Designing on a Budget: Software All Poor (Student) Designers Need

by Nick Reitan

One of my favorite perks of interning with Sundog: the resources. I’ve been lucky to have access to some of the latest design software, like the newest Adobe CC Suite, at my disposal. This is a benefit that isn’t standard for students at my age. Some internships or job offerings in a design environment don’t provide the newest tools to work with. Outside of a workplace, young designers may have difficulty accessing programs that help them practice their skills. There can be multiple reasons hindering a young designer, most notably would be the reality of living with a cash-strapped budget. As a student, it’s not always easy to access these new products due to their high cost. Adobe Creative Cloud (Adobe CC) provides some of the most comprehensive programs for designers, but that convenience comes at a cost. It’s also true that the most important way to improving your skills is to use the best tools, usually meaning the more expensive ones, too.

I’ve been fortunate, having been able to access Adobe products over the past few years. The computer labs in school already come loaded with all of my Adobe Creative Suite favorites such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. I can consider myself lucky that I continue using premium software in my day-to-day work.

Looking forward, I struggle trying to think just how I can justify spending $49.99 per month to keep the software that I love and grew accustomed to. Now, there is a Student Discount price for Adobe CC (knocking it down to $19.99/mo) but that is still a tall order, paying ~$240 per year on an already tight budget. In the past, Adobe had released their programs in packages available for a one time cost. In 2014, Adobe switched to a SaaS (Software as a Service) model by discontinuing the standalone bundles and promoting the subscription ones. This was met with a large critical response in the creative community. It also limits the purchasing options for the software. Instead of a selective one-time purchase, users are faced with a continual cost to access all programs. In my case, this proved to be too much for my particular situation.

I’ve found myself looking for alternatives to spring for once I no longer have these wonderful tools at my disposal. I mean, it’s not like I am going to stop trying to create things because I don’t have Adobe. This led me to doing some in-depth research and testing. I wanted to find something that is both familiar to me, but also comprehensive enough to handle the detailed edits I like to make. As it turns out, finding a replacement for a reasonable price wasn’t easy.

To start, I thought I would go straight for the “Gold” standard for cost-saving: open source software. Open-sourced software isn’t always the most popular thing in the market. It’s created by a group of dedicated individuals in a community setting. The problem: it’s not always the most polished program to use. It will get the job done, but you’ll need to learn a few roundabout tricks or adjust your habits to accommodate the learning curve.

A couple open-source favorites are GIMP (Photoshop replacement) and Inkscape (Illustrator replacement). Each have their benefits and pitfalls when compared to their premium counterparts.



GIMP is a cross-platform image editor available for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows and more operating systems. It is free software, you can change its source code and distribute your changes.” GIMP provides an attractive substitution for raster editing by opening their program to everyone. However, the layout and toolset will be highly unfamiliar to those new to the program. If you’re looking to try the program out for yourself, take a look at these tutorials first.



“Inkscape is a professional vector graphics editor for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. It’s free and open source.” Inkscape is the most comprehensive free vector editing program available currently. Alongside lengthy tutorials and guides, they also have a thriving community to answer any questions that you may come up with!


“I think I may have finally found my happy middle ground”

Now, I thought that I could settle down with these two options as my substitute for my long-standing favorite programs. However, I couldn’t help but feel like I was missing out on some different, better option. Through enough searching, I think I may have finally found my happy middle ground. It turns out there is a lower-cost alternative that has all my favorite features included in one convenient package.



Affinity Photo & Designer both provide a familiar experience at an affordable cost. Each program costs a flat fee of $49.99. The main point that they promote is their non-subscription based model. They have a one-time payment that covers the cost of the program and all future updates. This echoes back to the last Adobe Creative Suite, CS6, that was released as a standalone software bundle in 2012. Since this is no longer offered, Adobe opened a sector of the marketplace to smaller programs to offer this competitive pricing strategy. The upside with these programs range from the relatively low cost (~$100 for both), the familiarity of the tools compared to Adobe programs and the compatibility with other programs on the market. The downside: you’ll miss out on the full CC experience. Adobe provides many additional programs and offers baked into their experience (like Muse and Behance). If you’re willing to sacrifice these additional features, you’re able to appreciate the relative versatility of Affinity’s software.

After all this searching, I think I found something I am willing to settle with. I can justify spending $100 on two programs indefinitely as opposed to 5 months of Adobe CC for students. When push comes to shove, I can sacrifice the luxury of my Adobe products to keep on creating. How about you? I’d love to know what you’re willing to create with.

As always, keep it creative!

Intern Nick