Top Advanced Illustration Programs

Vector-based Drawing Software

Illustration software offers vector-based graphics editing and drawing capabilities for creating simple, non-photographic designs, technical diagrams, and illustrations such as logos and stylized art. Most also offer basic typography and page layout capability for producing small documents. These advanced drawing tools are powerful enough for high-end professional design and business use. (Updated: Nov. 2011)

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Xara Designer (formerly Xara Xtreme) offers amazing speed, a small size, reasonable system requirements, a moderate price, and a powerful feature set. It may not be one of the "big three" drawing programs, but it beats them in features, price, and performance. It comes with loads of tutorials and video demos to ease the learning curve, and its loyal base of users are extremely zealous. If you're a Windows user and industry compatibility is not an issue for you, it's hard to go wrong with Xara Designer. Two versions are available--Xara Photo & Graphic Designer and Designer Pro--Xara Designer Pro offers advanced features for print and web design. An open-source version for Linux is also available at

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CorelDRAW has historically been snubbed by professional designers, but I find it superior to many of the products in this category both in capabilities and ease of use. Besides getting CorelDRAW, the core application for vector-based illustration, you also get Photo-PAINT for photo editing, plus several other utilities, fonts, and clipart. As an affordable graphics suite, it's a popular choice among small business users.

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Industry standard Illustrator is well supported among service bureaus and preferred by professionals, particularly those with a print-oriented environment. Feature-wise it has historically lagged behind others in this category, though recently it has made great strides toward closing that gap. However, the difficult learning curve and higher price generally keep it reserved for high-end work.

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Serif DrawPlus is a popular vector drawing application that is available in a free version, DrawPlus SE, as well as a more advanced paid version. Although I have not personally reviewed Serif DrawPlus, it has long been a popular favorite among Graphics Software site readers. Having seen what can be done with DrawPlus in the digital drawings gallery, I could not exclude it from this list.

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Inkscape is the open source community's free alternative to Adobe Illustrator. Although it doesn't match the full range of features of Illustrator, it should be considered a worthy alternative with advanced and professional features for vector-based drawing. Contributor Ian Pullen has this to say about it in his Inkscape Review: "I'm an unashamed fan of Inkscape and really do believe that all those that play a part in its development have produced an extremely powerful application that anyone with an interest in graphics software should take a look at."

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Canvas is an all-in-one graphics suite unified within a single interface. The Canvas user-base has historically consisted primarily of large corporations and technical professionals, but it should not be neglected as an ideal all-purpose graphics tool for small business users, Web designers, educators, and creative professionals. The one drawback of this powerhouse is its intense learning curve. Canvas X for Mac was discontinued in 2008.

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Since I don't have a Mac, I have not used Lineform, but I've read some positive comments about it, and it looks to be very polished. The publisher says, "Lineform is a completely new drawing program. Winner of a 2006 Apple Design Award, it is the ideal tool for vector based diagrams and illustrations. Powerful features combine with a simple interface to create an intuitive artistic process." It costs under US$80 and offers many features that the competitors, including Illustrator, don't offer.

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Intaglio is another Macintosh drawing program I have not used, but it looks quite sophisticated. The publisher says, "Intaglio carries the legacy of MacDraw into the modern Macintosh world by combining ease of use with the power of Mac OS X graphics. Intaglio retains the feel of MacDraw while harnessing the full capabilities of Quartz and CoreImage. Old timers soon feel right at home and those new to Mac drawing pick it up quickly." A save-disabled demo version is available for trial, and the program can be purchased for US$89.

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Expression was originally developed by Creature House as a natural-media tool for creating painterly styled art. It centers around "skeletal strokes" technology which allows you to manipulate objects like no other program. It may not totally replace other drawing programs in your toolbox, but it can certainly add a unique quality to your vector-based designs. Since Microsoft acquired it in 2003, it's had new features added and been released as Microsoft Expression Design in the Expression Studio Suite.

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