12 Free Design Programs

02/07/2011 | By CG Johnson

How would you like a chance to find amazing graphic design software, free of charge? This selection of cool image and photo editing software is your 12-way ticket to create cool vector graphics, graphic design artworks, digital sketches and paintings, photo manipulations, logos, original clip art, cartoons, animations and web graphics. Impressive effects and brilliant drawing tools are just a few clicks away with these amazing open source programs, add-ons and tools with capabilities similar to Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator or CorelDraw - but without a heavy price tag. Take a look at this list of stunning alternatives to the pricey programs, download them for free and start creating fabulous designs.


The availability of a wide selection of free tools enables graphic designers, illustrators and web developers on a tight budget to learn graphic design and present their work in a similar manner as if they would work with purchased software. Well known design software like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, CorelDraw, FreeHand or Flash that are being used for years are going through constant upgrades to provide their users the hottest and the best tools and techniques. Unfortunately a premium price has to be paid for the licenses of these software packs, especially if you wish to use them in numbers. Thankfully open source volunteers have introduced free software, which can considerably reduce your expenses, and yet provide the capabilities of the propitiatory ones. Inkscape, GIMP, Paint.NET, Xara Xtreme, Artweaver, Draw Plus, Pencil, Picasa, Paint Star, Smooth Draw, Spray and Karbon are free programs that can be used effectively for creating and modifying images and graphics.    

Inkscape is a vector graphics editor application similar to Illustrator, CorelDraw or Freehand using the W3C standard Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file format. Inkscape is comparatively easy to execute and does not require a lot of experience to be able to use it. The user-friendliness of Inkscape makes you realize that there is not much difference between the capabilities and user experience of Inkscape and Adobe Illustrator. However, creativity is something that an illustrator or designer must posses, so don’t expect miracles. Inkscape is cross-platform and operates on various operating systems like Windows, Mac and all variants of Linux.
Inkscape imports formats such as PNG, JPEG, TIFF and exports PNG as well as multiple vector-based formats. Shapes, text, markers, transforms, patterns, clones, paths, gradients, alpha blending, and grouping are supporting features included in the program.

A lot of icon packs which are being used for Linux have been created using Inkscape. Using Inkscape, you can brand your projects, create icons for desktop, design web pages, create marketing materials, as well as create maps for gaming. These features make Inkscape perfect to be used instead of a proprietary SVG graphics editing utility. You can create and modify objects like maps, logos, and icons - similar to Illustrator. Some of the common tools in Inkscape are the pencil tool, calligraphy tool rectangles, text tool, pen tool, ellipses, stars/polygons, spirals, embedded bitmaps, clones etc. All objects created by Inkscape and other SVG files are easy to modify and edit using vector editing programs. Affine transformations, grouping objects, Z-order operations, copying and pasting objects, alignment and distribution commands, multiple layers are some of the features available to the designers.

The work of a designer is not just limited to image creation and manipulation, but also includes working on typography. Just like designing and aligning the layouts of print projects and magazines, designers also need to adjust, align and layout the text provided. Inkscape provides graphic designers with tools to adjust the text elements according to their needs. A few tools of importance concerning text manipulation can be used to work on multi-line text, right-to-left scripts, kerning, installed outline fonts, letter spacing, line spacing adjustments, text on path and text in shape. Inkscape supports Creative Commons meta-data, complex path operations, layers, flowed text, bitmap tracing, direct XML editing, node editing, text-on-path and more advanced features.

To obtain dynamic images, you need to play around with color, layers and gradients in an image. Fill and stroke images can be used with other elements like text and graphics. Color selector, color picker tool, dashed strokes, a gradient editor capable of multi-stop gradients, copy/paste functions, pattern fills, path markers are some of the options provided in Inkscape. Sometimes the images may not be imported to the program directly. As a result these images and their paths need to be worked out. Meta data of these images requires editing to some extent. Inkscape facilitates this and provides node editing, converting to path, Boolean operations, path insetting and outsetting, Bitmap tracing features and path simplification for achieving the best possible results.

You can download Inkscape from Inkscape.org


Inkscape vector design program


Inkscape vector design program


GIMP or GNU Image Manipulation Program is a raster graphics editor mainly used as an editing and image-retouching tool. This program can also be used as a basic paint program, an online batch processing system, an advanced photo-retouching program, mass production image render software and an image format converter. You can download it for free for Mac, Windows and variants of Linux. All these capabilities make GIMP an excellent replacement for Adobe Photoshop. The software uses GIMP toolkit called GTK+ to build its interface. Since the beginning GTK+ has evolved into an individual library, and is now available as part of the setup engine. Using GIMP you can also create simple animated images in the GIF format, and edit and create original graphical essentials of web pages, images, icons, and art for the user interface elements of free software.
Although GIMP was originally designed for Linux, it has evolved for easy usage for Windows and Mac as well. You have to follow a set of steps to install GIMP, just like any other purchased software that in installed on your operating system. You can download the appropriate installer the GIMP.org website and save it in the desired destination folder or select the default install option on GIMP. You can control specific aspects using the custom install feature, but the ideal way to do it is through the full install. The GIMP installer automatically installs GTK+. GIMP runs like other Windows/Mac program once it’s installed.   

XCF, the native format of GIMP, is designed to store an image with all its features specific to GIMP like its channels, layers, and vectors. Read only formats include Adobe PDF documents. GIMP also has the ability of exporting to MNG layered image files, ASCII Art and HTML. GIMP has import and export support for popular image formats such as PNG, JPEG, TIFF, and GIF along with the file formats of several other design programs like Adobe Photoshop and Corel Paint Shop. Other formats with read/write support include X bitmap image, PostScript documents, and Soft PCX. GIMP can also read and write path information from SVG files and read/write ICO Windows icon files.

GIMP has a number of tools such as a circular and rectangular selection tool, a fuzzy select tool and a free select tool that can be used to create custom shape selections. The advanced selection tools include the select by color tool which selects adjacent regions of color, and the scissors select tool which semi-automatically creates selections between areas of highly contrasting colors. The quick mask mode allows you to use a brush to paint the areas of selection. You can extract foreground elements such as a person or a tree in focus with the help of the foreground select tool. You can create vectors using the path tool. Paths can be applied to create complex selections around natural curves, which can also be named, saved, and painted with brushes, patterns, or a variety of line styles.
You can select a variety of colours through palettes or use an eyedropper tool to select your color of choice on a canvas. The inbuilt color choosers include RGB/HSV selector or scales, CMYK selector, watercolor selector, and a color-wheel selector. You can also select colours by using hexadecimal colour codes. GIMP has native support for indexed and RGB colour spaces, whereas other color spaces are supported using decomposition where each channel of the new colour space becomes a black and white image. The blend tool can be used to do colour blending. Gradients are also included into tools such as the brush tool. When you use the brush tool to paint the output colour slowly changes. The GIMP includes several default gradients, and you can also create custom gradients with the tools provided.

With GIMP, you can import any image using the open image option from the files menu or even through drag and drop. You can even play around with different layers and channels in an image. The layers toolbar on the right side of the software can be used to separate different channels of the image. Click on the view of a particular channel to be provided with its functionality. Once the channels are separated you can control them as individual entities. You can resize and play around with this image by using the drag and control tool present on the left.  A perspective toolbox can be used to view and edit the relative effects on channels.
The common tools in GIMP include a pencil, paintbrush, airbrush, eraser and ink tools that create new or blended pixels. The smart tools feature the clone tool that copies pixels using a brush, and the healing brush which copies pixels from one point to another and corrects the tone and color. The bucket fill tool and blend tool are used to blend images and change large regions of space in an image. The blur and sharpen tool is a brush that blurs or sharpens. The dodge and burn tool is a brush that makes target pixels lighter or darker. The GIMP transform tools include the align tool, crop, shear, rotate, move, scale, perspective and flit tools. GIMP has approximately 150 standard effects and filters including blur, drop shadow, motion blur and noise filter. An image is made up of several layers that are all stacked up, and each layer is made of several channels. The text tool enables you to create text layers that allow you to write on an image.

Download GIMP installer from gimp.org


GIMP vector design program


GIMP vector design program


GIMP vector design program


Paint.NET is a free, open-source image and photo manipulation software designed to be used on computers that run Windows. The Paint program started as a college design project mentored by Microsoft, but is currently maintained by alumni who originally worked on it and an enthusiast group of volunteers. Intended as a free replacement for the Microsoft Paint software that comes with Windows, Paint.NET has grown into a simple and powerful graphic design and photo editor tool. An active online Paint.NET community provides help, plug-ins and tutorials. This freeware design program features an innovative and intuitive user interface with support for special effects and a wide variety of useful tools. Paint.NET supports the common image formats PNG, JPG, TIFF and GIF but not high-resolution RAW files. The open-source freeware editor includes tools to resize images, rotate, crop, create collages and adjust colors. The pleasing interface supports layers and history functions, has an action manager and basic effects as a red-eye removal tool, dents and crystallize effects and surface blurs. If you look for a free and easy program for tasks as basic photo retouching or image composition, Paint.NET is a must-have.

Download Paint.NET from getpaint.net


Paint NET vector design program


No matter what’s your level of experience, Xara Xtreme is a fast yet powerful graphics tool, illustration and vector-based drawing program for Windows. This top-notch program is suitable for your illustration projects, compositing, web graphics, technical drawings, cartooning and animation. Xara Xtreme supports CMYK colors for print, zero-memory bitmap editing and 32-bit alpha-channel bitmaps. You can draw with the pen tool, quick shapes function, shape editor or pressure-sensitive natural media brushes or create navigation bars, rollovers or image maps and export your images as optimized web graphics. With the new photo tool, you can also enhance bitmap based images and photos, crop or rotate them without leaving the program. You can add shadows, transparency, bevels and feathering effects to bitmap or vector-based objects.
With the Xara Xtreme live tools, your can apply effects interactively and check the results in real time, so you can see exactly what results you're going to get.  The new rendering engine in Xara Xtreme performs as its name says extremely fast. Professional designers and illustrators who require high-end features such as multi-processor support, advanced output and color separations can purchase the Xara Xtreme Pro Version. If you're just getting started with illustration software, Xara offers video demos and tutorials to help you design and create your own images.

Download Xara Xtreme free trial version from Xara.com


Xara Xtreme vector design program



Artweaver is a Windows freeware program, allowing you to create sketches from photos and existing images, experiment with colors and simulate natural brush tools with the help of a huge range of creative painting tools. Similar to commercial programs like Corel Painter and Photoshop, Artweaver produces artistic effects as airbrushes, pencils, oil paintings, acrylic or pastel strokes to create natural looking creative images. Artweaver supports TIFF, PNG, PSD, GIF, JPEG and BMP formats and offers image editing tools like magic wand and lasso selection, crop, fill, emboss, mosaic, sharpen, blur and gradients tools and pen tablet support for a realistic results.

Free Artweaver program download

DrawPlus is a cool graphic software pack by Serif's creative design program developers that enables you to create vector images, eye-catching layouts and high impact animations. Features include vector drawing tools, color selection and schemes, studio resources, editable envelopes, blends and transparency functions, backdrop and watermark wizard functions. If you are a design enthusiast or vector art lover, DrawPlus is an excellent creative weapon of choice.
Download free DrawPlus design software by Serif

Pencil is a free and open source drawing and animation program for Windows, Mac and Linux. Pencil lets you create hand drawn cartoons using both vector art and bitmap format. That makes Pencil a great application for illustrators wanting to create breathtaking, funny and original cartoons and animations.
Download free Pencil software from Pencil-Animation.org


Thiago vector art 2.


Share your art with the world! Picasa is Google's free desktop photo management application and photo-hosting service. You can easily manipulate your pics with Picasa and use the 1GB of free hosting to upload your images and share them with the friends, family and the creative community. Picasa supports TIFF, JPEG, PSD and standard movie files and let you fix red eyes, crop without quality loss and enhance your original pictures with several handy tools.
Download the free Picasa application

Spray Vector Generator was originally developed to be used with Xara X, but the program also functions with Adobe Illustrator and CorelDraw. Spray helps you to kick start your graphics by generating a huge number of shapes with random positions. Functions include outline color, fill objects, rays, grids and random paths. You can export the generated Spray shapes through the clipboard to your favorite vector illustration program.
Download free Spray application from XaraxTV.at

Digital image processing software suitable for such tasks as image morphing, composing and authoring digital artworks, retouching of images. Paint Star supports the common editing techniques and offers many tools and filters: gradient fill, transformation tools, pencil, paintbrush, blur and sharpening effects, filter brushes, smudge, cloning, airbrush and eraser.
Download free Paint Star software


Thiago vector art 3.


The good news about Smooth Draw is that this powerful freehand drawing program let you produce smooth and expressive design strokes with your graphic tablet, but also adapts mouse input for digital artists who don’t have a tablet. The free version of Smooth Draw is limited, but offers several kinds of cool graphic effects: pencils, pen, bristle brush, airbrush, image hose and dry media. Definitely a great application for illustrators starting to explore the world of digital freehand drawing.
Download free trial version from SmoothDraw.com

Karbon is a free vector drawing application by the Koffice development team and offers creative solutions for the lovers of vector logos, illustration art, artistic clip art or photorealistic vexel images. Karbon is a cross-platform application and works with Mac, Windows and Linux. Karbon comes with a user-friendly interface that lets you chose where to put your toolbars and supports graphic formats SVG, PNG, PDF, ODG and WMF. Functions include pattern and gradient tools, snapping features, various drawing tools, standard shapes as stars and circles, calligraphy drawing tool, snapping features and complex path operations.
Download Karbon for free from the Koffice website http://www.koffice.org/karbon

Illustrations by Thiago Art