Illustrator, Affinity Designer, or Sketch: Which is Best for Icon Design?
We have spent the past 5 weeks reviewing Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer, and Sketch for icon designers. We compared identical tasks in each application and our reviewers offered their individual opinions based on creating a series of icons with each tool.
From the beginning of this series, however, we have maintained that our objective is not to tell readers which is the best application for the job — in our case icon design — nor tell readers which application they should use. We are purveyors of information that we hope is useful in helping icon designers become better and more productive at their craft. We leave judgments about which software is best to the reader to explore and decide for himself or herself.
This would not be much of a software review, however, if we did not offer some conclusions and opinions on the products being reviewed. We would like to avoid, however, appearing to endorse any one product over another or appearing to give an authoritative opinion on the goodness or badness of any of the products.
Articles in this Series
- Introduction & Overview
- Adobe Illustrator Review
- Affinity Designer 1.5 Beta Review
- Sketch Review 2016
A Survey of Iconfinder Users
We took a survey of Iconfinder users recently and asked what tools they use for icon design. The results are depicted in the chart below.
In 2013 we took a similar survey (though not identical) and the results were quite a bit different. The number of respondents using each tool in 2013 are shown in the table below. Respondents where asked, “What is your preferred software for designing”? There were 450 responses to the survey.
SoftareUsers (from among respondents)Adobe Photoshop325 (72.22%)Adobe Illustrator45 (10%)Gimp9 (2%)Sketch8 (1.7%)Affinity Designer*0* Affinity Designer was not released until autumn of 2014
The change in results in just 3 years are quite significant. Adobe’s marketshare among Iconfinder designers has dropped from 82% in 2013 to about 50% in 2016. Sketch’s marketshare in 2013 was only 2% but has increase ten-fold in only 3 years. Affinity Designer had not yet been released when we took our original survey so it is to be expected that their marketshare is still small after only 2 years on the scene, but if “the word on the street” is any indicator, they are gaining ground very quickly.
In the rest of the article we list, by software package, what we love about each and what we think each vendor can do better, based on our own opinions and those from other icon designers in our community.
Illustrator is not perfect, but is very powerful. It’s natural, that after many years working with it, one gets used to its flaws and learns ways to work around the limitations and bugs. One of the issues that poses a particular challenge to icon designers is the limitation to 100 artboards. With the addition of Export for Screens in Illustrator CC 2015.3, the artboard limitation is even more frustrating because the full feature set needed by icon designers is almost, but not quite, in place.
What we love about Illustrator:
- Export for Screens
- Universal compatibility & widespread use
- Wide array of vector tools
- Lots of Third Party Plugins
- Very large community of users for knowledge sharing
What the Illustrator team can improve:
- Better performance
- Disable “Align New Objects To Grid” by default
- Unlimited number of artboards
- Artboard-specific grid sizes
- Snap to half-pixels
- Do not group trimmed or divided shapes in Pathfinder
- Maintain styling after Trim or Divide functions in Pathfinder
- Native Smart Erase Tool and Path Extend Tool
- Zoom on selection not document center
- Copy Affinity Designer’s “Save Change History” feature
- More personal engagement with users
- Price — $19.99/mo. subscription price might be tough for freelance designers
Affinity Designer welcomes you with a clean UI which is, although different, very familiar. You need some time to get used to, which is normal, but you shouldn’t feel lost at any time. Affinity Designer is a great vector drawing tool. Combined with excellent export options and limitless artboards, it is — in my eyes — a serious alternative to Illustrator.
What we love about Affinity Designer
- The Pen Tool is second-to-none
- Very clean User Interface
- Split View rocks
- Export Personas are great especially in conjunction with slices, grids, and continuous export
- Snapping works extremely well
- Custom Grids are very useful and well designed
- Saving Change History with the document
- Very engaged with and responsive to users
- Price — $49 for a perpetual license
What Serif Labs can improve
- A feature like Astute Graphics’s Smart Remove Brush
- Add a Scale Tool
- Use more keyboard commands for the most common tasks
- Convert paths to guides
- Add a Direct Select tool
With Sketch it’s different. It has a nice skinned-down clean UI, but also takes way more time to get used to. If you don’t want to learn all the shortcuts for the tools, you should definitely not hesitate to customize the toolbars the way you want. It can be frustrating with the default layout. Infinite canvas may be a great feature, but could also make you feel lost, if you’re used to tools that are based on a fixed document size.
What we love about Sketch
- Batch Export is exceptional
- Unlimited Artboards are very useful
- Infinite canvas
- Artboard-specific grid settings
- Very clean user interface
- Very good engagement with users
- Hybrid Subscription/Perpetual License equal to $8.25/mo. with 1 year of free upgrades is very reasonably priced.
What the Sketch Team can improve
- Fix the SVG exports related to strokes aligned inside and outside paths (must-fix)
- “Close path” with Vector Tool by clicking on starting point
- Allow snapping to half-pixels when moving and resizing
- Add a Direct Selection tool for selecting curves or nodes
- Split node feature
- Join Points without merging them into a single point
- More keyboard shortcuts and better accessibility to frequently used tools
- Add a Navigator panel
- Copy Affinity Designer’s “Save Change History” feature
- Use Command + Space bar for zooming
There is no question that all three applications can be used quite well for creating vector icons, but Adobe Illustrator still has an edge over Affinity Designer and Sketch, primarily for the maturity of its tools and for the third party plugins such as VectorScribe from Astute Graphics. However, Affinity Designer and Sketch outperform Illustrator in a few key areas that we have discussed in both this article, and the individual reviews.
Affinity Designer will be especially attractive to the icon designer or illustrator just starting out without the heavy knowledge investment in Illustrator, based on price, maturity, performance, and responsiveness to users. While we loved working with Sketch and the Sketch Team, as an icon design tool, it is not quite as easy-to-use as the other two applications. However, as we stated in the Sketch review, we don’t think it is an apples-to-apples comparison because Sketch’s core competency is user interface design.
In the course of our reviews, we were in close contact with the product and development teams from all products. What we found was more similarities than differences between the people who make each product. All three teams were very engaged, keenly interested in the experiences — especially the negative experiences — of our community of designers and ourselves, and very passionate about producing the best products for users. Each team was also surprisingly aware and forthcoming about issues in their respective products as well. We encourage you to reach out to all three teams and to try all three products.
Please respond to the survey below and join the conversation by commenting below.