The Best of Free and Low-cost Design Software
The seemingly endless opportunities to interface with customers have required companies figure out how to easily and quickly create design assets in-house even if they don't have a professional design person on staff. This, in turn, has spurred a rise in the number of design tools and applications geared toward the "non-designer," with short learning curves, drag and drop functionality, and automagication of traditionally complex design tasks.
While Adobe Creative Suite (with its flagship trio of Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign) remains the premier software for design pros, it's no longer the only option if you want to create nice-looking, branded design assets. And it's not even the best option if you lack the time or expertise to make your investment in Adobe CC worthwhile.
The following are design applications that are great low- and no-cost alternatives to expensive software with long learning curves. This list is by no means inclusive of everything that's out there, because between desktop and mobile, there's a whole lot to choose from. Rather it's a condensation of what I believe are the most useful and effective design tools on the market today.
FIND IT: canva.com
COST: free or $12.95 per user/mo
BEST FOR: social media images
Canva has tons of great free and low-cost templates with hundreds of images and fonts to choose from. The templates are very well-designed so you're coming out of the gates looking good. You do have to pay for the upgrade to upload your own brand assets. And if you want to use their cool magic resize to quickly and easily repurpose designs you create, you'll have to have a pro account to tap into that. But for what you get and Canva's power, upgrading to Canva for Work is worth the cost.
FIND IT: vectr.com
BEST FOR: simple drawing and opening vector files from your designer
If you ever get AI, EPS or SVG files from your designer but can't open them because you don't have Adobe Illustrator, here's where Vctr comes in. Vctr's collaboration features allow you to work with someone in tandem. This is done through a unique URL you can send someone and they can watch you create live—pretty neat! There are also web and desktop versions which should fully accommodate how and where you like to work. There are also lots of tutorials to shorten your learning curve.
Worth mentioning is another free vector graphics program called Inkscape. However, Inkscape really only works well on Windows or Linux systems. Apparently, there are work-arounds for installing on a Mac, but as a competent Mac user, I didn't have any luck. Still, it's free so it's worth checking out if you're running Windows or Linux.
FIND IT: piktochart.com
COST: free or starting at $15/month
BEST FOR: infographics
Like Canva, Picktochart has lots of ready-to-use graphics, icons, and photos. And like many of the other design tools mentioned, Picktochart uses drag-and-drop functionality to make design compilation easier. Picktochart has over 600 templates; besides those for presentations and infographics, it also includes templates for print. The main drawbacks for Picktochart is that the free version is pretty limited. In the free version, all designs include the Picktochart watermark and don't have the option to download your creations as PDFs. So really, to get the most out of Picktochart's features, you'll need to upgrade.
FIND IT: easel.ly
COST: free or $3/mo
BEST FOR: presentation graphics
While the free version is pretty limited, the upgrade is super affordable especially for what you get. Now that's what I call a pro pro! Another pro for the Pro is that the upgrade includes access to help from Easel.ly's staff designers. Now that's pretty cool and a feature unlike any other I've seen.
FIND IT: Google Apps or iTunes
BEST FOR: making crappy photos look pretty decent and great photos look smashing
Honestly, I can't believe Snapseed is free. It's like having Photoshop on your smartphone! It's my absolute favorite photo editing app. Snapseed gives you detailed editing tools like brushes and eye droppers, nice filters with the ability to manage their intensity, and ability to layer manipulations. It also gives you the option to save copies of the photo you're editing vs. automatically saving over the original. If you find yourself using a lot of self-generated photography in your company communications, Snapseed is an excellent way to up the polish on those images before you start working with them.
FIND IT: Google Apps or iTunes
BEST FOR: photo manipulation
FIND IT: gimp.org
BEST FOR: photo manipulation
GIMP has actually been around for a long time so you may already be using it. With good photo editing features, GIMP can be run as a stand-alone application or it can be used in combination with other free software like Inkscape and Scribus for a complete open source desktop design and publishing workflow when using
Adobe Photoshop Elements
FIND IT: adobe.com/products/photoshop-elements.html
COST: $100 for desktop download
BEST FOR: standard photo manipulation needs
If you find yourself yearning for Photoshop's sophistication and precision but don't need its full power, this paired down version of the mac-daddy gives you the ability to perform essential tasks like resizing, editing, clean up, etc. at a price that's much more manageable.
FIND IT: scribus.net
BEST FOR: document layout
Scribus is open-source desktop publishing software that takes you beyond what MS Word, MS Publisher, or Google Docs can do. It works well if you work in a mixed-OS environment (teammates are using a combo of Windows, Mac, and/or Linux-based machines). You can also use Scribus to open SVG and Illustrator files, and it integrates well with GIMP and Inkscape basically giving you a robust alternative to Adobe CC. There's not a lot of help or support offered on the site—not unusual in the world of open source—but you can find tutorials easily enough through a simple search online.
FIND IT: lucidpress.com
COST: free or starting at $6/mo for Basic
BEST FOR: multi-page publications like brochures, newsletters, reports, and the like
Lucidpress uses a drag-and-drop editing interface to help you easily create nice designs and page layouts. It also integrates well with standard software like MS Office and Google docs as well as exports out to popular social channels like LinkedIn and Facebook. What's also cool about Lucidpress is that it includes interactive templates for videos, slideshows, etc. With an upgrade to Lucidpress' Team subscription ($40/mo for 5 users) you'll get commenting and collaboration tools which can especially be helpful in the review and revisions phase of your designs.
Summary of free and low-cost design software and their best uses
While these tools make creating designs much easier and more affordable, they don't eliminate the need to employ basic design principles. They also can't make all the decisions for you about how well your content will reflect your customer's situations and resonate with them. But today's design applications do remove many of the technical hurdles around creating effective communications which diminishes the stress of in-house marketing efforts and enables more frequent, meaningful interactions with your customers.
Need to find artwork to go with the design software?
Get your no-frills, same-as-what-we-use list of the places that have no- and low-cost imagery and fonts ready to download for your next marketing project. All the URLs in the guide are hyperlinked so you can get right to the site and quickly find what you need.