16 Apps and Resources for Graphic Design Beginners

When you begin your career, you are usually tight on budget, but being a beginner visual creative requires you, nonetheless, to invest in your tools.

While Adobe’s Creative Cloud app suit is a recognized standard for the industry, its price is quite hefty and not any college graduate/freelancer/aspiring artist can afford it. The same goes to the top of the line computer (whether it is traditionally Mac or Windows Surface Studio).

Do not worry. You do not have to pay through the nose to make your first step in the profession and do that first commission on Freelancer (of Fiverr, or whatever you have chosen as your marketplace). There are plenty of affordable or even free apps analogous to those preferred by the professionals.

As for the Mac, you will do fine with an older model if only you provide an adequate maintenance:

  • Upgrade RAM if it is possible. It will give you great speed and ability to process complex graphics without spending too much.
  • Do not stuff your hard disk full with files. Use cloud storage or external disk for files you are not currently working with.
  • For system to stay zippy and responsive, clean up your Mac’s hard drive regularly. This will ensure the seamless performance that was intended by manufacturers.

Now, without further ado, I give you the 16apps and resources that every creative beginner needs.

Affinity Designer (budget-priced Photoshop/Illustrator alternative)

Compatibility: macOS, Windows

Affinity Designer

Affinity Designer combines the best features of Photoshop and Illustrator in one app. It allows working with RGB, CMYK, LAB, Grayscale and has a vast file compatibility. It is a great tool for creating stunning vector graphics, whether for concept art, websites or icons. It has a highly intuitive, modern and clean interface, which will be easy to master, especially if you have already worked in Photoshop.

Another good news, the app is not as heavy on batteries as Photoshop, so you can install in on your laptop or tablet without hesitation. Creative folks are huge fans of mobility and working wherever inspiration strikes, so this little detail is hard to overestimate.

GIMP (free Photoshop alternative)

Compatibility: Linux, macOS, Windows, BSD, Solaris, AmigaOS 4

GIMP

This is a free cross-platform and open-source app, which offers an array of professional features: Layers, Paths, Brushes, Channels, Actions and other Tools. Everything you need for photo editing, artwork creation, and graphic design tasks. It is as close to Photoshop as you can get. The workflow, the menus, the toolbars are very similar, so even if you used to work with Photoshop before, you will not find the transition almost seamless.

The only substantial drawback is that the app does not have CMYK support. In addition, there is an issue with portability, as its mobile version is quite large to fit an average USB stick. That aside – a brilliant free substitute.

Pixelmator (budget-priced Photoshop/Illustrator alternative)

Compatibility: macOS

Pixelmator

You might not be entirely up to grappling with “wild and free” GIMP, which does have its downsides as an open-source software. In this case, there is a golden medium between free GIMP and the expensive professional editors. If you own a Mac, nothing bits the Pixelmator. It is very fast on macOS due to the tight integration with the operating system. It costs only a fraction Photoshop’s price, possesses all the necessary features, is intuitive and light, as it has dumped some rarely-used complicated tools.

However, it has most of the things a newbie needs and its functionality allows creating original digital art, let alone tweaking photos. Moreover, it supports the CMYK color spaces (unlike GIMP).

Scribus (free InDesign alternative)

Compatibility: Windows, macOS, Linux, BSD

Scribus

Scribus is a decent publishing software and it has everything you need to create beautiful print-ready posters and magazines in PDF – font management, color profiles and all.

Again, if you have used InDesign before, you will find no trouble in switching to Scribus. Almost identical interface and as a result a similar workflow, the same system of grids, frames and layers – no learning curve. The app comes with a modest selection of templates, but there are more available for download free.

The drawbacks are the not-so-accessible pagination (I wonder why they tacked such important feature somewhere in many folds of the menu?) and the interface design that seems a bit outdated.

Krita (free painting tool)

Compatibility: Linux, macOS, Windows

Krita

This free open-source app is everything you need to get creative in the digital medium. If your focus is on drawing and painting, then Krita is for you. It boasts a huge selection of brushes, filters and downloadable plugins for every artistic need (or whim) – just what you need if you are a concept artist or illustrator.

The coolest features are:

  • brush stabilizers that smooth out shakiness in lines
  • wrap-up which allows creating seamless textures.
Inkscape (free Illustrator alternative)

Compatibility: Linux, Windows, macOS

Inkscape

For vector editing, look no further. Inkscape is all you need to replace Illustrator. It offers all the professional features: Layers, Groups, Symbols, Gradients, Fills, Strokes, functional and artistic filters aplenty, and CMYK support. In other words, everything you need to create great-looking realistic drawings in SVG. The tool gets new features and regular updates, so there is much to look forward as well.

The drawback is that you apparently jump through additional hoops to wed it to your macOS, but it is totally worth the trouble. Moreover, for those technical-minded, it will not be a trouble at all.

SketchUp Make (free 3D modeling tool)

Compatibility: macOS, Windows

SketchUp Make

If you want to try 3D modeling, this app is a perfect place to start, as it is free, user-friendly and intuitive. SketchUp Make was designed for newbies to learn how to create and manipulate 3D objects. As creators themselves describe it, they did not sacrifice usability for functionality, so the app is easy to master with all the basics you need as a beginner. You can start from drawing lines and simple shapes, push and pull to transform them into 3D objects, scale, rotate, paint, copy to create anything.

Sculptris (free digital sculpting tool)

Compatibility: macOS, Windows

Sculptris

If you want to take a stab at digital sculpting, then Sculptris is just an app for you. This 3D editing software was designed so you could interact with digital forms as with real-world materials, starting from a “digital clay” sphere and making it into anything you want. Push, pull, smooth, grab, pinch, add or remove any amount of digital object, edit it with brush strokes and then paint the surface of your creation. Pure artistic expression with freedom over form.

Once you master Sculptis and feel you want to make digital sculpting your career, you can switch to something more robust and professional.

MacFly Pro (maintenance software)

Compatibility: macOS

MacFly Pro

As a graphic designer, you will soon find that running out of disk space is your everyday reality because working with high-resolution graphics, running modeling software and storing your media files can be very demanding. That is where MacFly Pro comes in handy. It is a cleaning app and its primary purpose is to clear the disk from junk files and leftovers, keeping your Mac’s performance on the level intended by manufacturers. It restores sluggish machines back to normal and frees coveted disk space. Another useful thing in MacFly Pro’s toolset is its ability to find duplicate files that spawn from numerous backups, editing sessions, and sheer forgetfulness.

DigiKam (free media managing software)

Compatibility: Linux, macOS, Windows

DigiKam

DigiKam is an open-source software native to Linux. It can be used on Windows without major nuisance. For Macs, you will need to jump through the hoops to install it, but it works in the end. As the name suggests, the app mostly targets photographers, yet digital artists and graphic designers can benefit immensely from cataloging software as well. You might not need a designated image manager if you just have started your career, but believe me, after a couple of years in the profession you will not be able to make heads or tails of you gigantic visual collection unless you were very pedantic from the beginning.

DigiKam has everything you need to manage your images: tags, cross-references, grouping items by their metadata, quite advanced editing tools and decent integration with social media, should you wish to showcase your work.

Lyn (budget media managing)

Compatibility: macOS

Lyn

Lyn is a media browser created for cataloging and managing your images. It is responsive and lightweight and offers most of the functions you expect. It is not as cheap as Unbound and other basic cataloging apps in the niche but is also more advanced. The app is a nice one to start from with some space for growth and exploration. It has basic editing capabilities and borders on professional photo editing software, such as AfterShot and Emulsion, yet only borders. Compared to digiKam mentioned above it has only one advantage – its seamless integration with macOS.

Unsplash (free Adobe Stock alternative)

Compatibility: the Web

Unsplash

Unsplash is not exactly an app, but since we got into free alternatives here, I feel I must mention it anyway. It is a great resource to go for CC0-licensed high-quality pictures and it is absolutely free (which is a top-notch substitute for Adobe’s library of images available on subscription). Of course, Usplash is only one example here, while there are more similar resources: Pexels, Pixabay(that offers illustrations apart from photos), Stocksnap.io and more. However, Unsplash is the most consistent when it comes to quality.

Font Squirrel(free fonts library)

Font Squirrel

Fonts are indispensable in the work of any graphic designer. They are a great way to give a boost and finish to your creations.

Font Squirrel is a free resource where fonts are downloadable and free for commercial use. It is also a great resource to learn about fonts and their implementation, ask for support if you have issues with installing, look up, match different fonts, and simply discuss your preferences on forums with other designers and font-enthusiasts.

TypeKit (fonts library)

TypeKit

TypeKitis subscription-based service and prices aren’t really moderate as such, but here is a good news – they have a free plan with a limited collection of fonts, which is still much vaster than a number of standard fonts usually available by default on most devices.

You can download fonts from TypeKit to mess around with them on your device or embed them directly on the website you are working on currently.

DeviantArt (online community)

DeviantArt

If you are an aspiring digital artist, you will need a portfolio. DeviantArt is a suitable platform for that for the variety of reasons. It is a renowned and established website, the largest art community there is, built over the years.

The website has an enormous number of groups to swap ideas and discuss each other’s art. Moreover, it is a commercial online gallery where you can receive something more substantial than admiration and views statistics. Although many members still fixate on anime, videogames, and Disney princesses, it has a lot to offer apart from terabytes of fan-art. This is a go-to place for downloadable resources, such as tutorials, stock photography and reference sketches.

Ello.co (online community)

Ello.co

Self-described as “creators network” Ello is a community that focuses on visual artwork – painting, photo, design and web culture. It is much less Disney than DeviantArt and is a great place to look for inspiration from original and independent work. You can also display your own creations and receive feedback from the engaged community from your niche. The art showcased on Ello is modern and sarcastic; it explores the boundaries of what is seen as modern art and what is not. It has designated sections for GIF, 3D and a mysterious space nonchalantly titled “Modernism is Crap” harboring the most experimental pieces. Ello is not only about visuals – users can write posts and manifestos.

 

Now you have everything you need to start your career as a graphic designer or a digital artist – and on a budget. Learn, explore, discover, and stay inspired!

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