Illustration is a big trend in 2021. Every designer should have some ability to illustrate, whether that’s producing icons, creating lettering, mocking up layouts, or crafting full-blown illustrations.
Designers’ workflows are as varied as their work, and one designer’s favorite tool is a frustrating mess to the next designer. Most design apps have a free trial, so it’s worth trying out a few before committing.
Counting down to the best illustration app for designers in 2021, all of the apps on this list are worthy of at least a second glance:
Vectr is a simple vector design tool. It is heavily geared towards layout and even product design. It’s difficult to use it for many illustration jobs, but simple icon and UI creation are possible. It scrapes into our top ten thanks to the fact that it’s free to use.
Paper is a sketching app developed by WeTransfer. It grabs number nine in our top ten thanks to its simplified interface that is perfect for generating ideas. It may not be the most flexible app, but it’s free to download, making illustration accessible to anyone with an iOS device.
We love the fact that there’s someone out there producing a professional-grade artwork app for free. Inkscape is available for GNU/Linux, Windows, and macOS. If you’re interested in exploring this design area without signing up for a subscription or buying an iPad, Inkscape is a great place to start.
Assembly is another app that’s dependent on the transition of illustrators from desktop machines to mobile devices and is available for iOS. Assembly does things a little differently; instead of manipulating boolean curves, Assembly builds illustrations out of shapes. If you’re someone who thinks they can’t draw (spoiler alert: everyone can draw), this is the app for you.
It’s a shock low-rating for Sketch, the highly popular product design app doesn’t make it out of the bottom half of our list. The reason for the lower ranking? Sketch is an incredible design app, but its greater investment in prototyping features has come at the cost of drawing innovation. It’s still a great choice for crisp icon design, but it’s not flexible enough to take a higher spot in our list.
If you’re getting the impression that design apps are mostly for macOS or iOS, then you’d not be alone. CorelDRAW Graphics Suite is one of the few that began its life on Windows before being rebuilt for Mac. CorelDRAW is a premium option, but like Adobe’s offering, it is a suite of tools that cover everything you’ll need to create any form of design work you could ever need.
Moving closer to the top spot, Vectornator is an up-and-coming tool. Like many other apps further up our chart, Vectornator does a lot more than simply illustration. Its underlying tools provide a solid foundation for a flexible set of tools that you can use for any artwork. Vectornator does an awful lot, awfully well.
Procreate is one of the finest apps on this list, thanks in main to its incredible brush studio; being able to edit the marks you make is essential for any expressive artwork. Procreate enables expressive illustration, typography, and simple sketches. The only downside to this app is that it’s iOS only; if available on more platforms, it might have been even further up the list.
2. Adobe Illustrator
That’s right; we don’t think design giant Adobe’s illustration app Illustrator is worthy of the number one spot.
Illustrator is an excellent tool and arguably deserves to be considered Adobe’s flagship product. Since Adobe relented and allowed individual app subscriptions, it is also reasonably priced. It does everything you could want in an illustration app, from designing icons to creating original artwork.
So why not the top spot? It wasn’t so much that Illustrator fell down anywhere, as a different app pipped it to the post…
1. Affinity Designer
The best app for illustration in 2021 is Affinity Designer. We’ve been fans since its first beta version, and we’ve watched it go from underdog to champion.
On top of being an excellent vector app, Designer is comfortable with raster graphics. Although it certainly can’t compete with Photoshop (Affinity built Photo for that), Designer is more than adequate for many image tasks, making it a great all-around design app. Designer was also the first design app to support macOS’ new M1 chip natively.
The knockout blow is that Affinity Designer is available as a desktop app and an iOS app; the two apps have minor differences in their interfaces; what matters is that both apps use the exact same file format. You can seamlessly switch between desktop, iPad, and back to desktop, taking advantage of the precision of a mouse and the expression of a stylus.
It’s this kind of flexibility that bends Affinity Designer to your workflow instead of the other way around, and that’s why it’s top of our list.
Ben Moss is Senior Editor at WebdesignerDepot. He’s designed and coded work for award-winning startups, and global names including IBM, UBS, and the FBI. One of these days he’ll run a sub-4hr marathon. Say hi on Twitter.