Well-designed logos, packaging, advertising, and social media posts can help make your brand look professional and stand out from the crowd. But hiring a professional graphic designer, or paying for high-end graphic design software like Adobe Illustrator, can be prohibitively expensive, especially for small businesses.
Thankfully, you don’t need a big budget to create custom graphics. Some of the best graphic design software tools are free and run on open source software. There are also limited free versions of paid tools that both new and advanced users may find helpful. Here’s an overview of some free design software and seven tips for choosing the best free graphic design tool for your business.
How to choose free graphic design software
- Evaluate your business needs
- Compare feature sets
- Match your team’s skill level
- Ensure compatibility with other software
- Consider scalability
- Investigate licensing and usage rights
- Factor in customer support
Choosing graphic design software requires an understanding of your business needs, your team’s learning curve, and your compatibility requirements. Here are steps for selecting the best free graphics software:
1. Evaluate your business needs
Start your search process by determining how you plan to use your graphic design software. Will you use it for creating logos, custom fonts, web design, ad campaigns, packaging, or all of the above? Knowing your business needs can help you understand what graphic design elements you need from your free software.
For example, if you’re creating an ad campaign with a lot of photos, you may need a software that has a variety of photo editing features; if you’re working with a team, you may choose a program with cloud-based storage that allows multiple people to access and work on designs.
2. Compare feature sets
Once you have a sense of how you’ll use your software, you’ll know what features to look for. Though some of the most sophisticated tools can only be found on paid software, you can create professional and eye-catching graphic elements using fairly basic tools.
Any software you choose should include basic features like drawing, text, shapes, and layers. Advanced features might include photo editing, vector graphics (images defined by mathematical shapes, not pixels), typography tools, blending modes, and special effects.
3. Match your team’s skill level
Using any new software involves a learning curve as teams explore and grasp a program’s features. Some have more graphic design experience than others. If your team is new to computer-based graphic design, look for a program with an intuitive user interface—one that’s easy to use and visually straightforward. Many graphic design tools feature free templates to help users still learning graphic design basics.
If you have seasoned graphic designers on staff, you may prioritize advanced features over ease of use—although a user-friendly interface never hurts.
4. Ensure compatibility with other software
Ensure that your graphic design software is compatible with your operating system, whether it’s Windows, macOS, Linux, or a mobile operating system, like iOS or Android. If you work across multiple devices, consider software with mobile apps for smartphones and tablets, as well as cloud syncing (data sharing across devices remotely).
File formats also matter. Select a program that can import and export files in standard image formats like JPEG, PNG, SVG, and JPG.
5. Consider scalability
As your business expands, you’ll need graphic design software that can scale up with your operations. In many cases this may mean upgrading from a free tool to more powerful paid software. If you plan to grow in the near future, it may make sense to choose software that can accommodate more complex needs.
6. Investigate licensing and usage rights
Research software restrictions or licensing agreements, especially if you're using the designs commercially. Some of the best free graphic design programs are open source, which means that you can modify the programs and use their features without needing special permission.
7. Factor in customer support
Look for software that is actively maintained and updated, ensuring you have access to the latest features and bug fixes. Free programs rarely come with customer support, although the free version of paid software (such as Adobe Photoshop) may grant you access to support documents.
Sometimes the best way to find software support is to consult with other professional users. Many software programs have an active community of users online. Through forums, YouTube videos, and comment threads, community members may be able to help you troubleshoot problems and take advantage of all the tools offered.
Best free graphic design software programs
Amateur and professional designers alike may be surprised to learn how much you can do with free graphic design software. Here are programs that offer powerful tools to suit the needs of most graphic designers:
Canva is a popular web-based graphic design platform that’s easy to use and has a wide range of features. As long as you have an up-to-date computer and a reliable internet connection, you can use Canva to create professional-looking graphics.
- Key features: Canva has an intuitive drag-and-drop interface, a huge library of templates for various projects, and basic photo editing tools.
- Pros: You don’t need any prior design experience to master Canva’s user interface. Its fast workflows let you create new graphics in minutes.
- Cons: Web-based Canva lacks the robust functionality of some desktop graphics programs, and while the software is free, you need to pay for more advanced tools and additional templates.
GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. (GNU is the Linux-based operating system that the software runs on.) It is a free, open-source vector software that offers complex tools that were once restricted to paid programs.
- Key features: GIMP offers advanced image editing, photo retouching, customizable brushes, layers, filters, and supports various file formats.
- Pros: GIMP’s customizable interface may appeal to advanced users who want extensive control over their software. It’s a highly professional tool that compares favorably to paid programs. GIMP also has a robust community of users who are active in online forums.
- Cons: GIMP can be overwhelming for beginners, who may prefer a simpler interface and a more limited set of tools to start off with.
Inkscape is an open-source digital drawing program with functions similar to those found in paid software like Adobe Illustrator. Its numerous tools may appeal to concept artists and illustrators who need precise control over their creations.
- Key features: Inkscape features many drawing tools, including pen tools and shape tools, as well as a vector graphics editor that lets you create scalable images that never look pixelated.
- Pros: The Inkscape platform lets you create stunning designs using its vector tools. Adobe users can also import Illustrator files.
- Cons: Inkscape has a steeper learning curve than more intuitive tools like Canva. It also has a more limited feature set than what you might get in a paid suite like Adobe Creative Cloud.
Hatchful is a free logo maker from Shopify. It lets you choose from professionally designed templates, which can be customized to represent your unique business.
- Key features: Hatchful offers hundreds of templates, icons, fonts, and color combinations that you can mix and match using its simple, intuitive interface. You can download high-resolution file formats of your free logo design, optimized for social media, business cards, and merchandise.
- Pros: If you’re already a Shopify merchant, or thinking of becoming one, Hatchful may be the right graphic design software to bridge your ecommerce and graphics needs.
- Cons: Compared to programs like Canva and GIMP, Hatchful is much more focused, and therefore more limited. It’s a great tool for logo creation, but you’ll need to use other software for more advanced graphics needs.
Vectr is a simple vector graphics editor with real-time collaboration tools. It lets you create basic shapes, text, and layers, and easily share your designs with your teams.
- Key features: Vectr offers a drag-and-drop interface, a library of vector shapes and symbols, and the ability to export to a variety of file formats.
- Pros: Vectr is designed for collaborating teams who may be new to graphic design. Its cloud storage features let team members access each other’s work.
- Cons: While it’s easy to use, Vectr has a relatively limited feature set. If you need to create intricate designs on a spartan budget, consider another free app or desktop program.
Previously known as Gravit Designer, Corel Vector is a web-based and desktop vector design app, with powerful tools for illustrations, icons, and user interface (UI) designs.
- Key features: Corel Vector provides users with an expansive library of vector shapes and symbols and a powerful drawing engine, and supports many file formats.
- Pros: Corel Vector strikes a balance between functionality and ease of use. The learning curve is shallow, and you can quickly scale up to complex designs.
- Cons: Corel Vector is only free on a trial basis. You’ll need to upgrade to a paid plan to make full use of the program.
Adobe Express is a free offering from Adobe, the maker of popular paid graphic design programs like Illustrator and Photoshop. Despite being free, Express offers a number of the signature tools that have made Adobe an industry leader.
- Key features: Adobe Express lets users access thousands of templates and proprietary Adobe fonts. It also features a library of Adobe Stock photos, videos, and music.
- Pros: You can access many of Adobe’s design assets, like animations and a background remover, and export high quality images that suit nearly any purpose.
- Cons: Adobe Express is a teaser for the full Adobe Creative Cloud suite, and as such, is intentionally limited. For example, you can only create five projects per month, and Adobe puts a watermark on all designs.
Photopea is an online image editor that supports PSD files, making it a free alternative to Adobe Photoshop.
- Key features: Photopea’s many tools include layers, filters, and wide format compatibility, replicating the majority of Photoshop’s feature set.
- Pros: Photoshop veterans will recognize many of the same workflows and shortcuts from Adobe’s paid software. And because Photopea is cloud-based, you don’t have to worry about software bloat on your device.
- Cons: While Photopea mimics many functions of Photoshop, it’s not a one-for-one replacement. Professional designers may feel stymied by Photopea’s limitations, and novices may find its interface to be overwhelming at first.
Krita is an open-source painting program that offers customizable brushes, layer styles, animation tools, and color modes.
- Key features: Krita offers a powerful brush engine with more than 100 brushes to choose from, support for layers, masks, selections, and a robust online community that can help you make full use of the program.
- Pros: Krita strikes a balance between functionality and ease of use. Its developers regularly roll out updates, bug fixes, and new features.
- Cons: While Krita offers a lot for a free program, it doesn’t have the same feature suite as paid software like Clip Studio Paint or Adobe Illustrator. It’s also less well known than some other painting and illustration software, which may make collaborations a little harder.
Free graphic design software FAQ
Can you do graphic design for free?
Yes, you can do graphic design for free using open-source programs like GIMP or limited versions of paid programs like Adobe Express.
What free tools do you need for graphic design?
To do graphic design for free on your computer or mobile device, you need a software application like Canva, Inkscape, or GIMP. These programs let you create logos, illustrations, animations, custom fonts, and more.
Is Canva graphic design free?
Yes, the Canva graphic design program is free. Canva also offers a paid tier, called Canva Pro, with advanced features.
Which is the easiest design software?
Ease is a matter of personal taste and experience. However, Canva, Vectr, and Hatchful are often cited as easy to use.