Graphic design tools

The world of graphic design technology is dominated by Adobe. In this article, we cover the three most commonly used graphic design tools from Adobe. Those are Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign. We also share some Adobe alternative options. And we finish with a brief introduction to online graphic design tool Canva, a great tool for those new to design.

Graphic design tools

Many artists and creative designer still like to use traditional techniques like sketching and painting as the base for their creations. But in this modern world, most new pieces of graphic design need to be delivered in digital formats. This means that it is almost impossible to escape the use of graphic design tools for your graphic design needs.

This might be a powerful all-round solution like the Adobe Creative Cloud, or an ad hoc piece of software like Inkscape or GIMP. 

Which graphic design tools you choose to will depend on three things. Your budget. The quantity and quality of the designs you need. And whether you want to manage the process in-house or externally. 

Adobe photoshop screenshot


Adobe is the most well-known provider of graphic design tools. It would be hard to meet anyone who works in a creative field who has not used Adobe software.

Adobe sell their individual pieces of software on a subscription basis. You buy these on a monthly or annual basis and they range in price from A$15 to A$30 per software program per month. Automatic updates are included at no extra charge and you get access to an number of extra tools like Adobe fonts. There are around 20 different tools you can choose from. 

Or you can buy an Adobe Creative Cloud license which gives you access to ALL the Adobe Creative solutions.for around $80 a month as an individual. 

This includes such programs as Adobe Animate, Adobe Dreamweaver (for websites) and Adobe XD (for experience design). But the most commonly used tools are Photoshop, Illustrator and In Design and these are the ones we will discuss in this article.

Adobe Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is a raster-based program for photo editing. 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.

What this means in practical terms is the quality of raster-based images is highly dependent on the number of pixels used in the image when it was either created or edited.

If you have a high quality photo taken on a DSLR camera for example, it would typically produce an image with a high resolution or a high number of pixels. This also means the image would take up a lot of memory. But you would have lots of flexibility when using Adobe Photoshop to edit the image without losing the sharpness of the image. You would be able to see the quality of the image in sizes from mobile phone size up to 65 inch plasma TV and beyond.

Raster images with low number of pixels tend to look more ‘blocky’. Where you typically find these are on websites, where the developer or content producer has chosen an image with a lower file size. This  makes it faster to load on the assumption that most users will only see the picture on smaller sized devices. On smaller devices, the difference in raster picture imagery is very difficult to distinguish. But on larger screens and devices the difference can be very noticeable.

Photoshop for marketing and e-commerce

Photoshop has multiple uses for marketing and e-commerce. One of the most commonly used tools in photoshop would be the cropping tools. This is where you cut out an image from it’s background to place it on top of another image in what is called a ‘layer’.

So for example, many of our T-shirt artwork has designs ‘placed’ on a blank T-shirt worn by a model and shot in a studio. We’re able to use the Photoshop cropping tools to cut this ‘blank’ model out and place them against scenic images we feel are more interesting than a blank studio. Beaches, forests, mountains, whatever takes your fancy.

There are a number of options for doing this in Photoshop including the magic eraser tool, the object selection tool and the various versions of the lasso tool.

Photoshop is also very helpful for ‘tidying’ up photos. So removing spots and blemishes, or subtly altering the tone, contrast and colour mix of your photography to subtly change the effects. By adjusting 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.

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 Illustrator

Adobe Illustrator is a vector-based program for drawing and yes, you guessed it, illustration. Vector graphics are stored not as pixels but as paths. You don’t necessarily need to know they technical explanation of the difference between vector and raster graphics. But if you are curious, there’s a great explanation here. 

However, you should understand that vector graphics are much more scaleable because of the way the information is stored.

This means for example logo designs are commonly stored and shared in vector formats like .eps, .svg, .eps, .pdf, .ai and .dxf  as logos need to be used in multiple sizes.

So anything from a matchbox to a 96 sheet billboard might feature a company logo and a vector format is needed to make sure the resolution and quality remains the same.

Where Photoshop tends to start with existing imagery and is then used to edit and update it, Illustrator is more often used with a blank page to start to create something brand new.

Or if the designer prefers non-digital tools like pen and paper or brushes, they will often import a design via their phones camera and then trace it out in Illustrator.

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

Adobe Illustrator Screenshot

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,

Our T-shirt and merchandise designs are mainly created in Adobe Illustrator. You can read some of the tools we used within Illustrator on each design by looking at our design notes.

You can read a more detailed overview on Adobe Illustrator in this blog post. It goes through an overview of the software and the most used windows and tools from a beginner point of view. 

Adobe InDesign screenshot

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 it’s 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 changes are it was created in Adobe InDesign. 

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 maninpulation. We have used both and they do provide a viable alternative to Adobe. There is however, a learning curve to both tools and they don’t offer the full range of services and integration that Adobe offer. 

As a more complete package, Affinity has positioned itself as a direct competitor to Adobe. They offers a variety of tools which perform similarly. We have not yet used the Affinity suite but hear good things about it from other graphic designers. 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. 

GIMP logo
Inkscape logo


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.

It comes free and with a relatively low cost paid version ($7 / month). If you have low graphic design needs, it’s an option that’s well worth exploring. It’s major challenge though is that as everyone who uses the platform chooses from the same set of templates, it can be difficult to get designs that are truly creative and unique.

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. 

Canva homepage screengrab

Three-brains and Graphic Design

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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