplified example of how we created the Three-Brains logo in Adobe Illustrator.

We started with the basic words we needed to convey. Then we looked at them with multiple different typography options.

At this point, there’s no colour or visual, we just want to apply the psychology of fonts to see which font style seemed to “fit” the brand best. 

At the next stage, we narrowed down our choices to a few likely fonts. And we started to mock up some graphic icons to see how they might work with the fonts.

Graphic design tools - Simple logo development process - four steps used to create the three-brains logo 1. Typography choices 2. Test ideas with graphic and text 3. Winning idea 4. Refined winning idea

So, given three-brains stands for the “head”, “heart” and “gut”, we looked to see how we could combine some elements of those into an icon for example. And given we also sell T-shirts we also looked at a version that used a T-shirt for the letter “T”. Though we tested all of these designs, none of them were quite right. So, we eventually settled on the three circle adaptation you can see here as the idea with the best fit.

But that wasn’t the end of the process. 

We also had to look at how we could add colour in to the design. We applied some “Warp” effects to the three-brains text to make it look more rounded rather than flat. It was also important to have a logo that could work in multiple space dimensions. For example, for a square profile picture on social media and the long rectangular banner that you see in the navigation bar at the top of this website.

Adobe Illustrator gave us the flexibility to create, edit and manipulate all these sorts of options. And even more importantly to be able to export them as useable files in the right dimensions and formats for all the places they needed to appear. 

Illustrations 

And finally, on Adobe Illustrator we come to the use of the tool which gives it its name, illustration. To create specific illustrations takes a combination of artistic skills to visualise and create the base design, technical skills to be able to add colour, effects and composition, and the patience to create these in digital formats. 

But in essence, ALL illustrations at the very simplest level will have three key steps. 

The first step will be the very rough draft layout of the idea. This may be a pencil sketch or a rough outline of the shape or idea behind the illustration.

Graphic design tools - Illustration - examples showing sketch, work in progress and final illustration

The second step then creates each element of the design and usually as separate layers. Layering is a very important element of creating illustrations in Illustrator. As you can see in our example above, all the different elements have separate layers – the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the jacket and so on. 

This has a number of benefits. 

It’s easier to isolate and edit specific elements. You can ‘hide’ elements when you are not working on them, so that you don’t accidentally change something. You can also change the order of the layers, so that some layers sit over the top of others effectively hiding what’s behind them.

Layer masks

And you can create more advanced effects like layer masks, where you can combine design elements together.

So, in this example from one of our early T-shirt designs, the outline of the mum juggler and the repeated word “mum” are on two separate layers in the original Illustrator file. The “mum” text is actually just a rectangular text box, but when you create a layer mask with the mum juggler in front, it only pulls through the text that is visible within the front cut out section. 

Adobe Illustrator lets you do very advanced vector based designs, which for the cases we’ve outlined above like icons, logo designs and illustrations, make it a great choice. 

Three brains Mumjuggling t-shirt design

However, there are times when you may want to include these types elements with photography or to include it in a whole document. And for these cases, you would need to find other graphic tools to use, in addition to Adobe Illustrator.

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is a raster-based program for photo editing. It’s the most commonly used photo-editing software. It has multiple uses in marketing and e-commerce. 

Where Illustrator tends to stand with a blank page, Photoshop starts with existing imagery. You use it to edit and update imagery. Let’s have a look at some example uses where you would need to do this. 

Combine images to create new images

One of the most commonly used tools in Photoshop would be the object selection tool.

This is where you cut out an image from its background to place it on top of another image. You combine different parts of images together to create a ‘new’ image.

So, for example, the suppliers of the print on demand T-shirts we provide for our shop provide model images like the one on the left for their base T-shirts.

Graphic design tools - object selection and layering

But with object selection, you can add both the design and the background so that the image that you use on the website looks more like it was shot in natural surroundings than in a studio.

This makes the image more interesting, appealing and unique.

In Photoshop, all you need to do to achieve this is to choose the Object Selection tool. You drag it over the part of the object you want to cut out. In this case, the model. Most times, the software is smart enough to recognise what you want to do. So, this type of cut and paste job is usually relatively quick to complete. 

Sometimes, you may need to make some more specific and manual edits using the magic eraser or lasso tool. And you may need to play around with the photography defaults, if you want the lighting to look a specific way. But overall, it’s a relatively quick and easy skill to learn and use. 

Tidy up photography

Photoshop is also very helpful to tidy up photos. 

So you can remove spots and blemishes, or subtly alter the tone, contrast and colour mix of your photography to change the way it looks.

When you adjust multiple features of an image such as brightness, exposure, colour balance and hue, and adding effects like gradients, Photoshop can transform images into professional quality output.

If you look at example above, on the left we have an image taken of a rusted old car in a yard. And then on the right, the same image, but with adjustments made to the brightness and colour mixture to make the picture look more appealing. You can read more of our thoughts on what happens when you tidy up images in Photoshop in this article

Add text to images

Adobe photoshop also gives you the ability to create and add text to images. 

You have access to every font that you have through Adobe Creative Cloud’s license. And, you can also use the software to adjust colours and add effects to the text.  

So, in this example, we wanted to create a header image for our brand activation guide. This was combination of a background image and graphic design for the “signs”.

Planning to action - Man leaping a gorge to show leap from marketing plan to brand activation

Of course, Adobe Photoshop has many more capabilities beyond the basic use cases we’ve covered here. 

There are many You Tube guides and online courses you can use to learn the skills and techniques in Photoshop.

When we were starting out with this tool, we used the Graphic Design Masterclass available on Udemy. This was a great introduction to Photoshop and how to use it. (It also has classes on Illustrator and InDesign).

We blogged about it at the time too, and you can read what we had to say about photo editing here.

Adobe InDesign

The final tool most commonly used by graphic designers in the Adobe suite of products is Adobe InDesign. InDesign is most commonly used in publishing.

It shares some common functionality with both Photoshop and Illustrator. But where it comes in to its own is where you have a project where you need to manage multiple pages (such as an e-book or magazine article).

It lets you create page ‘masters’ that act as a template across multiple pages. Think for example of page numbering, margins and borders, text style across headers and body copy. 

It usually exports to a pdf format as this is the most common form of document reader. But it has the flexibility to export publishing ready content featuring formatted text and images in multiple formats. 

If you go on a website and there is an offer to download a free e-book, the chances are it was created in Adobe InDesign. 

You can see from this example where we wanted to create a set of Buzzword Bingo cards related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though we could have easily created any one of these images in Illustrator, it would have been complex to create ALL of the images in Illustrator. Illustrator would consider them as separate and unconnected elements. 

In InDesign though, it’s much easier to connect design elements together, such as the formatting on the page.

So, if you want to apply consistent elements across multiple pages and also to export the final document as a single collated document, Adobe InDesign is a better option than Illustrator. 

 

You can change the format of of the page numbering for example, and have it change throughout the whole document. In Illustrator, you would need to do this page by page.

Better together

Though we’ve given a number of examples of use cases where a single graphic design tool can help you to get the job done, in reality, you often need to use a combination of tools to create the final output. You might design a logo in Illustrator, overlay it on an image in Photoshop and then paste that in as a front cover for your document in InDesign. 

Where the Adobe Creative Cloud comes into its own is the way the different software options integrate with each other. They are better together. 

Because they come from the same ‘owner’, they have been designed to integrate easily. 

So, going back to what we said at the start, whether you use one or more of these graphic design tools really comes back to the job to be done. Is it one specific job that you need to do repeatedly, or do you need the wider range of options that a full Adobe Create Cloud license gives you? Do your needs justify the cost if you buy the full range of Adobe options, or should you consider cheaper alternatives?

Adobe alternatives

While Adobe has a very powerful suite of products, it does come with a cost. As we mentioned before the $80 monthly fee is expensive for individuals or small business owners.

Alternative options include Inkscape for vector graphics and GIMP for photo-editing and manipulation. There are also apps like Procreate and Snapped that you can download on your tablet or mobile phone. 

But for the purposes of this guide, we’re going to cover the Adobe alternatives that are more geared to laptops and desktops – those are Inkscape, GIMP and the Affinity suite. 

Inkscape

Inkscape is an open source tool, that creates vector graphics for illustrations,

So, it offers comparable functionality to Adobe Illustrator for basic shapes, symbols, icon and general art design purposes. It is available for free via the Inkscape website.

And while it doesn’t have the prettiest interface to use, from a functionality point of view, it’s a strong option. You do need to spend some time getting to grips with the layout and functionality. 

Graphic design tools - Inkscape screenshot

GIMP

Gimp is a free download available at the GIMP website. It comes with an impressive number of photo editing options. It is another open source program. If you have only occasional photo editing options, and don’t want to pay the price of Photoshop, it is a very viable option. 

Its user interface is quite complex, and it has very limited ability when you stretch it beyond photography editing – creating and adding shapes for example is a little tricky.

Graphic design tools - GIMP screenshot

But as a stand-alone tool, it offers a lot of options and its hard to ignore the fact that it is free.

Because it has less features than Photoshop, it also takes up less memory space on your computer. GIMP also struggles with any colour options outside the standard RGB screen system. So, if you need to create CMYK for printing for example, Photoshop is easier to do this.

Affinity

As a more complete package, Affinity has positioned itself as a direct competitor to Adobe.

It has Affinity Design, Photo and Publisher as tools which directly compete with Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign.

We’re not yet hugely familiar with the Affinity suite. But we hear good things about it from other graphic designers who have used it.

It may be an option if you are new to graphic design and don’t want to jump straight into the very expensive Adobe option. Each package costs around AUD$80 up-front, but once purchased, they belong to you. 

Graphic design tools - Affinity home page screenshot

Canva.com

As an alternative to bespoke graphic design software, we’ve seen increasing usage of the platform Canva among non-designer users.

Set up in 2012 in Australia, it provides a more streamlined and user-friendly way of generating graphic design for social media posts and presentations in particular. It’s also useful for common Point Of Sale type items like business cards and posters and flyers.

Where it comes in most helpful is the wide variety of pre-set templates which have been created by professional designers. These can be easily adapted and edited by people with little knowledge of graphic design.

Graphic design tools - canva pros and cons

So, in the example above, you can see we created the example on the left for free in a few minutes. This sort of image would work well as a social media post. (with the right message added, obviously).

You can also add video and icons to the image as we have done in the middle version. But, you do find when you use Canva, many of the better images and icons you want to use are not included as part of the free offer. 

Good for beginners and those with simpler needs

While the range that is available at the free level is still impressive and the paid version is a reasonable $7 / month, it’s best used by those who do not have complex or regular graphic design needs.

You soon start to see it lacks a lot of the layering and editing capability that you find in more advanced (and more expensive) tools like Illustrator and Photoshop. 

If you have low graphic design needs, it’s an option that’s well worth exploring. Canva is good place to start and experiment if you don’t know what you’re doing. It can give you impressive outputs quite quickly.

It’s particularly good for quick and easy social media content posting. The designs that they provide have all been vetted so that they fit good design principles.

But you lose a lot of your uniqueness

Where it might be more of a challenge for your business though, is that because you are using templates, you lose a lot of the uniqueness that’s possible when you use other graphic design tools. Everyone who uses the platform chooses from the same set of templates, so it can be difficult to get designs that are truly creative and unique. You can end up looking like your competitors and that’s not good. And once you recognise the style, you start to see lots of brands using that same style. 

With Canva, we do also advise you to carefully check the usage and licensing terms of the designs you source there. While some offer wide use, there are often limitations. For example, you cannot re-sell Canva designs on merchandise. 

Three-brains and Graphic Design

We are not a dedicated graphic design agency as our focus is on marketing and e-Commerce support. But we have picked up a lot of knowledge on this topic. And  this means that we can and often do include graphic design as an important element of our overall business service.

We specialise is coaching and advising on how to best meet your graphic design needs, either using graphic designers, managing it in-house or building your own graphic design skills to make your creative more impactful and more efficient. 

If you want to know more about how we can support your graphic design needs to grow your business  through our coaching and consulting services, click the button below to send us a message.

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