An Adobe Illustrator fan are you? But not really happy with Adobe’s cloud pricing model? Your options to find something at least as powerful as Illustrator CC-whatever are very limited. Finding something that’s equally useful as CS3 is even going to get you a headache. Until you discover and try out Affinity Designer. Then you’ll discover Illustrator is not the only Walhalla in Designer Universe.
If you’re familiar with Astute Graphics’s products, you’ll feel right at home in Affinity Designer. In contrast to Illustrator without Astute Graphics plug-ins, Affinity Designer is a real OS X application with almost all the features Adobe Illustrator has, and some others Illustrator lacks. Unique about Affinity Designer is its precision (sub-pixel precision, to be precise), its real-time pixel preview, its 1 million zoom factor capability and its inclusion of the superior Lanczos 3 image resampling algorithm. It’s also the only Illustrator challenger with full support for colour management and a full range of export formats.
But let’s start with Affinity Designer’s interface, which is beautiful and much more user-friendly and intuitive than Illustrator’s. While the latter is still making up its mind whether it wants to be a Windows or a Mac app, Affinity Designer makes good use of all the capabilities OS X “Mavericks” offers. For example, Retina design is fully supported with that high sub-pixel accuracy.
Affinity Designer is organised around what at first seems like a confusing usage concept of two different modes and three different “personas”. The two different modes are vector drawing with the associated Draw Persona and bitmap mode with the associated Pixel Persona. The third Persona is the Export Persona. This looks odd at first, but it’s only a mildly inefficient way of translating the different modes and usage scenarios you’ll be switching between when working with Affinity Designer. It becomes clear and simple to understand after having spent 15 minutes with the app as well.
In Draw Persona mode you put on your hat of vector drawing artist as you design entirely as you’re used to with Illustrator, creating vector graphics that scale endlessly. In fact, you may interpret ‘endlessly’ literally as the zoom functionality goes to a whopping 1 million — 1,000,000 — percent. Perhaps not very useful to zoom in that far on any artwork, but it shows the kind of power and accuracy the developers have been aiming for.
In Pixel Persona mode you switch hats and make freehand, shape and brush based selections and strokes. Retouching photographs can be done here as well. The Export Persona is the you exporting your artwork in any of the formats supported by Affinity Designer, which includes PDF, SVG, GIF, TIFF and more. Switching Personas is one toolbar-button-click away. Each Persona has its own tools and the interface adjusts itself accordingly.
The application is tablet and multi-touch aware. Drawing and painting with an Intuos 5 was a pleasure as you can set the sensitivity of specific brush parameters to any of the tablet’s inputs — velocity, pressure, etc. The application is also fully colour-managed and knows CMYK, RGB, LAB, and other colour modes — something other Illustrator “challengers” like DrawIt are clueless about. This, by the way, turns Affinity Designer into a ‘real’ graphics program instead of the “graphics light” rubbish the others stop at — after all, much of your artwork will end up printed, even in these days of tablets.
Nevertheless, Affinity Designer does also know about tablets — better even than Illustrator CS6 — as well as Web and even Photography. It has different document settings for each of these environments as well.
Using Affinity Designer vs. Illustrator
When you’re used to working with Illustrator, Affinity Designer will take a couple of minutes to get used to, but if you have them, you’ll realise its interface behaves much like Illustrator with the Astute Graphics plug-ins installed. In view of the huge success Astute Graphics is having, I conclude many people will like Affinity Designer’s way of working right out-of-the-box.
For example, curve nodes can be manipulated using the control points but also the lines in-between control points. Or take the curve mode: you decide how a curve actually looks and you’re not forced into believing Bézier curves are the Holy Grail, as they are not. All of these options are readily available from the toolbar or a context menu. Some commands, like join paths, are on the context menu and nowhere else (at least, I didn’t find it anywhere else).
Affinity Designer also delivers more intuitive design in many areas. Take gradients. Illustrator’s gradient and mesh tools look clumsy when compared to the gradient and transparency gradient tool of Affinity — the latter are much simpler to work with while allowing you the same flexibility supporting your design prowess at least as good.
Layers can also have adjustments such as white balance, HSL, vibrancy. In Illustrator those adjustments require Astute Graphics’s Phantasm plug-in to be installed.
Although Affinity Designer is still weaker than Illustrator in some areas, in most areas where it really matters it’s light years ahead. In evaluating the application, we must not forget Illustrator is a very mature program, whereas Affinity Designer is a freshman only just graduating from college. However, it has graduated summa cum laude and has a promising career in front of it.