8 Powerful & Inexpensive Desktop Design Apps

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One of the most costly and critical sets of tools for any designer is software. Settling on the right tools for the job can be daunting, given the large and ever-increasing number of design software applications out there, ranging in price from free to thousands of dollars each.

We all know who the big players are — industry standards like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, or Corel’s Draw and Painter applications. Most of us probably use these tools on a daily basis. Good software, however, doesn’t have to be expensive.

We’ve discovered some great design software that you may not have heard of — and they’re all less than $50. Are these tools as robust and powerful as their pricey counterparts? Realistically, no. But they’re still great apps, especially given their price tags (or lack thereof). If you’re working on a small budget or just looking to try something new, check out some of the programs below.

1. Sketch

Sketch is a vector drawing application for the Mac platform. With a price tag of $40, it’s the most expensive item on our list. Sketch offers a streamlined, clean workspace and a robust set of features. You get all of the basic vector drawing tools you’ve come to expect, in addition to support for things like libraries and symbols, complex path transformation tools, smart objects, grouping and multi-page documents. Sketch is no Illustrator replacement, but for lightweight vector illustrations, it’s certainly a great alternative.

Platform: Mac
Price: $40

2. RawTherapee

RawTherapee is a free tool for managing and processing RAW photos on the Linux and Windows platforms. With it, you can read and convert camera RAW photos to a variety of formats.

RawTherapee’s image-processing features include support for ICC color profiles, bookmark-able change history and a whole slew of 16-bit image processing controls for adjustments like exposure, white balance, image sharpening, shadows and highlights and contrast. You can also crop, rotate and flip images and correct for simple lens distortion, chromatic aberration and vignetting.

Platform: Linux, Windows
Price: Free

3. Opicon Font Viewer

Anyone who’s ever had to deal with large collections of fonts knows how quickly they can get out of hand. Though it’s been a while since its last release, the open-source, cross-platform Opicon Font Viewer offers a nice way to search and view fonts on Windows, Linux and Mac operating systems. With Opicon Font Viewer you can browse both installed and uninstalled fonts, mark fonts as favorites and preview fonts using your own custom preview text.

Platform: Windows, Mac
Price: Free

4. Pixelmator

Pixelmator is an image editor for the Mac operating system that’s been around for a while now, but it has generated a lot of buzz lately due to its recent success in the Mac App Store. Selling for only $59.99 (with an included free upgrade to Pixelmator 2 upon its release), this Photoshop alternative is one of the best lightweight image editors you can buy at this price.

Pixelmator has an extremely robust feature-set and a polished, familiar UI that’s easy to pick up on — it uses many Photoshop keyboard shortcuts. Pixelmator has all of the basic drawing and selection tools you would expect to find in any image editor, in addition to layers, layer groups, blending modes, retouching tools, painting and blending tools, pressure sensitivity support for graphics tablets, support for third-party filters and more.

Platform: Mac
Price: $59.99

5. Inkscape

Inkscape is a popular, open-source vector drawing application for Linux, Windows and Mac. While you won’t find more complex vector manipulation tools like Illustrator’s 3D transformations or gradient mesh tool, Inkscape does provide a solid set of vector drawing tools for shapes, paths and freehand drawing. Inkscape also offers a variety of object transmigration and manipulation tools, layers, object grouping and cloning, gradients and pattern fills, node editing and a full set of text utilities. We think Sketch is a little nicer, but for free and cross-platform, you can’t do much better than Inkscape when it comes to vector drawing software.

Platform: Linux, Windows, Mac
Price: Free

6. ArtWeaver Plus

If Pixelmator is the Mac Photoshop alternative, then ArtWeaver Plus is the Windows Photoshop alternative. Priced at just under $40 (€29), ArtWeaver Plus offers a variety of standard drawing and painting tools, crop, fill, gradients and selection tools. It also has several more advanced features, such as pen tablet support, record and playback functionality for actions, image history, layers and layer groups, many effect filters, and support for a wide selection of file types, including PSD files.

For those who want to give the program a try or can get by with reduced functionality, there’s also a free version available for download, but we think ArtWeaver Plus is definitely worth the $40 price tag. Bonus points: We were able to run the software in Linux under Wine without issue.

Platform: Windows
Price: €29 (approx. $40)

7. MyPantone Palette

From the folks at Pantone, MyPantone Palette is a Windows and Mac utility for creating, organizing, browsing and sharing color palettes. The tool itself is free, but it does require registration to the Pantone website (also free), since it ties into its web API for palette sharing and indexing.

This is a fun and useful tool, handy for both web and print designers alike. Use it to create color palettes or browse palettes created by others when seeking inspiration for your next project.

Platform: Windows, Mac
Price: Free (requires free registration)

8. Scribus

Scribus is a free, open-source page layout program for Linux, Windows and Mac. A professional quality desktop publishing tool for print designers, Scribus can handle all of your pre-press needs and has been touted as a suitable alternative to Quark Express and InDesign.

In active development since 2001, Scribus boasts a clean, modern UI and offers features such as advanced color management, spot color separation and support for ICC color profiles. In addition to pre-press preparation and page layout, Scribus also has flexible, powerful PDF creation capabilities. More advanced users can take advantage of the Scribus API to create scripts to handle automated tasks using the Python programming language.

Platform: Linux, Windows, Mac
Price: Free


There is a lot of great software out there for designers. Prices range from zero to upwards of a few thousand dollars, but not all great software has to be expensive. We’ve highlighted a few of our favorite sub-$50 programs here, and they’re great for students, designers on a budget and those who want to try something new. Let us know what your favorite design applications are in the comments below.

Series Supported by VMware Fusion

The Cross-Platform Apps Series is supported by VMware Fusion. Built by Mac users for Mac users from day one, VMware Fusion 3 is the best way to run Windows on a Mac without rebooting. With a built-in PC Migration agent, it’s easier than ever to bring your entire PC to your Mac. With VMware Fusion 3.1, you can run you Windows apps like Mac apps using the most reliable Windows-on-Mac platform. Key features of VMware Fusion include:

  • Ultimate Windows 7 Experience. VMware Fusion is the first to enable the full Windows 7 experience, complete with Windows Aero and Flip 3D.
  • Switching Made Easy. VMware Fusion is the fastest way for users to bring their entire PC to their Mac without the added cost of a one-time use cable.
  • More Mac-Like than Ever. Run Windows applications like Mac applications with features like an “always-on” applications menu to find and launch Windows apps, even when VMware Fusion isn’t launched.

Users of previous versions of VMware Fusion or any version of Parallels Desktop for Mac can take advantage of upgrading to VMware Fusion 3 for a limited time promotion of only $19.99! This offer expires on March 15, 2011, so act now!

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Image courtesy of Flickr, David Salafia

More About: ArtWeaver Plus, Cross-Platform Apps Series, Inkscape, Linux, mac, MyPantone Palette, Opicon Font Viewer, pixelmator, RawTherapee, Scribus, sketch, web design, Windows

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