Free open source alternatives to Photoshop, InDesign and Illustrator

For web designers, developers and amateur creative types that work with a lot of graphics and image manipulation, the decision of which software to use is an important one.

neon open sign

While Adobe Photoshop and its related Creative Suite programs are well respected throughout the world, open source software is making some big gains in terms of popularity and acceptance. Each graphics software release continues to push the envelop of what’s possible in terms of design.

Here’s a quick comparison between the proprietary and free, open source software available for graphic designers and web developers.

photoshop vs gimp

Photoshop vs. GIMP

As the ultimate Swiss Army Knife of image manipulation and layout creation, the latest version of Adobe Photoshop offers an impressive array of capabilities for almost every need. Photoshop handles paths, layers, color saturation and transparency impeccably. It’s easily the most polished raster graphics editor available. It’s also fairly expensive, retailing at a price of $699. It’s main competitor is the GNU Image Manipulation Program, also commonly referred to simply as GIMP. GIMP is free, stable and supports a rich ecosystem of handy plugins, brushes and tools to extend the functionality of the basic program, but illustrators who are long used to Photoshop may find GIMP too dissimilar to use effectively.

indesign vs scibus

InDesign vs. Scribus

When it comes to desktop publishing applications, the Adobe InDesign package is the go-to program for crafting newsletters, posters, promotional fliers and e-books. It allows even the most inexperienced user the ability to quickly and easily set layouts and play around with designs. Scribus is the closest equivalent to InDesign in terms of ease of use and functionality. Boasting many of InDesign’s main features and with a similarly uncomplicated user interface, Scribus is available as a free download for Mac OS X, Windows and Linux. The major drawback is its inability to work with the file formats used by Adobe’s InDesign.

Important, try also: Lucidpress.

illustrator vs inkscape

Illustrator vs. Inkscape

Finally, there’s the matter of vector graphics editing. Adobe Illustrator is one of the oldest vector graphics tools on the market. As such, it’s a highly stable and powerful way to work with icons, logos and any other type of 3D graphics that are beyond the capabilities of Photoshop or GIMP. Popular with Linux users, Inkscape has many of the same capabilities as Adobe Illustrator when it comes to vector graphics manipulation. Though lacking some of the refinement of Illustrator, it consistently produces smaller, lighter SVG files without a lot of “garbage code” and bloat.


Though pricey, using Adobe software has some key benefits. The Adobe Creative Suite is the industry standard for graphic design at present and will remain dominant for the foreseeable future. As such, there are many more tutorials and guides available online for beginners. Open source software, though free, has a steeper learning curve and can be challenging for the inexperienced. For many, the established community of developers using Adobe software and the support system they provide is enough of a reason to choose Creative Suite tools. For more advanced users, open source software is an appealing and low-cost alternative.

Louise Baker is a freelance blogger and journalist who writes for Zen College Life, the directory of higher education, distance learning, and online schools. She most recently wrote about the top online colleges.

Working from home running a web design business

If you are interested in how to run a web design business, how to deal with clients and how to grow your business, you should be interested in my e-book Running A Web Design Business.

Did this help you? If so, please share!

Download my 2 free e-books and 2 free MP3s on running an online business & getting clients

Plus a list of my 12 favorite resources for online business

two free books and two free mp3s and a list of favorite online tools


  1. says

    Great article. This will definitely help me out in making decision about the selection of software.
    Thanks for the post. Really helpful.

  2. says

    I’ve been running Ubuntu along side windows for some time now. The only thing that’s stopping me from switching from Windows completely is the Adobe Creative Suite. I’m dual booting with Windows 7 at the moment just to run CS5.

    Should Adobe ever port to Linux I’m pretty confident I’ll be running Ubuntu as my only O/S.

  3. says

    Very interesting, Andrew, that you use Ubuntu so much. Great that you’re getting so much out of open source software. Lots of organizations actually use OpenOffice rather than MS Office.

  4. Jonathan says

    Hey great article, it’s very helpful. There’s some really great software out there for free that can get the job done. There are also some programs that aren’t free, but are very cheap. I list some on my website for those interested.

  5. says

    Pixelmator would be another great program to add to the list. It’s not free but the price is really cheap compared to Photoshop.

  6. says

    GIMP openly admits it has accumulated a plethora of bugs specific to Windows only, and has an extensive bug list (7/25/12). Do you have an opinion on this Ron? Will the Windows user get frustrated?

    • says

      Hello Katerine, I’m afraid I’m neither a Windows user nor do I use GIMP regularly but I’m told it’s relatively stable. It’s worth a try because a lot of people use it but it’s maybe a little frustrating!

  7. Tona Aspsusa says

    I wish I had found this small run-through half a year ago… I’m with Ken wrt Adobe, even more so after trying to open a CS4 Indd file with CS2… When I finally got an .inx file and fiddled with it in a texteditor, it had the elements linked (not working with a pro, just a student, so I won’t kill her for that mistake) so that was no good. GRRR.
    I will definitely be checking out Scribus – I’m going barking mad trying to do lay-out in Word or OO.

    For the few windows users who might see this: if you haven’t got IrfanView for quick cropping, batch-resizing and -naming and other small things, get it NOW. No layers or more advanced tools, but absolutely the fastest and best thing to use for quick small things that don’t require PS.

    • JM says

      Totally know what you’re saying about going crazy with Word (I even tried Google Docs) for layout — it just doesn’t work. Honestly, Scribus was confusing to me. I’ve been testing out Lucidpress on a few of my documents and so far, so good.

      Will also try IrfranView.