Affinity Designer, Sketch, and Why You Don’t Have to Choose

An assessment from an Affinity Designer Beta user

Yesterday, Serif publicly released Affinity Designer, a powerful vector graphics design app for Mac that is the first serious rival of Adobe Illustrator. Illustrator has stood unchallenged in its space for many years, and within hours of launching, Affinity Designer attracted widespread attention from designers overjoyed at the prospect of a possible competitor.

Given the appetite for good alternatives to Illustrator, the interest in Affinity Designer is intense. I’ve seen a number of tweets and comments on Designer News drawing comparisons to Sketch, which has had significant traction among UI designers who have abandoned Photoshop and Fireworks. I’ve been using Affinity Designer during the public beta, and I’m also a long-time user of Sketch, so I have experience with both. Most of the people wondering how they compare haven’t had a chance to use Affinity Designer yet, so for those who are still curious I wanted to lay out some of the ways it differs from Sketch.

I’d like to emphasize at the outset that I intend to keep both apps in my Dock. Each serves a valuable purpose.

That said, Affinity Designer is a much richer and more fully-featured app than Sketch, making it well-suited for complex vector graphics illustrations and detailed icons. Here’s why:

Note: Affinity Designer has full support for pixel design and Sketch does not, so this comparison focuses primarily on vector graphics capabilities

  • Significantly more sophisticated pen tool: the pen tool in Affinity Designer is much more advanced than in Sketch. In addition to basic node types (straight, bezier, etc.), there are action buttons that allow you to break, join, or split curves. You can also optionally enable curve and off-curve node snapping.
  • Brushes: there are a large number of out-of-the-box vector (and pixel) brushes that can be tweaked and modified. You can also create new brushes from scratch.
Brushes in Affinity Designer are highly customizable
  • Live previews let you see previews for effects in real time (i.e. before you’ve applied them) for blend modes, layer clipping and masking, and more. This is extremely useful to see how things will look before actually applying a change.
  • Snapping Tool: the snapping tool makes it easy to place objects without having to add rulers or guides. Snapping options can be customized for each object, and you can specify “snapping candidates” to prevent an object from attempting to align to something else nearby.
  • History: something I’m sure any Sketch user has wished for one time or another, the history panel shows changes in a list that allow you to easily go back in time. There’s even a slider for quick back and forth history navigation, and history can be saved so you can undo steps later.
  • Masking and layer clipping are handled much better in Affinity Designer than in Sketch (even taking into consideration the significant masking improvements in the recent Sketch 3.1 update). Layers can be dragged and dropped onto or within other layers for quick clipping/masking, or insertion modes can be used (see below) to insert an object into another layer directly upon creation.
  • Object insertion modes let you target the nesting of an object when it’s created, my favorite being ‘insert inside selection’, which places the new object inside what’s currently selected.
  • Layer effects and adjustments: there are a lot of layer effects in Affinity Designer (bevel, gradient overlays, 3D effect, etc.) as well as layer adjustment options (curves, selective color, posterize, etc.).
  • More color spaces: Affinity Designer supports a lot of color spaces, most notably CMYK.
  • General support for print design.

Overall, Affinity Designer and Sketch are extremely different, and they’re both fantastic tools in their own right depending on the design task at hand. Affinity Designer is a full-featured tool well-suited for complex vector graphics illustrations and detailed icons. Sketch is great for basic vector graphics and has features such as artboards and symbols that make it perfect for UI design and layout.

Affinity designer would be overkill for something like designing a basic iPhone app

Both are more than worth a try for anyone still suffering in Illustrator, Photostop, or any other Creative Suite application—no subscription required!

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