Affinity Designer 1.5 Beta Review
Elon Musk, in an interview on Foundation, has been quoted as saying “I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”
Matt Priestley, lead developer for Affinity Designer echoes the same sentiment when he says, “I want our products to be good in their own right: It’s not good enough to be better than ‘x’ or ‘y’, you should just be really good and that be the end of the sentence”.
In Iconfinder’s review of Adobe Illustrator last week, we mentioned that most products compete by analogy, meaning that new, competitor products try to do the same things, only better. Iterations on a theme, as it were. Rather than simply copy how Adobe Illustrator works, Serif Labs, has, in many cases with Affinity Designer, chosen to focus on first principles and to redefine how designers work with vector graphics.
Affinity Designer strips out a lot of the lesser-used features of Illustrator and focuses on the core tools necessary for authoring vector graphics. Gone are tools like Symbol Sprayer, Charts, Pucker Tool, Bloat Tool, and Scallop Tool. Affinity Designer focuses on one thing: drawing vector graphics, really well.
In this review we will examine how Affinity Designer addresses the core concerns of icon designers. Since the focus of our review is targeted to icon design, it is therefore admittedly and by necessity very limited. We encourage the reader to download the free trial and take the time to learn the concepts and techniques. Affinity Designer requires a bit of a paradigm shift, but it may be exactly the tool you are looking for.
Articles in this Series
- Introduction & Overview
- Adobe Illustrator Review
- Affinity Designer 1.5 Beta Review
- Sketch Review 2016
Setting Up Custom Grids
Setting up custom grids in Affinity Designer is done using the Grid and Axis Manager under Menu > View. Affinity Designer has an automatic grid that will show smaller and smaller sub-divisions as you zoom in but you can also set your own fixed grids using Grid and Axis Manager.
The manager has two modes: Basic and Advanced. The Basic mode allows you to specify the spacing of grid lines and the number of divisions. Affinity Designer’s grid control is more advanced than that of Adobe Illustrator. With the Grid and Axis Manager you can set the vertical and horizontal (or diagonal) grid lines separately or, in the Advanced Mode, make them uniform. Additionally, Affinity Designer gives you the option of setting a gutter between grid divisions so you can have isolated grid cells instead of a uniform grid that covers your entire workspace with a single grid.
It is difficult to cover grids without, at least, mentioning slices, exporting, and snapping. Icon designers rarely create icon sets of a single icon. We like large icon sets of hundreds even thousands of icons. Affinity Designer gives the icon designer some well thought-out and convenient tools for creating large icon sets. The ability to create isolated grids, create slices that then have their own export settings, and export to various sizes and formats is ideally-suited to icon design.
Scott “Because I am so used to the way things are done in Illustrator, I struggled to understand the grids in Affinity Designer at first but once I got the hang of the different settings options, I’m afraid that I’m going to feel a bit cheated in Illustrator going forward. One especially nice feature about the Grid and Axis Manager is that you can keep the dialog open while you work so you can quickly make changes to settings then change them back as-needed. I also really love the fine-grained control Affinity Designer gives you over the different aspects of your grids. Also, setting up isolated grids is perfect for creating large icon sets.”
Gašper “Creating a new document and setting up the grids in Grid and Axis Manager took just a minute or two. Grid lines can be turned on in View > Show Grid. Both settings are easy to understand and comparable with Illustrator”.
“Creating an artboard was very straightforward, by using the Artboard tool. You can set the exact size of an Artboard in pixels in the Transform panel (which is by default in the bottom right part). Unlike Illustrator, each created Artboard then appears to be a separate layer in the Layers window, where you can also change the name of it (I would expect you could edit the naming from the top action bar or on the artboard itself)”.
Working With Paths (The Pen Tool)
The Pen Tool is the heart of every vector authoring application. As such, the team at Serif Labs has put the most effort into planning and developing the Pen Tool. One really cannot talk about the Pen Tool, however, without also talking about the Node Tool. The Pen Tool is used to draw paths and the Node Tool is specifically for manipulating the points, or nodes, along a path as well as manipulating curves after they are created. With the Pen Tool selected, you can access the Node Tool at any time by holding down the Command key.
Scott “‘Drawing with Pen Tool in Affinity Designer feels like drawing with chalk’. Those were my words in my first review of Affinity Designer in 2014. Let me say it now: ‘Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa’. I was wrong and I’m not too proud to admit it. My words were an attempt to be witty and though that was truly my initial impression, the statement was made out of ignorance of the full power of the Pen Tool in Affinity Designer. The best analog I can think of for the Pen Tool in Affinity Designer is drawing with a nice, soft but well-sharpened 2B pencil on high-quality cotton paper. Illustrator feels more like drawing with an HB or even 2H pencil — which gives you less tonal range and is far less forgiving if you make a mistake”.
Gašper “The Pen Tool and the Node Tool feel very good. Technically not much different than in Illustrator, so you can get used to quite fast. “
Positioning & Aligning Points
The Affinity Designer team has put a lot of thought into how snapping works and it is not possible to cover all aspects of the feature set in our limited space here. To get started, go to Menu > View > Snapping Manager. You will see right away that there are a lot of options which means two things: there are a lot of settings to learn, and there is a lot of control. A full tutorial of how to use the Snapping Manager is beyond the scope of our concerns here, but there are plenty of tutorials available online and a lot of information from users and the Affinity Designer team in their forum.
Since we are concerned, primarily, with icon design in this review, we will focus on the Snap to Grid capabilities of Affinity Designer. To configure the Snapping Manager to snap to grid, click the Enable Snapping check box (watch the video below for more details). Next, check the Snap to Grid check box and Force Pixel Alignment. Uncheck all other options. Now, when you create a point, curve, or move an object or node, they will align to the nearest grid line.
Scott “Once I got the hang of setting up Snap to Grid, I am in love with this feature. Illustrator has had some ongoing issues related to Align to Pixel Grid and snapping. Affinity Designer just gets this right. In Illustrator, snapping aligns the center of nodes and paths to the grid line, but if you have a stroked line, you most likely want the edge of the stroke to align to the grid line and the center of the node or path to snap half-way between the grid lines. Affinity Designer actually allows both behaviors. I also really like the colored UI feedback when you are aligned with a grid line or grid intersection.”
Gašper “The same as with Illustrator, snapping is not useful when trying to draw a pixel-perfect line with the weight of 1 pixel on a pixel grid, because it is snapping on grid intersections and not in the middle of the pixel. But, if you zoom in to about 1,000% so that there’s enough of a gap between the grid lines so that snapping doesn’t snap to one of the whole pixels, then it will snap to the half-pixels. Without always zooming in, you can also handle 1-pixel outlines, by setting up a grid with double as much divisions as your artboard size is. I didn’t find an option to realign existing shapes/paths to the pixel grid”.
The basic function of any vector authoring software is creating and manipulating Bezier Curves. Every vector application treats this core functionality essentially the same and Affinity Designer is no different in this respect. To create a path, use the Pen Tool (with Pen Mode selected), place a starting point, then click and drag points as-needed to create curves.
You can switch to the Node Tool to manipulate existing nodes, add new nodes on the path simply by clicking anywhere on the path, or delete nodes by simply selecting a node and pressing the Delete key. You can also change the arc of a path by clicking and holding anywhere on the path and dragging it to the shape you want. You can also manipulate multiple segments of the path by holding down the shift key and clicking multiple nodes.
Scott “Manipulating curves in Affinity Designer doesn’t seem all that different from doing the same in Adobe Illustrator to me but the live rendering does feel a bit smoother to me. Also, Affinity Designer does a better job with converting node types (smooth, corner, etc) than Illustrator does. To get comparable ease-of-use with Illustrator, you need to install the PathFinder plugin from Astute Graphics — a wonderful tool, to be sure, but an added expense.
Gašper “By default, the Move Tool is unpractical when using it to select an object. To select a shape or path, you need to select the complete area, not just parts of it (hard when working with larger shapes or when zoomed-in). But luckily, this behavior can be changed in Preferences (check “Select object when intersects with selection marquee”) so that any object that intersects with the marquee is selected. Unlike Illustrator, you cannot select a fill-less shape by clicking somewhere on that shape. In that case you need to click on the path (stroke)”.
“It was painful to delete a segment from a shape. You have to select the nodes that surround that segment (one at a time) and click Break Curve with the Node Tool. Then click anywhere on the canvas to deselect the entire shape and click on the segment to select and delete it. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to delete a segment from a shape directly”.
“The same as in Illustrator, the Path Extend Tool and (Smart) Path Eraser Tool are missing”.
Joining line points and line segments
Joining two points or line segments in Affinity Designer doesn’t work the way it does in Adobe Illustrator. Affinity Designer has no correlate to using the Pen Tool to click the point at the end of a line segment, then clicking another open point to join them. To join points in Affinity Designer, you select the two points with the Node Tool, then click the Join Curves action from the Actions tool bar. You can even select nodes on multiple line segments and join them much the same way that you do in Adobe Illustrator by selecting multiple line segments and typing Command + J. The nodes that are closest together will be joined.
Scott “I miss not being able to use the Pen Tool to join nodes and hope the Affinity Designer team will consider adding this capability but I can get used to the way it works. It certainly isn’t a deal-breaker for me but a nice-to-have”.
Gašper “To join two paths into one (when end-points are lying on each other), you need to select both paths (using the Move Tool and holding down Shift key), then switching to the Pen Tool and then choosing “Join Curves” from the Action section of the Node context toolbar. Very surprisingly I didn’t find a shortcut for that”.
“Closing paths works as it should. I like the behaviour that, when continuing a path by creating a new point that is exactly on an existing point of another path, it doesn’t automatically close and join another path (as in Illustrator).”
Remove unwanted points
Removing unwanted points in Affinity Designer is as easy as selecting the node you wish to remove, and clicking the Delete key. If you want to delete multiple points, hold the Shift key and select each individual point, or click and drag a marquee to selected any points that a fall within the marquee, then press Delete. It’s that simple. The adjacent segments will not be deleted but the curve may be simplified since you are removing points.
Scott “Removing unwanted points in Affinity Designer is kind of ridiculously simple and so obvious in its behavior, it was clear right away that this is the way it should have been in all vector apps from the very start. I love the way this works”.
Gašper “Removing the points is really easy (selecting a point and pressing Delete). The path will then nicely adapt. It works not as superb as the Astute’s Smart Remove Brush plugin for Illustrator, but still does it’s job far better then Illustrator with the default toolkit”.
Working with strokes (size, end caps, etc)
Strokes in Affinity Designer work more-or-less the same way as they do in Adobe Illustrator but that is neither a plus nor a minus. There really isn’t a lot of innovation one can imagine on something as straight forward as drawing a stroked path. Adobe Illustrator does have some more advanced features with strokes such as applying multiple strokes to the same path and adding decorative end caps such as arrows. Affinity Designer is aware of both of these requests from users, however, and Matt Priestley, in an interview on the Affinity blog has assured users the features are coming, though no release date has been set.
Scott “I find the strokes in Affinity Designer to be exactly what I expect. The Affinity team hasn’t added anything to what Adobe Illustrator does and I don’t miss what they haven’t added. To be honest, I don’t really miss the absence of multiple strokes on a single line (I’ve never once needed that feature), nor do I miss the decorative end caps like arrow heads. I’ve never really needed those either”.
Gašper “The stroke settings are very similar to Illustrator (size, end caps and style). Somehow strange that, although I set the document units to be in pixels, I had to turn off stroke units to be in points. Two features are very cool: 1) the option to draw a stroke behind the fill and 2) scaling the stroke with the shape (both missing in Illustrator)”.
Shape Operations (unite, trim, divide)
The shape operations in Affinity Designer will be mostly familiar to Adobe Illustrator users. Affinity Designer does not have an equivalent for every Pathfinder operation found in Illustrator, but it has the ones the typical icon designer is likely to need.
Affinity DesignerAdobe IllustratorAddUniteSubtractMinus FrontCombineExcludeDivideDivide
Affinity Designer does not have Merge, Outline, Minus Back, or Crop equivalents.
Scott “Even though Affinity Designer’s shape operations do not have exact equivalents for Illustrator’s full Pathfinder tools, I haven’t really found myself missing them, except for the Minus Back in addition to Minus Front. Otherwise, this wasn’t a major area of concern for me”.
Gašper “Uniting (Adding), excluding (Subtracting), intersecting, dividing and combining ware easy to find and use (I like them to be sticky at top and not in an extra window). Minus Back operation is missing, but you can live without it. One disappointment: the operations work as they should with two or more shapes, but not when using them on a shape and a unclosed path. In Illustrator, I very often use a path to divide or trim a shape.
“Although two things are positive in my eyes: 1) After uniting two shapes with strokes, the new united shape will keep the stroke. When uniting shapes with different strokes, the new shape will have the stroke from the shape that is in the back. 2) After dividing two shapes, the new shapes are not grouped”.
Precision Control and Navigating Within a Document Including Zoom
Affinity Designer gives you the same basic tools for navigating within a document that Adobe Illustrator does. There is an equivalent to the Navigator palette that allows you to click a region of a thumbnail of your workspace to jump to that location. There is also an equivalent of Illustrator’s Views called View Points.
In the latest version of Illustrator (CC 2015.3) the dev team has added a 10-fold increase to the maximum zoom level, from 6,400% previously to 64,000% now. Affinity Designer has included a whopping 1,000,000% zoom from the very beginning. In the Affinity Designer 1.5 beta version, the zoom has been increased to “at least 1 million percent”, according to our sources, but you are in for a nice surprise.
Scott “I wouldn’t give Illustrator or Affinity Designer an edge when it comes to navigating within documents, except when it comes to zoom. I’ve never actually needed 1,000,000% zoom or anywhere close, but it is impressive all the same”.
Gašper “Navigating is just as smooth and easy (with holding down the space key) as in Illustrator. Affinity Designer can zoom-in to over 1,000,000%, which is ridiculous (in a good way) and more than you could ever imagine to need”.
Pixel Preview Mode
Designer gives you four View Modes: Pixel View, Pixel View (Retina), Vector, and Outline. The names are pretty self-explanatory and can be accessed under Menu > View > View Mode. Each View Mode also has a corresponding keyboard shortcut. Additionally, Affinity Designer has a feature that Illustrator doesn’t in Split View. Split View allows you to swipe a control handle back-and-forth across the screen to show Vector preview on one side and Pixel preview on the other. Once you are in Split View mode, you can click the side you’re interested in, then change the View Mode for that side.
Scott “Split View, frankly, kicks ass. The only issue I have with preview in Affinity Designer is that if I use the keyboard shortcuts to switch to outline mode then toggle back, the View Mode defaults to vector. I’d prefer to have the toggle for each mode to switch back to whatever my previous view mode was. At the very least, I’d like to see this as a customizable behavior in the UI preferences”.
Gašper “Very well accessible pixel-preview modes (pixel and retina). Essential views when designing pixel-perfect icons”.
Batch Export Functionality
With the introduction of Export Persona in Affinity Designer, single file-only exports are a thing of the past in Illustrator, Affinity Designer, and Sketch. Though the features are not identical in each of the three apps, they work essentially the same: You can specify some asset within a document to export in any combination of sizes and formats you need.
Export Personas allows you to define export presets in a powerful array of configurations. First, click the Export Persona icon in the upper-left corner of the application window, then open the Slices palette under Menu > View > Studio > Slices. When you create a new artboard, it is automatically set up with a slice as well, but you are not limited to only the slices created for each artboard. You can create your own slices using the Slice Tool in the toolbox on the left-hand side of your screen.
Once you have set up your slices for each desired export, you can click the arrow to the left of the slice thumbnail in the Slices palette. The slice will have the first export defined based on the Export defaults (which you can change to suit your needs). You can also add as many exports as you need by clicking the plus + sign below the list of exports for the slice.
After you have defined all of your exports, you can export slices or formats individually, or you can export the entire document by going to Menu > File > Export. Additionally, with Continuous Export enabled, designers can carefully set up the export settings they need and not really have to mess with them again.
Though it is beyond the scope of this article, combining Affinity Designer’s features with folder actions and a source code repository, much of the tedium of publishing large icon sets could be automated.
Scott “I don’t really have any criticism for Export Persona. They work exactly as I expect them to and give me all of the tools I need. One thing I do like, very much, is the thoughtful integration between Grids, Slices, and Exports. For icon designers, these three, together with snapping is a very powerful combination that will make working on very large sets of icons much easier. If one adds in Continuous Export to their workflow, I think icon designers would do well to seriously consider Affinity Designer as an alternative to Adobe Illustrator.
Gašper “At first I thought that all the export capabilities can be found under File > Export. After discovering Export Persona, I found the (kinda hidden) export functionalities that are needed, when creating an icon set. You can export artboards (or slices) to multiple sizes and formats. All at once. If you check the Continuous option, then your exported files will even be automatically updated, every time you change your designs”.
Responsiveness to customer feedback
The Affinity Designer team, despite being small, is extraordinarily dedicated and engaging with users. When users participate in the Affinity forums, they are not talking to customer service representatives who are several steps removed from the designing and building of the product, reading from a script. In most cases, they are talking directly with the developers who make the product and who have direct say on features that get added and features that don’t.
Scott “I have had direct contact with three members of the Serif Labs team including their Managing Director, Ashley “Ash” Hewson, Nathaneal “Nat” Ravenlock, and Matt Priestley, the lead developer for Affinity Designer. Each member of the team has been very available and has responded very quickly to every request, even when I’ve given them very little lead time. Every request, question, and suggestion has been taken seriously and responded to with sincerity and insight. It makes you feel valued as a professional and as a person. You really can’t ask for more than that”.
Gašper “I have no personal experience with Affinity Designer’s support”.
“The Vector Wars” as we have started calling them have been raging for 29 years. They will, no doubt, continue to rage for years to come. The demise of FreeHand left a large hole in the market that despite Adobe’s efforts, Illustrator has not been able to fill. Though it should be mentioned that even today, in 2016, FreeHand is still available for purchase at Adobe.com and Adobe still provides technical and customer support, even if they are not updating the code (Note: FreeHand is not compatible with the most recent versions of Mac OS X). This is, we believe, to their credit and rather unprecedented in the software industry to continue to sell and provide support, if not updates for an application that was at end-of-life before Adobe acquired it and has been frozen for nine years.
It is not our job in this space to judge what did or did not happen to FreeHand, but we do encourage you to research the matter. It is fascinating and as the saying goes, there are two sides to every story. But there is no doubt that many devoted FreeHand users will find much to like about Serif Labs and Affinity Designer. But Affinity Designer will not only appeal to disgruntled FreeHand users. For the “starving freelancers” struggling to get established, Affinity Designer is a very attractive alternative to the pricey subscription model of the Creative Cloud. But Affinity Designer is far more than just a cheaper alternative to Adobe Illustrator. This is seriously powerful, well-designed software that gets the job done in an intuitive and very user-friendly way.
One criticism of Affinity Designer (and of this review series) has been the Mac-centrism. This is a fair criticism, though design, in general, is Mac-centric simply because of the market. We, nor software makers, chose that reality, customers did. Adobe Illustrator has been available for Windows since 1989 (Windows 2.0). Affinity Designer started life as a Mac-only application but a free beta for Windows is now available at https://affinity.serif.com/en-us/windows/
We stated at the end of our Adobe Illustrator review that the competitors don’t have anything to compete with Adobe’s enterprise capabilities and that is true. Affinity Designer, even with Affinity Photo and Affinity Publisher is still a very young suite of applications and they are decades behind Adobe in some areas. But the design and publishing market is very large and there is no obligation to compete with Adobe in the enterprise space. Nor is it even necessary. There is value in specializing and doing one thing very well.
Scott “There is a lot that I like about Affinity Designer. Some things I like better than Illustrator, some things not. My first impression of AD in 2014 was that it was not a serious alternative to Illustrator and in some areas, namely the enterprise design and publishing spaces that require much more interoperability between web and print and marketing, design, and development teams and automated work flows. I still think that is the case, but AD is still very young. It is a necessary comparison when considering which tools to use but it is also not an apples-to-apples comparison”.
“I am not likely to switch to Affinity Designer just yet because I have 26 years invested in Adobe Illustrator. That is a lot of un-learning to do. But that is a possibility I won’t discount out-of-hand. The application has matured over the past two years and as I’ve learned the way “Affinity Designer thinks” I like it very much. Below are some general thoughts about things I do and don’t like that weren’t covered in the review criteria”.
What I DO Like:
- The UI is very smooth and the performance is fantastic. Illustrator tends to be a little choppy and lags due to massive memory requirements. AD scrolls, scales, and moves very smoothly. For what it’s worth, sources at Adobe have told me that serious performance improvements are in the works.
- Automatic Paste in Front is awesome!
- I LOVE the fact that rounded corners adjust smoothly to adjacent line segments if you manipulate the adjacent segments, the curves are not distorted but are redrawn as one expects.
- The ability to save histories along with a document is so “right” it is hard to imagine that this has not always been the case with any document, not just vector files.
What I DON’T Like:
- I miss having a Scale Tool.
- I miss having a direct selection tool to simply click a line segment and delete it. I can get used to the Affinity Designer way, but I’d love to have this ability through modifier keys with the Node Tool.
- The eyedropper does not work the way you expect. I’m not sure if this is a plus or a minus, honestly. You can, however, select an object then paste only its styles onto another object (Command + Option + V) which is very nice.
- No ability to convert lines or objects into guides. I REALLY miss this feature. Hopefully it gets added soon.
- I miss being able to select two path end points and type Command + J to join them. However, you can set a keyboard shortcut to achieve the same thing using the Node Tool. More effort to set up, but, the ability to set shortcuts in general for any action is really nice. To be fair, though, Illustrator has this capability as well.
- Term “Curves” in “Convert to Curves” is a bit confusing until you realize it means “Bezier Curves”. Technically the term is correct, but I think “Path” would be more clear. I can’t say that I understand why a rectangle or ellipse or any other shape is treated as anything other than a path, though. But, I admit this is more than a bit pedantic.
Gašper “Affinity Designer is different from Illustrator in many aspects, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s also totally normal, that it takes some time to get used to, especially when you used a different software for many years. You internalize a specific workflow, do same and same operations again and again, but this doesn’t mean that there should be no other and better way of doing it”.
“The user interface of Affinity Designer is different, but still looks familiar, although the windows are arranged different, and some of the actions and tools are in different places than in Illustrator. The tool box is skinned down, which is good, because I wasn’t missing the sprayers, cans, and other tools. As I was using Affinity Designer for the first time, it took some extra time to design the same icon than I have done in Illustrator. I would guess around 30% longer, which is still impressive in my eyes. I got stuck with deleting a segment of a shape (had to google about), and I didn’t notice that you can switch to Export personas. But other than that, I could find out how to do everything else by just trying it out”.
“Nonetheless, Affinity Designer is a powerful and nicely designed software that gets the job done perfectly. You can see that the people creating Affinity Designer have put a great amount of effort to do things better and not just the same as Illustrator. This was far more difficult and courageous than just copy Illustrator. For me personally, especially with an eye on the pricing, it is a very serious alternative to Illustrator”.
Affinity Designer is available as a perpetual license, meaning no recurring subscription, for £39.99/ US $49.99 at the time of this writing.
Check out the free trial at https://affinity.serif.com/en-us/
Or learn more about using Affinity Designer at https://affinity.serif.com/en-us/tutorials/designer/
Find premium icons for your next project on Iconfinder.com
And, as always, join the conversation in the comments below. Who knows, maybe the folks from the Affinity Designer team might pop by so you can speak directly to them.
Scott Lewis is a Senior Developer and Head of Content for Iconfinder.com. Scott is also a professional icon designer who uses the nickname iconify. Scott lives in Richmond, Virginia in the United States.
Gašper Vidovič is a lawyer and top-selling icon designer from Ptuj, Slovenia, which is the oldest town in Slovenia. Gašper uses the nickname “picons” and is one of the better-known icon designers working in the business. You can read in our interview with Gašper Vidovič from 2013.