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:
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.
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.
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).
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).
- 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).
- 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?).
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.)