Affinity Designer vs Illustrator

When I first started using Affinity Designer, it was obvious there was a bit of a learning curve. I was so used to doing things a certain way in Adobe Illustrator. While Affinity is capable of most of the same things as other vector programs, figuring out how to actually do everything was tricky.

After using Affinity Designer for a bit and watching some tutorials online, I realized there was still a lot more to know, and making the switch from Illustrator to Affinity wasn’t going to be easy. However, nothing worth doing is easy and I was intrigued by the designs I was seeing coming out of the Affinity community.

Adobe Software

Like a lot of people, I find the Adobe pricing model to be a bit expensive. $60 CAD a month is just hard to justify when there are similar programs that cost much less. For instance, using the Adobe CC suite for two years would cover what it used to cost for a lifetime. Sure, the frequent updates are great to have, and that does include all the Adobe programs, but it’s still a lot of money. Compare it to Affinity. Each program: Designer, Photo, and Publisher, are $70 CAD each. Forever. That includes all updates. If you’re on a budget or want to protest the subscription price model, Affinity might be the way to go.

So how does one vector based illustration program compare to another in terms of functionality? If you’re seriously thinking about switching from Adobe Illustrator to Affinity Designer, is it going to be easy for you? Here are my thoughts as I try to make the switch.

Initial Impressions of Affinity Designer

The first time you open Affinity Designer, you’re like “I got this”. Then as soon as you try to do something, you realize you don’t. Affinity Designer is a great, well designed program, it’s just not Adobe Illustrator. Some of those key commands and muscle memories are of little use now.

When you start a new document, you’re asked to select your document settings. It’s very similar to Illustrator, but with less visuals. Once you’re in the document, you’ll notice how different the toolbar looks. This one has a lot of shapes and squiggly lines. The two most recognizable icons are the hand and the magnifying glass. The classic move and zoom tools are the same. Whew.

You might want to have a look and see what all the panels and toolbars are. How the hell do you do that? In Illustrator you would just click Window at the top, and be presented with everything you need. In Designer, I had to search. Actually, I Googled it. It’s View -> Studio. Right away, you’ll notice it’s a much shorter list. Has Affinity Designer simplified the interface or is it missing key tools?

Affinity Designer VS Illustrator

A comparison showing the library of tools and panels in Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer

Starting With The Basics

Like with any new design program, the first thing I like to do is just make a basic shape. Then I see what I can do to it. I made a square. On the main toolbar, there are no icons for fill and stroke like in Illustrator. Instead, the colour options appear near the top of the screen. Alternatively, you can use the swatches panel. The options for stroke show up right next to the colours at the top. Okay, so far not bad. There seem to be more options for a custom stroke too. Sweet.

Next, I wanted to give my square rounded edges and I was totally lost. In Illustrator I would simply use the direct selection tool, find the corners, and draw them to where I wanted. That wasn’t the case in Affinity Designer. It took me awhile before I realized there is actually a corner tool. In the toolbar. For making rounded corners! After a bit of experimentation, I was satisfied with my findings. Not only does the corner tool make rounded corners, but it can manipulate the entire shape of an object to your liking. I managed to turn my square into a banana very quickly.

Affinity designer - rounded corners

Giving this square rounded corners with the corner tool

Toolbar Exploration

Pen, Pencil, and Brush

After my corner tool discovery, I wanted to see what else was in the toolbar. So, I made a shape using the next tool down. The Pen Tool. It seems very similar to Illustrator. There appear to be some options for using the pen tool, but for now it was something I was familiar with, and that was great.

Next up is the Pencil Tool. At first, this is very similar to in Illustrator. Then I checked the ‘use fill’ box up at the top. Suddenly, the shape I’m drawing has a fill being drawn with it. Cool. Next, I check the ‘stabilizer’ box at the top. Now I’m drawing perfectly smooth, stabilized curves. This is great. Although, I can’t figure out how to close my shape. In Illustrator, I would just use the direct selection tool to move my anchor point. In Affinity Designer, there’s actually a Node Tool near the top of the toolbar. From what I can tell, it does the same thing.

Below the pencil tool is the Vector Brush Tool, AKA, the paintbrush tool. This one is pretty familiar. I can use the stabilizer with it too.

Affinity designer - Vector brush tool

Using the Vector Brush Tool with stabilizer checked

Fills Using Gradients and Opacity

Below the brush tool is something new. The Fill Tool. This is essentially your gradient tool. It just works a bit more intuitively than in Illustrator. What’s wonderful about the fill tool is that it’s a quick way to add dimension to a shape. It appears that by default, using the tool simply applies a darker gradiated colour to the selected shape.

Next up is the Transparency Tool. It works just like the fill tool, but instead of adding a gradient colour, it adds a gradient opacity. For instance, it can make it so one half of your shape is 100% opacity, and the other half is 0% opacity. Illustrator has the ability to do this, but not with a tool. In Illustrator you can use the gradient panel to make different colours transparent to get the same effect. Affinity Designer has just made it a bit quicker to accomplish.

Affinity designer - Fill tool

Applying the Fill Tool and the Transparency Tool to circles

Images and Cropping

Next is the Place Image Tool, which is pretty straightforward. Although, is this even needed since drag and drop works too? Below that is a Vector Crop Tool. This does what you’d expect. It lets you crop shapes using a mask. This means the original shape is still there, but you can only see to where it’s cropped. In Illustrator, you would have to get this effect using a clipping mask. Although, in Illustrator making a custom mask shape seems to be a bit easier.

In Affinity Designer, it appears that you need to use the layers panel to mask one shape with another, or a group of shapes within another. That’s fine with a small document, but with a complex illustration, the layers panel is going to get busy. This is something I’ll need to experiment with more.

Affinity designer - Crop tool

Using the Vector Crop Tool to crop the image of the three circles

Shapes and Text

Further down on the toolbar, there are a bunch of shapes. Like, a lot of shapes. Most of them are hiding behind the triangle. This is what Illustrator desperately needs. More default shapes! Then comes the Artistic Text Tool, AKA, the Type Tool. This one is straightforward. Although, the kerning and tracking tools are a bit difficult to use if you’re used to Illustrator. Near the end of the toolbar is the Colour Picker Tool AKA the eyedropper tool. This one also works the same as in Illustrator. Then the View Tool AKA the hand tool and the zoom tool finished off the toolbar. As I mentioned before, they work just how you’d expect them to.

Affinity designer - Shapes

A bunch of the different default shapes in Affinity Designer

Personas

Designer

Something that initially drew me to using Affinity was the different personas. There are three personas: Designer, pixel, and export. Designer is the default. It’s just straight vector editing. So far, everything I’ve mentioned has been done in the designer persona. Now let’s see how the other two personas compare.

Pixel

From what I understand, the pixel persona was meant as a way to blend vector editing software with photo editing. Like a Photoshop/Illustrator hybrid. Switching from designer persona into pixel persona is a bit confusing. I try to draw using the paintbrush tool, but nothing shows up. There are some UI icons on the left that I can drag onto my artboard, but that’s about it. When I try rasterizing one of my vector shapes, I’m able to use the paintbrush. So maybe you need to be on a raster layer to use the pixel personal tools?

I’ve seen people online using Affinity Designer to make some amazing character illustrations. First they draw the character in the designer persona, then add texture in the pixel persona. Right now, I’m not sure how they do that. I’m unable to select a rasterized shape and draw only inside it. It doesn’t seem to be like Photoshop when selecting things, despite the number of selection tools in the toolbar. In Illustrator, you’re able to select a shape to draw behind or inside of. So far, I can’t figure out how to do that in Designer.

Export

The export persona, I assume, is for exporting to different formats and sizes. When you choose this persona, the toolbar drastically changes. You’re left with the slice tool, the slice selection tool, the view tool, and the zoom tool. You can click on individual items to make slices, then export those slices in the slices panel. This is likely meant for website design rather than digital art.

Isometric Drawing

Some of the only things I’ve really explored in Affinity Designer are the isometric tools. Compared to Illustrator, they are fantastic. I’m new to isometric Illustration overall, but Affinity seems to really provide designers with the ideal tools for isometric Illustration.

Affinity has a separate panel exclusively for isometric Illustration. It’s within the designer persona. It allows you to create a custom isometric grid. You’re also able to draw the default shapes at an isometric angle. Selecting front, side, or top let’s you fit the shape right where you need it. You can create something that’s incredibly complex then fit it so it conforms right into an isometric shape. If you do a lot of isometric drawing, switch to Affinity. Illustrator can’t match it.

Affinity designer - Isometric

Using the Isometric tools to draw right on the grid lines

Other Impressions

One of the most surprising things I immediately noticed about Affinity Designer was when making selections. Typically, I would just click and drag the mouse over part of a shape and the whole thing would be selected. Not in Affinity Designer. You actually need to click and drag over the entire shape you want to select. I suppose this will actually be more helpful when there are a lot of elements on the screen. Like when working with complex character illustrations. At this point, however, I’m just not used to it.

The arrange commands seem to be the same as in Adobe Illustrator. You want to move a shape to the back? Ctrl + Shift + [ works just like it does in Illustrator. In fact, a lot of the key commands are the same, thankfully. This makes the Illustrator to Designer transition much easier.

In Illustrator, to make custom shapes you’d often have to use the pathfinder tools. In Affinity Designer, those tools are at the top right of your screen when you’re working with shapes. Based on the amount of time I’ve spent looking for the pathfinder panel in Illustrator, I appreciate that.

Affinity Designer vs Illustrator: In Conclusion

That sums up my initial thoughts on switching from Adobe Illustrator to Affinity Designer. Overall, the transition isn’t too bad; although I wouldn’t call it easy. Doing basic things like simple vector illustrations are very similar to how they are in Illustrator. Some things, however, are not as simple.

I know I missed a lot of things. Like Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer is a big program. My goal is to figure out if Affinity Designer can actually do everything that Adobe Illustrator can do. From what I’ve heard, it can. But I have to test that for myself. That kind of testing will require me to switch to Affinity Designer full time. When I do a project, I’ll have to use Affinity. When I get stuck, I’ll Google what to do. I’ll watch tutorials. Then I’ll write about it. That’s the best way to learn.

Have you made the total switch from Adobe Illustrator to Affinity Designer? What did you find the most difficult part? Let me know in the comments below.