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How do Affinity Designer and Sketch Compare to Adobe Illustrator in 2016

Two years after our in-depth comparison of Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer, and Sketch, it appears that Adobe has taken notice of its two major challengers and has incorporated some key features previously only seen in Sketch and Affinity Designer. By the same token, it appears that Sketch and Affinity Designer have been influenced by some of the stronger points and, in Sketch’s case the subscription model, of Adobe Illustrator.

Given the changes to all three applications over the past two years, it is worth revisiting the comparison and ask the question again, “Can Sketch and Affinity Designer Replace Illustrator”?

Articles in this Series

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

Feedback, Criticism, and Responses from the Vendors

This review should not be seen as a one-way conversation. We encourage you to follow this 5-part series and to join the discussion in the comments. The makers of each of these applications are listening, and our original review generated a lot of debate, some heated criticism (some deserved and some not), and some very positive responses and direct engagement with users from Serif Labs, who makes Affinity Designer, and Adobe. Now is the time to have your say, directly to the makers of each software product.

illustratorAdobe Illustrator

After our original review, we were contacted by the Adobe Illustrator team and asked to collect feature suggestions and criticisms from several icon designers. The main changes that icon designers wanted to see to Adobe Illustrator were the ability to export in multiple sizes and formats at the same time, similar to the same feature in Sketch. Another major change that was requested was the removal of the arbitrary 100-artboard limit. And finally, icon designers requested improvements to the Align to Pixel Grid feature.

The Export for Screens feature was added to Adobe Illustrator CC 2015.3. The Illustrator team also currently has other features in beta that will significantly affect the icon designer’s workflow. Additionally, Illustrator has added a 10-fold increase to the zoom feature from 6,400% to 64,000%. Not quite as fine-grained as Affinity Designer’s 1,000,000% zoom but an improvement nonetheless.

Affinity Designer

Serif Labs, who makes Affinity Designer, already has a great reputation for interaction between their entire team and users via their user forums, as well as the best reputation among the three vendors for their responsiveness to users’ requests. The major updates to Affinity Designer over the past 2 years have focused on improved performance, Export Personas, and some really great features such as Continuous Export and automatic export in @3X size. Serif Labs has also added improved import and export for a wide variety of common formats including PSD, PDF, AI, EPS, SVG, and Freehand.

sketchSketch

Bohemian Coding has also introduced numerous improvements since our last review. Among the most notable for icon designers are enhancements to performance and rendering. A common issue encountered by icon designers using Sketch are related to SVG exports. In our review of Sketch later in this series we will take an in-depth look at the more than 10 improvements reported by Bohemian Coding to the SVG exports in versions 3.4, 3.6, and 3.7.

Just the Facts (as much as possible)

As any software developer or UX designer knows, software use is not a hard science. What one user considers easy, another user might find somewhat more difficult. Every user of any software brings with them their own experiences, paradigms, and assumptions, which influence how they interact with the software. However, in order to make the review as objective and unbiased as possible, we have outlined the following parameters for the reviews:

  1. We will have two reviewers.

    We have agreed upon the review criteria ahead of time, but each of us will work independently and come to our own conclusions without input from the other. The reviewers are Scott Lewis a.k.a Iconify, who is the Head of Content for Iconfinder, and Gašper Vidovič a.k.a, Picons. Both are professional icon designers. The reviewers will offer opinions but those opinions are their own, not those of Iconfinder as a company, and opinions will be clearly formatted as such.

  2. Each vendor will have an opportunity to fact-check our statements.

    Vendors will be allowed to offer suggestions about how to best complete the evaluation tasks using their respective products. They will be able to offer factual corrections and suggestions prior to publication, but our opinions are our own and will not be influenced by any of the vendors.

  3. Iconfinder is not being compensated by the vendors.

    Iconfinder has no financial or other material interest in any of the three products we are reviewing. We have been given beta access to Adobe Illustrator but we pay full price for our Creative Cloud subscriptions. Gašper, who is a professional icon designer and paid consultant, has been given a free license key to Affinity Designer by Serif Labs for purposes of this review and to provide feedback to Serif Labs.

  4. 5-part Review Series

    The review will consist of five parts including this introduction, a separate review of each application, and a follow-up article to summarize our conclusions as well as provide statements from each of the software vendors.

    1. Introduction & Overview
    2. Adobe Illustrator Review
    3. Affinity Designer Review
    4. Sketch3 Review
    5. Conclusions
  5. Users Chose the Review Order

    We will review Adobe Illustrator first, not out of preference, but because they are the incumbent in the vector software market and have the largest user base. The order of the reviews was selected to provide the most timely and helpful insight to the readers. The order was also based on the clear preferences of readers as expressed in the comments on the original review.

  6. These Are Not The Only Options

    There are certainly other options for working with vectors that we have omitted including Inkscape and CorelDRAW, among others. We have chosen not to review these applications for three main reasons: demand, space and time limitations, and cross-platform compatibility. Inkscape is cross-platform (Mac, Linux, and Windows) but does not have nearly as large a user base as the three we are reviewing. CorelDRAW has a very loyal following but is no longer supported for Mac, which greatly limits its appeal to professional designers and illustrators whom tend to be Mac users. We have provided links to many other options at the end of this introduction.

  7. Make Up Your Own Minds

    These reviews should be seen as a starting point only. It is not our objective to tell you which product is “best” or which one to use. You should download the trial version of each product and try it yourself. We are reviewing the software in question from a very specific use case – Icon design – in order to help inform our designers and site users about the three major vector design products. To quote the Oracle from the movie The Matrix Revolutions, “[We] expect what [we’ve] always expected, for you to make up your own damn mind”.

Review Criteria and Scope

The purpose of this review is to provide useful information to our site users, who are primarily graphic designers and app developers, and our designers who sell icons on our marketplace. The scope of our review is limited to a specific use case: icon design.

All three of the applications being evaluated are far too complex and have far too many features to do a full point-by-point comparison. Such a comparison would also be impossible since each application isn’t really identical in its core competencies. In order to do a comparison that is useful, we must limit our scope to something that is manageable in the space we have.

The scope of our comparison will be limited to the design process, workflow, and export preparation of the typical icon designer. Even the phrase, the typical icon designer, is somewhat ambiguous, but we have chosen review criteria that most designers are likely to use when authoring the kinds of icons that are popular at the time of this writing: Glyph (solid) icons, line icons, color-filled line icons, and flat icons as depicted from left-to-right in the image below.

Figure 01 - icon design styles

We have identified the following criteria for a meaningful comparison. There is no doubt that some readers will believe that we have omitted some criteria, even self-evident criteria. But it should be noted that the purpose is not to be exhaustive, only to cover enough of the criteria to be useful. As with any purchasing decision, the user should take responsibility for their own needs, download and evaluate the respective products, and draw their own conclusions. This article is only to help you get started, not to do the work for you.

The Review Criteria

  1. Setting up custom grids
  2. Working with paths (The Pen Tool)
    • Positioning points
    • Manipulating Curves
    • Joining line points and line segments
    • Closing paths
    • Removing unwanted points
  3. Working with strokes (size, end caps, etc.)
  4. Aligning to guides, grids, paths, anchors, and pixels
  5. Shape operations like unite, exclude, trimming
  6. Precision control and navigating within a document including zoom
  7. Pixel preview mode
  8. Batch export functionality
  9. Responsiveness to Customer feedback

The first review, Adobe Illustrator, will be published on Wednesday August 17, 2016. Subsequent reviews will be posted each following Wednesday.

As always, feel free to make suggestions, criticisms, or any other feedback in the comments below.

See Also:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_vector_graphics_editors
  2. http://www.creativebloq.com/illustrator/alternative-to-illustrator-1131664

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19 Comments

    • Hi Alex,

      Thanks for suggesting Gravit. Unfortunately, we only have limited space and decided to focus on the main two competitors at the current time. But hopefully readers will check out Gravit and decide for themselves which tool fits their needs best.

      Thanks,
      Scott

    • Yeah, we would definitely leave out some interesting applications. However, Illustrator, Sketch and Affinity designer are the most popular apps at the moment.

      We might do some more reviews in a new series and include Xara Designer.

    • Hi Chris,

      I understand. Xara was definitely on our radar but our focus is on icon designers whom are overwhelmingly Mac users. This 5-part review is a massive amount of work with just the 3 top applications. We had to limit ourselves to what is manageable for one series but I think we will likely do a review of some of the less well-known alternatives. It’s really just a matter of how much time we can devote to a project like this (7 weeks total) and still balance it with running a tech startup.

      Cheers,
      Scott

  1. First off I would like to say awesome blog! I had a quick question in which
    I’d like to ask if you don’t mind. I was curious to know how you
    center yourself and clear your mind before writing.
    I have had trouble clearing my mind in getting my thoughts out.

    I truly do take pleasure in writing but it just seems like the first 10
    to 15 minutes are usually wasted just trying to figure out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips?

    Thank you!

    • Hi Krista. That is a very good question and I will tell you what helped me when I was first starting out. Every article I write I have terrible anxiety about starting. But there is a wonderful book by Ann Lamott called “Bird-by-Bird”. In the book she talks about writing “the shitty first draft”. For me, “letting go of preciousness” as artist (and friend) Noah Scalin says about creativity is key. Your first draft will suck. You will throw most of it away. But like priming a hose that has been lying in the summer sun, you get the hot, undrinkable water out of the way so you can drink the cold, clean water.

      I hope that helps.
      Scott

  2. Very Mac centered.
    There’s an old quarrel a bit ridiculous between Mac and Windows users. But facts are facts: there are more Windows users than Mac, period.
    First reason: hardware. Mac machines are ridiculously more expensive than PCs, and their performance are not impressive.
    But there’s another important reason: customers are all on PC. Why expose to compatibility problems when it’s preventable. Maybe in the United States or Europe they are insignificant details, but I can assure you that in a developing country like Mexico, for example, it’s a fundamental problem.
    So Mac, forget it.
    Sketch might be a great product, I don’t know. Affinity now that they have decided to launch a Windows version, proves that it’s an absolutely viable product on the market, thank you for that. But the reality is that the only alternatives to AI are Corel and Inkscape. Xara is interesting, but Inkscape offers just about the same for a price… ok, it’s free.

    So even though I enjoy reading your article, in the end I don’t feel involved. There’s a kind of snobbery about Mac users, which continues to be a mystery to me. I’m a designer for 35 years now and I have never, nor a minute, considered buying a Mac. It’s simply too high investment; did you see softwares prices?

    To summarize: All this is very pretty, but Sketch will always remain, if they continue in the same direction, a confidential product inside Mac bubble. Ai and Affinity are, actually, the two you can compare, Sketch must be avoided.

    • This is the way of the design world.

      If you have been designing for 35 years, this cannot be the first time you have run in to it. I have been in the design world for about half that, mostly on Windows, and I can tell you that many, many times I saw what looked to be great software be locked away on Mac.

      The fact is that while Windows users outstrip Apple users in the consumer market, the same has never been true for the design user. Designers – and their apps – have always been Mac first, with those folks on Windows being the poor stepchild.

      Is it fair? Probably not. Does it potentially leave out lots of users? Maybe. But Affinity and Sketch seem to be doing just fine without those folks, which goes to show how prevalent Mac users are in the design world.

      • egiova & Sean,

        I understand the frustration but I’m afraid I will have to decline to get involved in a Mac vs. PC debate. I will leave that to readers to hash out.

        We have been very clear from the first article in 2014 to this one that we are reviewing the software from a very specific use case: icon design. One can write an entire book on the ins-and-outs of each application but doing an exhaustive review isn’t our intent.

        We are a premium icon marketplace. Our customers are mostly web and mobile app designers/developers and our vendors are exclusively icon designers. I am a professional icon designer, software engineer, and writer. My job at Iconfinder is to build the inventory on the site by working with the design community to attract the best icon designers and help them sell more icons. The article is geared towards the design community which, as Sean pointed out, is overwhelmingly Mac-centered. Obviously not every designer is a Mac user but the market is dominated by Mac. There really isn’t much that our blog can do about that and we are at the mercy of the market. If I spend 7 weeks writing a 5-part review series that only appeals to less than 25% of my target audience – designers – that is a huge expense for a very small return. At the end of the day, we are a tech startup, not a magazine.

        I’m sorry that we can’t meet everyone’s needs but it simply isn’t possible to address every angle and every alternative. We have to target the largest segment of our target audience – who are predominantly Mac users.

        Kind Regards,
        Scott Lewis
        Head of Content/Sr. Developer
        Iconfinder.com

  3. That’s not the logo for Illustrator CC. It’s a hacky knock-off of the logo for Illustrator CS6 which is several years out of date now.

  4. As a long time Photoshop and Illustrator users like many others, I am very disappointed about Adobe’s subscription model, leading the company to slow down innovative updates and important bug fixes.

    Illustrator and Photoshop performance got worse in every update (even with the GPU acceleration in Illustrator). Adobe even killed a great workflow and discontinued Cloud Extract, just to implement it into Photoshop (HEY ADOBE: DEVELOPERS DONT WANT TO USE PHOTOSHOP!)

    And while Sketch is great (although limited and also not very performant) they are killing their success with being Mac exclusive. Again: The world is using windows, unlike 99% of the people in San Francisco or London.

    And now to my very favorite newcomer: Affinity Designer. It’s refreshing, it’s performant, it’s innovative (constraints!), the developers are listening (do you hear @Adobe!?). There’s a new beta coming out EVERY week!!!

    Affinity designer even has an almost perfect PSD export (for use in Zeplin or Avocode) just unlike Illustrator, where I had to fiddle out a workflow for weeks just to be able to export non layered PSDs, but even then I lost layer effects, fill colors, gradients, and so on. Pretty useless for the devs.

    Hell, I’d pay a thousand dollars for Affinity Designer instead of renewing my Adobe subscription. But Affinity Designer only costs 49$. 😉

    So for me, I am using mostly Affinity Designer along with Sketch for some external projects. Oh, and did I mention Affinity Photo? Bye Photoshop!

    • Thanks for the input. I can assure you the developers from Sketch, Affinity Designer (Serif Labs), and Adobe are reading these comments. FWIW, unlike the stereotypes of Adobe and the dev team, they have been fantastic and are way more interested in what users have to say than people give them credit for. ALL of the vendors have been very engaged in this review and we have had a great dialog with all of them. The problem is that Adobe has millions of users whereas Sketch and Affinity Designer do not. It is a lot easier to be engaged on a one-on-one level when you are small. At the rate Serif Labs is going in terms of popularity, they will have their own problems soon enough. It’s just a reality. Illustrator is also far more complex than either Sketch or Affinity Designer. That isn’t an endorsement or indictment towards any of the vendors. Comparing the three apps isn’t apples-to-apples.

      My biggest takeaway from writing this series is that the people who make all of these products are just like me. They do what they love and work on something they care deeply about. Sketch and Affinity Designer deserve all of the praise they get and then some. But I learned from my interactions with the Illustrator team that they don’t deserve anywhere near the outright bashing they get and deserve a lot more credit than they get. They still /are/ the benchmark, after all.

      • I should also add that all of these applications are always “works-in-progress”. Serif Labs is working on a Windows version of Affinity Designer. If I am not mistaken, Serif Labs was primarily a Windows software shop before the release of AD but chose to go with Mac OS X for Affinity Designer because while 99% of the world may be using Windows, 99% of the design world uses Mac. It would be business suicide to release a Windows-only design app. Case in point, CorelDRAW. I’m told it is a fantastic design app, and even though it has a very loyal following, it has a very tiny slice of the market share because, as a general rule, designers do not use Windows. Yes, some designers use Windows, but the vast majority do not. Windows owns the business computing market, but Apple owns the design market.

  5. Affinity Designer has replaced both Sketch and Illustrator for me. It keeps getting better and the constraints panel is a game changer for designing UI. There is nothing else like it in any other app.