The Race to Replace Illustrator: Affinity Designer

Just as Core Graphics created a race to replace Photoshop (at least for the great unwashed masses who don’t care about Color Spaces, CMYK, Lab Color, HDR, Stitching, Content-Aware Resizing and Deletion, seamless integration with other Adobe software, and so forth) there is now a race to replace Illustrator. Part of the problem is that the bewildering range of screen densities has made working primarily with bitmaps essentially a mug’s game (even Apple-targeted designers, used to supporting two resolutions, are suddenly faced with four (one of which is seriously weird).

You may recall some old stalwarts, such as Inkscape, Intaglio Designer, iDraw, Artboard, ZeusDraw, EasyDraw — of which I like iDraw — and Sketch; some of these are pretty credible Illustrator replacements (at least for casual users) but there are even more entrants in the field now, and they’re even more interesting:

Sketch 3 is the new version of Sketch — the vector-based, UI-focused drawing tool. It adds user interface refinements, symbols (“instances”), scripting via Javascript, automatic detection of colors used in a layout, and streamlined export functions. The fact that most of the new features are focused on workflow shows that BohemianCoding has been listening to professional users. I’ve not bought Sketch 3 yet because I’m a bit miffed that there’s no upgrade path for Sketch 2 owners (for which Apple is at least partially responsible) and — worse — that they pulled Sketch 2 from the App Store so I can’t conveniently reinstall the old version on my computers. Again, that might be Apple’s fault (i.e. perhaps they can’t set things up so that existing owners could continue to download and install it while taking it off the market).

Let me pause here to say this: I freaking love Sketch (2). I probably use it more than any other non-3d graphics program (I use it in preference to iDraw these days). I probably use it more than all other non-3d graphics software put together. Sketch is my go-to app for UI graphics and textures for (cartoony) 3d models.

Paintcode and Webcode are, like Sketch, focused on user interface design. The big difference between these tools and predecessors is that they’re focused on outputing your graphics as code that will recreate them at arbitrary resolutions (Paintcode will output Objective-C, Swift, or C# Xamarin, while Webcode will output SVG, Javascript (Canvas), and HTML+CSS. I’ve got a Paintcode 1.x license which seemed a bit limited (Paintcode 2 has beefed up its import and export functionality, as well as adding Swift support). Of the two, Webcode actually looks more compelling to me than Paintcode (and it doesn’t hurt that it’s much cheaper) — I’d probably pony up for Paintcode if it offered all of Webcode’s functionality, but it appears not to.

Finally, Affinity Designer comes from Serif, a company dedicated to competing with Adobe at the low-end in the Windows market, switching over to the Mac-only market with a bang. Their plan is to start with an Illustrator-killer, then proceed with Affinity Photo and Affinity Publisher. (Publisher? Really? Do they want to take on Pages and InDesign at once because that seems to me to be a losing proposition.) Of the three, Affinity Designer is clearly the most Illustrator-like, while Sketch 3 is kind of an Illustrator/Fireworks hybrid, and Paintcode/Webcode are simply unique.

iDraw is my current benchmark for wannabe Illustrator-replacements.
iDraw is my current benchmark for wannabe Illustrator-replacements.

Affinity Designer

I played with Affinity Designer briefly during the free beta, but it didn’t leave me with a strong impression. When they announced its release, I ponied up the (discounted) $40 (iDraw, my current favorite, is $25, but there’s been no significant improvements to it over the last year, and the things that annoy me about it still annoy me). The first thing I noticed when I launched Affinity Designer is that — like Illustrator — it defaults to print usage (CMYK, paper-oriented layout). It’s nice to discover that it also has web- and device-centric settings and defaults, and @2x retina support out of the box (but unlike Paintcode it hasn’t figured out what to do about the iPhone 6/Plus).

Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 11.26.51 AM
I imported the SVG from iDraw into Affinity Designer. Everything looks great (and it even preserved layers) except for the fonts (which unfortunately are not easily fixed).

The first thing I did was take a pretty damn complicated SVG file (with layers and typography) and export it from iDraw and import it into Affinity Designer. Every font failed to import correctly (Helvetica Bold and DIN Condensed), but otherwise it seemed to do a pretty good job — overall, it did a better job than Sketch (2) at importing the same file. I think the problem lies with how SVG stores font information (Sketch had the same issue when importing the file; note that iDraw can import its own SVGs flawlessly.)

But here’s where things get ugly — when I tried to fix the font issues, I discovered that I can’t change the character style settings for more than one object at a time. (And this is not a problem in Sketch or iDraw.) As a workaround, I tried to create a style from one object and apply it to others but that didn’t work at all — styles seem to be limited to fill color and the like (and fill color doesn’t seem to be the same thing as text color). Bad start.

Time to look at the program in its own terms. One of the best things about Sketch relative to iDraw is its support for gaussian blur as a style. Affinity Designer has this and more (e.g. emboss, and a weird “3D” effect that I’m not sure what it’s supported to do). What it doesn’t do (and what Sketch and iDraw both do) is allow you to apply the same filters multiple times (e.g. much the same way you can stack box-shadow effects in CSS). Another annoyance with Affinity Designer’s effects is that important settings are buried in a modal dialog box (iDraw is annoying in a different way in that you need to disclose the settings with an extra double-click, but that’s a pretty minor annoyance). So far, I’d call this a mixed result.

Here’s an example of Affinity Designer at its worst. I draw a test bezier curve and then try to apply a stroke to it. So far so good. But it’s stroked in the center of the curve.

  • I almost always want to stroke inside the curve, and sometimes outside, but almost never centered on the curve. So I look at the stroke settings, and all that is exposed is color, opacity, and radius.
  • To access the extra properties I need to click on the little “gear” icon that lets you configure the other settings of a given filter.
  • As I’ve mentioned before, this dialog is modal; it also defaults to showing some random filter setting, not the one you were working on (which confused me a minute, since it was showing bevel/emboss options and not line options).
When I clicked the stroke "gear" I get deposited in a modal dialog with Bevel selected. WTF?
When I clicked the stroke “gear” I get deposited in a modal dialog with Bevel selected. WTF?

 

  • OK, so having switched over to the line settings, I discover that the options (inside, outside, centered) which — for some reason — is not the top setting (compositing mode is at the top).
To add injury to insult, the stroke settings don't actually work — note that I've chosen outside and it's displaying a centered stroke.
To add injury to insult, the stroke settings don’t actually work — note that I’ve chosen outside and it’s displaying a centered stroke.
  • Here’s the rub — the different options (a) don’t work and (b) appear to override and block the modeless setting (i.e. when I change radius in the modeless view, the setting no longer works. WTF?).
The basic selection / transformation affordances are nice.
The basic selection / transformation affordances are nice.

This is a freaking disaster. First of all, how can an Illustrator clone go out the door with broken strokes?

I do like the basic selection affordances. In particular rotation gets its own affordance (the little dot out on its own) rather than requiring mouse/keyboard chording. The basic Bezier drawing tools seem to be solid.

But there’s one more global observation I need to make before I move on: the tools all feel wrong. There’s a nuance to the rules that govern how 2d graphics tools, in drawing programs especially, behave. When they should be sticky vs. revert to a selection tool, and so forth. This stuff is so basic that it happens below the level of conscious decision-making. For better or (mostly) worse, a lot of us have Illustrator’s behavior in our muscle memory (where it displayed MacDraw, which was generally more intuitive).

In any event, just as iDraw and Sketch and many other Mac graphics programs get this somehow right, Affinity Designer gets this somehow wrong, and it bugs the hell out of me. If the program were in a more functional state, I might even spend the time to go figure out exactly what’s wrong and write some kind of detailed bug report for the development team, but I find the program, as a whole, to be so fractally unusable that I just can’t be bothered.

At this point, it’s not worth continuing the review. Affinity Designer is a promising and polished looking piece of software, but basic functionality is completely broken, and it has horrific workflow problems (styles don’t work with text formatting, you can’t edit multiple selections in a useful way, the wrong properties are disclosed in the modeless floater, and the modal dialog is both weird and buggy). So, in summary:

  • Some features that are lacking in iDraw (Gaussian Blur effect)
  • Single window UI (unlike iDraw which suffers from palette-itis)
  • Better SVG import than most rivals
  • Limited effects options (can’t apply multiple instances of a given effect to a single element)
  • Editing effects is clumsy (useful stuff is buried in modal dialog, which does not open on the right effect) and buggy (the settings don’t work properly).
  • Affinity Designer’s tools just feel wrong; they stick in modes when they shouldn’t (or I don’t expect them to) and it’s just infuriating.

Affinity Designer manages to be promising, attractive, and completely useless in its current form.

Note: I purchased Affinity Designer from the App Store after using the public beta a few times. I was so frustrated with the release version that I have requested a refund from Apple, and have deleted the app. (I think this is maybe the second time I have ever asked for an App purchase to be refunded.)

  • Chris Heath

    Thanks for the review Tonio. Out of the latest versions of Sketch and iDraw, I use iDraw pretty much all of the time now. Affinity Designer looks promising and I was thinking of trying it out (It’s currently featured on the Apple Store), but I think I’ll hold off and see how it matures over the next six months or more.

  • Affinity Designer is averaging 4.5 stars in the App Store, so I guess most people don’t care about strokes.

    This isn’t surprising — I remember programs like Canvas (the hybrid drawing/painting program) and ComicWorks got great reviews, back in the day, despite having egregiously bad basic drawing behavior (my pet peeve was when you clicked and dragged to create a shape, the starting point would “move around” depending on which direction you dragged because the programmers didn’t understand that on the Mac coordinates ran between pixels and not through them).

    Anyone who writes a graphics program without understanding the low level graphics system it’s built on needs to get into another line of work.

  • I’ve just taken a look at version 1.1.2’s release notes in the App Store and it looks as though all of my major issues with Affinity Designer have been addressed, which is pretty impressive. (Not quite up to Acorn’s standards — I’ve had bugs fixed within 24h of being reported in the past — but still very good.) I may pony up the (now) $50 and give it another shot. If so, I’ll update my review.

  • John Daniel

    Thanks for the review. Very interesting blog posts by the way. Have you ever looked at Logoist? I would be curious to hear what you think about it. Version 1 really annoyed me because of is bitmap only exports, among other things. Version 2 improves on that. But in spite of all of its annoying quirks, it is my go-to tool for building graphics. I may have to clean them up in iDraw and/or Pixelmator, but I don’t mind.

  • The Logoist looks interesting. It reminds me of a UI-centric editor from some years back whose name I can’t remember that was very good in some ways, and incredibly annoying in others — but that’s just a superficial thing. As you can see from my review, I have pretty exacting requirements!

  • I note that Affinity Designer continues to be aggressively updated and, at minimum, has addressed the stroke alignment issue I complained about. (I see no sign that they’ve fixed things like changing font styles for more than one object at a time, or other deal-breakers.) I also see that they went from $40 to $50 and back to $40. If they claim to have addressed enough of my deal-breakers, I’ll probably buy the program again and update my review, as Affinity Designer has many features utterly lacking in other Illustrator wannabes.