For years designers and creatives alike dreamed of an alternative to Adobe’s creative suite. This desire has grown bigger the last few years with Adobe’s decision to switch to a subscription only plan. Customers no longer have the ability to upgrade every few years when features fit their needs.
Now if you want to maintain the ability to do even the most basic of things -open your files- you have to keep upgrading every year. No matter if you actually need the new features or not. Even though there are great benefits to this new model there are equally as many negatives. Creatives as would be expected are actively looking for alternatives to Adobe’s CC apps.
A few months ago Serif a new player in the software industry, released a very promising beta for a vector based application. Affinity Designer. It definitely made people interested to what they had to offer so when they released version 1 of their program people swarmed to it like flies! At the moment of writing, it’s sitting in the No1 spot of the Mac App store. The most interesting part though are Serif’s future plans. Serif plans to create a whole suite of programs to directly compete with Adobe’s CC apps. So along with the Illustrator competitor they’re planning to release Affinity Photo (photoshop alternative) and Affinity Publisher (In design alternative). And at a fraction of the price compared to Adobe’s apps. Affinity Designer has a price tag of 35,99 euro! For the whole program. No subscription plans just a perpetual license.
Is this app for me?
Leaving aside Serif’s future plans we can focus on what they have to offer right now. How good is Affinity Designer? Can it actually be an Illustrator killer?
If you’re a creative can you drop Illustrator right now and switch to Affinity designer? As you can imagine there’s no easy yes or no. Things are a little bit more complicated. As always!
First off it depends on what you as a consumer/professional do.
• If you’re a hobbyist you can stop reading this post right now and go ahead and buy the software! You don’t have to invest on anything else! It’s that good!
• If you’re a design student you can definitely start off with Affinity designer. You will be able to learn the basics of vector applications, and at a price tag you can actually afford. But at some point you need to invest time on learning Adobe’s alternative. Especially if you want to work in advertising agencies and creative studios. No matter how you cut it Illustrator is the industry default. People expect you to know the program and that is certainly understandable.
• If you’re a freelance designer/illustrator then I would also give it a partial thumbs up. As long as you’re providing your client with a final rasterised result you can work on whatever program you like. It doesn’t matter if you use Illustrator Affinity Designer or Paint. As long as it works for you and it can deliver the result you’re good to go. If though you have to exchange files with other freelancers or provide your client client with a final vector file then the answer differs a little bit. Affinity designer can export and read SVG files but as you can imagine things fall apart quite quickly from there. SVG files are not as editable as native Illustrator and Affinity Designer files. So as a result a lot of compromises have to be made when moving files around. This can easily turn out to an exercise in frustration for both parties (you and the client or other designers). A few examples:
1) Objects are grouped differently leading to a lot of work regrouping and re-arranging when receiving the file. Repeat that x number of times for every time you exchange a file…
2) Text objects are exported as lines and not as full text areas
3) Colours vary a bit, leading to people seeing things differently and leading also to surprises in printing.
These are just a few examples off the top of my head. The list is quite big!
Even if you don’t have to exchange files with your clients there are still important things missing that make it a true Illustrator replacement. Especially if you work heavily with printing. Trim and bleed control options are missing. The same goes for Crop and registration marks, pdf export modes (PDF/X-1a, X-3, X-4).
Things will also get quite complex once you send a file to a print shop. Aside from that though there are other limitations in workflows and tools, which we will discuss below. So I would say if you’re willing to live with some compromises then definitely go ahead. But be aware that you will have to wait for features to come at some point in the future. Serif is very open to their roadmap so you can have a look at their website and if you see what you need in the upcoming releases then it might be worth switching to it. The truth is though that if you’ve been a long time Illustrator user you will miss some features. Some more than others.
• If you work in a company environment then I would say Affinity designer is out of the question. One reason is the aforementioned exchanging of files, the other is the lack of a lot of features that can make it a viable alternative.
No matter how you cut it Adobe has a really strong offering for designers and illustrators. Adobe has such a huge head start and it’s just plain difficult for Serif to catch up in just a few months of development time. Illustrator has been adjusted time and time again. Users mercillesly report how they want the program to work and what their needs are. Let’s also not forget that Adobe is one of the companies that shaped and defined desktop publishing. This head start makes for programs that are very refined and finely tuned to their user base. Even if there are still infuriating bugs and strange workflows, everything the user might need is there. And you can be rest assured that your files will follow all the standards in all different fields. From photography to desktop publishing and video. I don’t want to sound negative though. Affinity designer is definitely a great tool. It just needs a bit more time to develop. What is great is the Affinity user community which is very vocal helping the company build a better program. Serif is also not sitting on its laurels. Development time is quite quick with a lot of new features added with every new release. Most importantly though Serif is quite open to their roadmap. Having a company that is vocal helps a lot alleviating doubts on what the direction of the program is and what the future of the program is, overall.
There are a lot of things that Affinity designer does right. And a lot of times much better than illustrator!
The good things
• Affinity designer (AD) is a fast program! AD is built with recent technologies not relying on years old code, like illustrator. As a result it’s not bogged down by legacy code.
• AD shares a lot of the same shortcuts. That doesn’t apply to all shortcuts but there are quite a few using the same keys as Illustrator. This offers a sense of familiarity, making the transition much easier for the user.
• Non destructive booleans. You can infinitely adjust the position of your elements and even change the operations of the booleans after the fact. Granted the interaction with the elements is not so great UI wise, but the functionality is there.
• Filter effects on objects. These work in a faster and more interactive way than in Illustrator. A great example would a simple drop shadow adjustment in Illustrator. After the 10th click in the up and down arrows you will give up in frustration! Users of Affinity Designer have a finer control for the adjustments and the results are applied very very fast!
• Very good snapping system. Could be improved even further but it already is much much better than illustrator! Snapping in illustrator is a frustrating experience with smart guides lighting on and off like lights on a christmas tree. Illustrator snapping is also unreliable for one more reason. It relies on the zoom level you’re on, at that moment. In AD the snapping system behaves in a predictable manner enabling a more granular control with a lot of possibilities in enabling and disabling options.
Things that could be improved
There are several things that could be better in Affinity Designer but that’s understandable since the program is still in its infancy. From useful workflows that are common in Illustrator to features that are completely missing. Here are some simple examples
• Selecting objects in AD is a little bit finicky. In Illustrator you can select multiple objects by just drawing a rectangle over the objects. As long as the rectangle is touching an area of the object, the object will be selected. In AD you have to cover the whole area surrounding the object. In theory AD’s system sounds better because it eliminates accidental selections but in practice it results in a lot of mouse travelling.
• Seeing the outline of the objects and quickly switching back and forth to the two states makes for easy and fast selection of objects. In AD a shortcut for this helpful command is missing making it difficult to work fast and efficiently. Seems trivial but it’s a really big deal! The same goes for quickly hiding and unhiding objects. To my knowledge there’s no command like that in Affinity Designer contrary to Illustrator. As a matter of fact a lot of the commands in AD are missing a shortcut making users work slower than they actually could. Serif is already planning an update with the ability to assign your own shortcuts so hopefully when that is done things will improve by quite a lot!
• In illustrator you can always select an object even if you’re not in the direct selection tool. By holding down the cmd key you temporarily enable the direct selection tool and can start moving the object even without having to click-select it first. In Affinity designer you have to a) switch to the direction tool b) click the object and c) move it.
Again it’s the small things that make all the difference in the world. These things slowly add up as you work hours and hours with the program every day
• In affinity designer there are no artboards. Meaning there’s no way to create multi page documents and variations of a specific design. There’s a planned update for it but at the moment we have to work in a environment with no artboards.
• One of the biggest creativity boosters in Illustrator is the area surrounding your document. It’s an area where you can still use for storage and moving things around. Think of it as a big workbench area. You throw things there and when you need them you can quickly grab them back in to your document. You can play around with different ideas and variations of on a design store a quick idea there and return back to it once you’re ready. This is one big must have and fortunately it’s planned for a future release
• No transparency mask. Affinity Designer has a feature like that but it is nowhere near as powerful as illustrator’s opacity mask. With illustrator’s opacity mask you can create complex effects without sacrificing maximum edit-ability for the object. A very simple example is shown below. In illustrator you apply your grunge object as a layer mask to your main object. Thus keeping the grunge effect and the main object in a highly editable state. In Affinity designer you have to basically destroy both objects by combining them in to one
• Scaling objects in AD is a chore. In illustrator you just bring up a dialog with a shortcut. A very simple and elegant way to do it. In affinity designer you have to go to a specific area on the screen and type out a formula. A formula that is not difficult to memorise but it shouldn’t be something you would need to do for such a simple task.
• At the moment there are some incompatibilities with font management systems. Suitcase seems to work fine with some users but I’ve tried font Explorer and it just doesn’t work. That’s a big negative point for AD especially if you have invested money on other programs and you had a workflow that was functioning fine before.
• It’s a mac only program. You might say it’s not such a big deal but in order for AD to be a true competitor to Illustrator and a great collaboration tool it needs a big user base. I’m sure as the development team expands it’s going to happen. But at the moment the impact of its small user base is not big enough.
And with that last point I will finish my short overview of the program. The final decision is up to you. The program has a demo version so you can go ahead and try it right away. For me the switch to Affinity designer won’t happen any time soon but I bought the program to not only support a great effort but also to support a program that shows some great potential! There is still room for improvement but with the very active user community and Serif’s great push to improve the program things will progress quite fast. That can only be a good thing for us! The users!