Adobe Illustrator might be the gold standard when it comes to vector software for the Mac, but you don’t have to spend a fortune to create crisp artwork, diagrams, and concepts. Free and cheap variants exist, and they provide some compelling alternatives.
If you’re looking for vector software to take on your next design project, design an icon or simply because you’d like an introduction to the world of vector imagery, you might want to start with one of these first.
Vector graphics differ from raster images in one key area: they use mathematical expressions to draw the lines, shapes and colours you see as an image. The best example of this is seen when scaling up a raster, which “stretches” the image to the point where unsightly pixelation occurs. Conversely, vector graphics can be scaled up and down infinitely, as the software merely re-draws the image based on the new instructions.
This makes vectors incredibly useful for design purposes, creating icons and logos which will need to be scaled to a number of sizes (and which in future can be scaled beyond current requirements). Vector graphics use simple shapes, lines and curves based on vectors (also known as paths or strokes) and the current W3C standard comes in the form of the Scalable Vector Graphics format, or .SVG files.
Photoshop, Paint.NET and the GIMP are not vector editors, and instead specialised software like Adobe Illustrator or CorelDRAW is required to design, render and export these graphics to traditional raster formats for use on the web, with existing projects or in print. Vectors are great for creating diagrams, charts, posters, magazines, and scaleable artwork.
Inkscape is probably the best free tool for editing and creating vector images. With a long history of development and a keen fanbase that mostly comprises of Linux users, Inkscape works on all three major operating systems and costs nothing for the privilege. Using the open source development model, Inkscape’s progress is often a lot slower than rival commercial efforts as a result.
Don’t let that put you off, however. The software prides itself on full compatibility with the W3C .SVG standard, which includes support for a number of advancements in vector graphic technology (clones, markers and alpha blending to name a few). Despite the user-friendliness of the program, newcomers to the vector world may feel a little out of their depth and that’s where the help forums come in.and
Mac users may need to download XQuartz depending on their version of macOS (the Inkscape project currently “requires” it in the download instructions), and despite the current version being a little outdated by this stage it still works like a treat.
Verdict: The best freeware open source vector editor out there, and the closest you’ll come to Adobe Illustrator if your budget is $0.
Boxy SVG (Free)
Boxy is a new breed of modern vector graphics editor designed to provide similar functionality to Illustrator and Inkscape. It’s made using and for the modern web platform, hence SVG — the web’s current format of choice for scaleable web images.
The app works on a variety of platforms, and includes its own Mac app (or you can run it inside a web browser if you want). The app includes support for the importing or .SVG files, .PNG, .JPEG, and .GIF and integrated support for the Google Fonts library.
Transform, grouping, and painting are all supported with pre-set shapes, support for gradients and patterns, and boolean operatings like unite, subtract, intersect and exclude.
Verdict: A refreshing free entry to the vector graphics category, built on web technology. Lightweight, free, and begging to be played with.
Just like Boxy SVG, Vectr is a free vector editor built on web technology. Not only can it be downloaded for all major operating systems, it also runs in the browser and provides a surprisingly responsive and capable interface.
The app is promised to be free forever, and even includes free accounts for syncing your work with other computers and platforms. It’s a strictly 2D affair, and its application is mostly focused on creative and illustrative purposes: business cards, logos, brochures, posters; rather than flow charts and diagrams.
Best of all Vector includes a comprehensive user guide as well as tutorials, so you can learn to use it effectively in very little time.
Verdict: Free, web-based tool with downloadable offline versions and excellent support via tutorials and user guides.
LibreOffice Draw (Free)
LibreOffice is a popular open source alternative to Microsoft Office, and it comes with its own drawing program appropriately named Draw. Unfortunately it isn’t as feature rich as Inkscape (above) but it does have a few interesting features.
Look what I made in LibreOffice Draw pic.twitter.com/jNhcCQFeVq
— Literallie (@_xxyy) August 6, 2016
The app seems more aimed at users who want to create flowcharts and other diagrams, but also has the ability to create technical drawings, brochures, logos, posters and more. You can work with objects, group them, manipulate 3D objects and color as you see fit.
Draw is a great choice for those looking to create network diagrams, visualize ideas, design flow charts, and more — all without a high degree of artistic skill. If you’re looking to create artwork then Inkscape might be a better choice, but if you’re looking for an office-friendly all rounder then Draw is a good choice.
Verdict: Lacks the polish of Inkscape, and it’s more focused towards diagrams and charts. If you already use LibreOffice, you might already have it installed.
DrawBerry won’t wow you with its Illustrator-beating features or extensive help documentation, but after downloading it just to see if it still works on the latest version of macOS, it still may be worth a punt. The app is very lightweight (at only 3.8MB to download), and though it lacks features and hasn’t had an update since the days of OS X 10.5 — it still works!
The key to DrawBerry’s appeal lies in its simplicity. Illustrator’s UI looks like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise by comparison, and while seasoned vector veterans will be pining for the advanced features that are absent here, if you need a simple logo for your low-to-no-budget project, you can do a lot worse than DrawBerry.
Unfortunately, .SVG support isn’t great, so this one is best for coming up with your own designs rather than rendering files you find on the web.
Verdict: Despite being ancient and lacking in features, it still works, it’s still free, and it might just do the job if you don’t need a hefty vector editor.
Pixelmator is one of our favorite alternatives to Adobe Photoshop, and in 2013 it introduced support for vectors. Dubbed “Vectormator” the app provides limited support for vector drawing with shapes and lines, but stops short of adding full .SVG support. This has lead some people to claim that Pixelmator isn’t really a proper vector app, so be aware of this before you buy.
There are a range of in-built shapes and tools for mapping out vectors, though professionals and users who are used to the advanced features seen in Illustrator will probably be left wanting more. Vector mode is activated using the command+shift+v shortcut, allowing Pixelmator to essentially blend raster and vector imagery into one file.
New users should check out the tutorials section of the Pixelmator website in order to get up to speed with the software.
Verdict: No .SVG support means that Pixelmator stops short of being genuinely useful for a lot of users, but it’s still a great app that can perform many common tasks and it’s cheap to boot.
Autodesk Graphic ($29.99)
Previously known as iDraw, Autodesk Graphic is a successor to one of the best lightweight vector editors on the platform. It’s $5 more expensive than it used to be, but it still maintains a robust feature set with full support for the import of .SVG, .PDF and .EPS (Illustrator) formats, as well as layered .PSD import and export for Photoshop users.
Featuring a good range of tools for drawing and sketching, support for layers, workflow tweaks like an in-place colour picker as well as dimensioning for technical drawings, Graphic makes for a great budget vector graphics editor. There’s also an iPad version ($8.99) which uses iCloud to sync with the Mac client, so you can work on and access your designs on the go.
There really is a lot to love about Graphic, especially at such an attractive price point. The only thing that really lets it down is the lack of a free trial, so maybe have a look at a few tutorials before you buy to ensure it’s the right app for you.
Verdict: A proper vector editor first and foremost, Graphic excels where Pixelmator falls short. If vectors are your thing, Graphic is a good choice.
Affinity Designer ($59.99)
After the glowing reception received by raster and RAW editor Affinity Photo, Serif Labs introduced Affinity Designer to take on the vector market. It’s specifically targeting Adobe Illustrator’s subscription model with a one-off fee of around $60 (the website differs from the Mac App Store, which occasionally knocks 20% off the price too).
Affinity claims to have the best Photoshop .PSD import engine around (I’m not sure Adobe would agree) with support for .PSD, .PDF, .SVG, .AI (Illustrator format), Freehand and .EPS file formats to boot. There’s 16-bit per channel editing, support for slices, realtime masks, adjustment layers, and graphics tablet support.
That’s alongside all the usual basic features expected from such a package — a great pen tool, node editing, curve editing, smart shapes, flexible text, and several workspaces that target web, UI or UX, print and concept art. You can even use raster-style effects for the best of both worlds.
Verdict: A serious alternative to Illustrator, with no subscription fees. Worth the price of entry for those who need a professional tool at a mid-tier price.
The most expensive product on this list, Sketch bills itself as a professional vector program for designers. Looking at a few of the examples on the official site, that’s not hard to believe. The program is built for ease of use, just for macOS, with the aim of producing high quality vectors. There’s even a Sketch Mirror companion app ($4.99) that allows you to preview your designs live on your device, as you work.
As you’d expect from a $100 professional-level app, Sketch has all the bases covered – an advanced UI, layers, excellent text rendering and a slew of grids and guides to help you build and design to your heart’s content. Import from .PDF and .EPS (Illustrator), learn the ins and outs with extensive documentation and even get a helping hand with your project by downloading community resources like iOS development kits and icon templates.
Unlike Autodesk Graphic, Sketch offers a 15-day free trial so you can try before you buy.
Verdict: Sketch is up there with the best of the best vector image editors for macOS, complete with excellent management and organizational tools, and a price tag to match.
See Also: Alchemy
Alchemy is a bit of a wildcard. It hasn’t been updated for quite some time (2014), and it’s not a program designed for creating finished artwork. However it is capable of outputting a vector image format, which you can then import into another editor and keep working.
The app describes itself as an “open drawing project” which aims to explore new ways of drawing, sketching, and creating digital artwork. It’s a “sketching environment” that is designed to kickstart your project, help you come up with ideas, and brainstorm rather than perfect.
For that reason there’s no undo, there’s no ability to select lines or shapes, and no editing. Various modules allow you to interact with the canvas in unorthodox ways: using your voice, using random shapes, using a mirror drawing technique, by drawing blind, and random placement and distortion of shapes.
Verdict: A random brainstorming app that’s as fun as it is chaotic. Requires the Java Runtime Environment to work, allows export to vector format for further tweaking. Experimental and fun.
Apps That Didn’t Make the Cut
If you’re thinking “there must be more out there!” then you’d be right, but there are a lot of vector apps that didn’t make the cut. We thought we’d list them here so you can dismiss them entirely:
- Xara Xtreme — a free open source version of the premium Windows project, a Mac version was in development at some point. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like the project has had an update at all since 2007.
- Skencil — a free vector drawing program for Linux that will run under macOS. Unfortunately no updates since 2010, and you’ll need to compile for Mac from source as no binary is available.
- Karbon — a great free package that’s open source to boot, but requires the whole Calligra Suite to be installed to use. Worth a try if you’re unsatisfied with Inkscape or Boxy SVG.
Missed Your Favourite?
Did we miss any great vector packages for macOS for the designer on a budget? Let us know if there’s something we should check out in the comments, below!
Also, take a look at why it’s important to know how to change image DPI, especially if you’re a designer.