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Illustrator, Affinity Designer, or Sketch: Which is Best for Icon Design?

We have spent the past 5 weeks reviewing Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer, and Sketch for icon designers. We compared identical tasks in each application and our reviewers offered their individual opinions based on creating a series of icons with each tool.

From the beginning of this series, however, we have maintained that our objective is not to tell readers which is the best application for the job – in our case icon design – nor tell readers which application they should use. We are purveyors of information that we hope is useful in helping icon designers become better and more productive at their craft. We leave judgments about which software is best to the reader to explore and decide for himself or herself.

This would not be much of a software review, however, if we did not offer some conclusions and opinions on the products being reviewed. We would like to avoid, however, appearing to endorse any one product over another or appearing to give an authoritative opinion on the goodness or badness of any of the products.

Articles in this Series

  1. Introduction & Overview
  2. Adobe Illustrator Review
  3. Affinity Designer 1.5 Beta Review
  4. Sketch Review 2016
  5. Conclusions

A Survey of Iconfinder Users

We took a survey of Iconfinder users recently and asked what tools they use for icon design. The results are depicted in the chart below.

Vector Software Usage Chart

In 2013 we took a similar survey (though not identical) and the results were quite a bit different. The number of respondents using each tool in 2013 are shown in the table below. Respondents where asked, “What is your preferred software for designing”? There were 450 responses to the survey.

Softare Users (from among respondents)
Adobe Photoshop 325 (72.22%)
Adobe Illustrator 45 (10%)
Gimp 9 (2%)
Sketch 8 (1.7%)
Affinity Designer* 0
* Affinity Designer was not released until autumn of 2014

The change in results in just 3 years are quite significant. Adobe’s marketshare among Iconfinder designers has dropped from 82% in 2013 to about 50% in 2016. Sketch’s marketshare in 2013 was only 2% but has increase ten-fold in only 3 years. Affinity Designer had not yet been released when we took our original survey so it is to be expected that their marketshare is still small after only 2 years on the scene, but if “the word on the street” is any indicator, they are gaining ground very quickly.

In the rest of the article we list, by software package, what we love about each and what we think each vendor can do better, based on our own opinions and those from other icon designers in our community.

Adobe Illustrator

aiIllustrator is not perfect, but is very powerful. It’s natural, that after many years working with it, one gets used to its flaws and learns ways to work around the limitations and bugs. One of the issues that poses a particular challenge to icon designers is the limitation to 100 artboards. With the addition of Export for Screens in Illustrator CC 2015.3, the artboard limitation is even more frustrating because the full feature set needed by icon designers is almost, but not quite, in place.
What we love about Illustrator:

  1. Export for Screens
  2. Universal compatibility & widespread use
  3. Wide array of vector tools
  4. Lots of Third Party Plugins
  5. Very large community of users for knowledge sharing
  6. Can be automated with JavaScript Extension (JSX)

What the Illustrator team can improve:

  1. Better performance
  2. Disable “Align New Objects To Grid” by default
  3. Unlimited number of artboards
  4. Artboard-specific grid sizes
  5. Snap to half-pixels
  6. Do not group trimmed or divided shapes in Pathfinder
  7. Maintain styling after Trim or Divide functions in Pathfinder
  8. Native Smart Erase Tool and Path Extend Tool
  9. Zoom on selection not document center
  10. Copy Affinity Designer’s “Save Change History” feature
  11. More personal engagement with users
  12. Price – $19.99/mo. subscription price might be tough for freelance designers

Affinity Designer

afAffinity Designer welcomes you with a clean UI which is, although different, very familiar. You need some time to get used to, which is normal, but you shouldn’t feel lost at any time. Affinity Designer is a great vector drawing tool. Combined with excellent export options and limitless artboards, it is – in my eyes – a serious alternative to Illustrator.

What we love about Affinity Designer

  1. The Pen Tool is second-to-none
  2. Very clean User Interface
  3. Split View rocks
  4. Export Personas are great especially in conjunction with slices, grids, and continuous export
  5. Snapping works extremely well
  6. Custom Grids are very useful and well designed
  7. Saving Change History with the document
  8. Very engaged with and responsive to users
  9. Price – $49 for a perpetual license

What Serif Labs can improve

  • A feature like Astute Graphics’s Smart Remove Brush
  • Add a Scale Tool
  • Use more keyboard commands for the most common tasks
  • Convert paths to guides
  • Add a Direct Select tool

Sketch

sketchWith Sketch it’s different. It has a nice skinned-down clean UI, but also takes way more time to get used to. If you don’t want to learn all the shortcuts for the tools, you should definitely not hesitate to customize the toolbars the way you want. It can be frustrating with the default layout. Infinite canvas may be a great feature, but could also make you feel lost, if you’re used to tools that are based on a fixed document size.

What we love about Sketch

  • Batch Export is exceptional
  • Unlimited Artboards are very useful
  • Infinite canvas
  • Artboard-specific grid settings
  • Very clean user interface
  • Very good engagement with users
  • Hybrid Subscription/Perpetual License equal to $8.25/mo. with 1 year of free upgrades is very reasonably priced.

What the Sketch Team can improve

  1. Fix the SVG exports related to strokes aligned inside and outside paths (must-fix)
  2. “Close path” with Vector Tool by clicking on starting point
  3. Allow snapping to half-pixels when moving and resizing
  4. Add a Direct Selection tool for selecting curves or nodes
  5. Split node feature
  6. Join Points without merging them into a single point
  7. More keyboard shortcuts and better accessibility to frequently used tools
  8. Add a Navigator panel
  9. Copy Affinity Designer’s “Save Change History” feature
  10. Use Command + Space bar for zooming

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Conclusion

There is no question that all three applications can be used quite well for creating vector icons, but Adobe Illustrator still has an edge over Affinity Designer and Sketch, primarily for the maturity of its tools and for the third party plugins such as VectorScribe from Astute Graphics. However, Affinity Designer and Sketch outperform Illustrator in a few key areas that we have discussed in both this article, and the individual reviews.

Affinity Designer will be especially attractive to the icon designer or illustrator just starting out without the heavy knowledge investment in Illustrator, based on price, maturity, performance, and responsiveness to users. While we loved working with Sketch and the Sketch Team, as an icon design tool, it is not quite as easy-to-use as the other two applications. However, as we stated in the Sketch review, we don’t think it is an apples-to-apples comparison because Sketch’s core competency is user interface design.

In the course of our reviews, we were in close contact with the product and development teams from all products. What we found was more similarities than differences between the people who make each product. All three teams were very engaged, keenly interested in the experiences – especially the negative experiences – of our community of designers and ourselves, and very passionate about producing the best products for users. Each team was also surprisingly aware and forthcoming about issues in their respective products as well. We encourage you to reach out to all three teams and to try all three products.

Please respond to the survey below and join the conversation by commenting below.

What is your preferred vector software?

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21 Comments

  1. As a old FreeHand user I was forced to use Illustrator.
    The subscription’s model of Adobe has no flexibility. A lot of passions FreeHand users are using right now Affinity Designer.
    And is so easy to know why…

    Clean interface, lot of power for old machines, an arsenal that is not complete but very flexible and powerful and all is enveloped in a very attractive price. If we add Photo and the next Publisher, I think old dinosaurs must find a good place to hide the big rock that is flying above its heads…

    • I’m not ready to predict Illustrator’s demise just yet. Affinity Designer has only been around for 2 years and there is much left for them to accomplish. I have high hopes for the product and have no doubt they are here to stay and prove worthy competition for Illustrator, but I think it would be very bad for designers if Illustrator ever did go away. The best result for designers is more competition, which will drive better innovation from everyone.

      I will refrain from a FreeHand-related debate. I recognize that FreeHand had and has a lot of very loyal followers and can respect that. But debates of that sort are purely subjective and completely fruitless, albeit highly entertaining.

    • I’m curious why you would need to paste into Sketch to export. Illustrator has batch export in multiple sizes and formats and it works very well. As far as I can tell, it was modeled on Sketch’s export functionality. There really isn’t that much difference between the feature in all three apps. Affinity Designer’s continuous export is very nice, though.

    • Thanks, Aleksandr. You should reach out to the Sketch team. Great group of people and they are very interested in what users and potential users have to say. I don’t have any first-hand knowledge, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a Windows version is on the road map.

  2. Interesting articles – thanks. I’m a UI/UX designer who occasionally designs his own icons and also does some vector illustration from time to time for unrelated purposes. Sketch is a great (though not perfect) piece of software for UI/UX and I use Affinity Designer for other vector work. What’s interesting to me though is why I am using these pieces of software… Adobe’s move to the perpetual licence killed any desire I had to continue using their software (which I had been for 20+ years). I moved to Sketch soon afterwards and later incorporated Affinity Designer. While I still have my copies of CS6, I basically never use them anymore. I think Adobe made a calculated mistake in switching models and looking at even your numbers would support their declining user base (even if perhaps their revenues are up (for now)). They’re still a behemoth like Microsoft but there are serious chinks in their armour now – and I’m glad they made that change now because I feel it’s opened up the market in a way that might not have happened!

  3. I took the plunge and decided to get rid of Illustrator and Photoshop and find that I can do enough (if not more!) with Affinity Designer. There are some minor kinks along the way, but it’s worth putting the time in to learn AD’s idiosyncrasies. The integration between pixel and vector is quite amazing, and a welcome innovation.

    I used to be obsessed with Freehand — it really had everything for me regarding vector art and DTP (it was essentially my Illustrator + InDesign). After Adobe effectively shuttered it, I begrudgingly had to use Illustrator and InDesign. Thankfully Affinity Designer has allowed me to move away from Illustrator, and I’m hoping in the future to even put InDesign to bed too.

  4. Affinity photo est vraiment sur la bonne voix il faut qu il intègre un genre Lightroom est le tour est jouer….. fini d être pris pour une vache à lait…..Par Adobe et Compagnie….

  5. Adobe Illustrator to create print material, but, some tools is very difficult to adjust, like gradient tool, transparent masks, etc. I used sketch but the problem with compatibility… (totally incompatible with Adobe Package).
    Affinity Designer is amazing, the performance is a great point and personalize grids is very easy and useful. In the last beta, the new tools like symbols and export options (1x, 2x, etc) make migrate to it.

  6. As an occasional user of Illustrator (and to a lesser degree Photoshop) mainly to create scientific posters and simple scientific illustrations, I have been pleasantly surprised to find Affinity Designer. Illustrator and Affinity Designer both offer capabilities that are a huge overkill for many users including me so either will work fine. Adobe’s subscription pricing is just unreasonable for people who only use the software occasionally.

  7. I did and use Illustrator for print design for some time and was glad to see similar shortcuts and tools in Affinity Designer which helps a lot to switch over. It actually the first vector app for me that can help me switch from Illustrator to some alternative. From time to time I do still use AI CS6 (don’t plan to subscribe for new version) for some occasional print design, but as much as it possible prefer to use Affinity Designer.

    What I do like in AD
    • nice and clean UI
    • how smoothly it works, don’t take a lot of resources.
    • very rich text/character tools (thanks for ability to change character kerning, not much graphic apps allow to do it beside Adobe apps. Recently Sketch also finally get this)
    • rich ability to export
    • ability to open many graphic formats
    • precise tools for positioning
    • and many other things that make me feel good when working in the app

    What I do miss:
    • merge tool (for path operations, it helps me often to clean up the path after importing some graphics from Corel or working with complex path)
    • direct point tool as mentioned in article
    • transform effects (where I can easily add, move, rotate and scale the object)
    • when I try to copy style from one object to another with drop tool it not working as aspected. AD do not copy all object style (color/gradient fill, stroke, font type etc but only color point I do click on). Maybe I do not know how to use it.
    • appearance panel where I can easily add and manipulate with stroke and fill
    • convert vector to guide is also usefull for me

  8. I will refrain from a FreeHand-related debate. I recognize that FreeHand had and has a lot of very loyal followers and can respect that. But debates of that sort are purely subjective and completely fruitless, albeit highly entertaining.