It's not all that often that you come to a moment in life when you end up feeling stuck, gasping for a breath of fresh air while every cell in your body keeps telling you to make a change. Believe it or not, it happens to us visual tinkerers too, as I learned not too long ago.
So here we are seven years later, seven years of using the same digital product to help me grind and shape every little pixel that I ever pictured in my mind, and for some reason I've never had the courage to cast away and experience something new, something different, until now.
Today, I'm going to share with you my journey, my experience of switching from Adobe Illustrator to Affinity Designer, and list the key road bumps that I had to conquer all on my own using my trusty mouse and keyboard.
So, if you've found yourself down the very same hole, let me give you a helping hand, so that you can embark on your new journey.
Jump straight in with our Affinity Designer tutorials, or read on to find out more.
1. The User Interface
The first thing you always notice when you finally decide to switch it up and try a new graphic design application is the actual interface itself, which can sometimes be a deal breaker, especially if the layout is completely different from what you are used to.
Now, I’m happy to say that Affinity Designer maintains almost the same layout as Illustrator, where the UI is carefully divided into a left tool panel, a top control panel, and of course your docked panel groups on the right.
2. Setting Up a New Document
The next thing that I checked out once the software was up and running was the process of setting up a fresh project.
It might seem weird to mention this, but when it comes to creating a New Document, the most powerful feature that I believe Illustrator has is that of giving the user the ability to set up multiple Artboards from the get-go.
I was a little bit heartbroken to see that Affinity Designer took a slightly different approach, since it only allows you to create one artboard from within the window prompt (which isn’t even checked by default), giving you the option to add more afterwards.
Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad implementation, but I would have loved to be able to stack and distribute my artboards using input fields instead of having to drag and position them manually using a mouse.
3. Navigation and Interaction
Okay, so as we’ve seen, the good people at Serif made sure that Affinity embraces a similar layout, but how does the application perform when it comes to essential tasks such as navigating and interacting with the Artboard?
In Illustrator, to zoom in or out, all you have to do is press and hold down the Alt key, while scrolling up or down using the mouse wheel to get as close or as far as you want to be from the Artboard. You can achieve the same result by holding down the Control key and then pressing the + / - symbols, or by using the dedicated Zoom Tool (Z), which you can alternate by holding down the Alt modifier key.
Affinity Designer follows the same approach, only it uses the Control key instead of the Alt one, in combination with the mouse wheel or the + / - symbols to zoom in or out of the Artboard.
To me, this was a simple change to get used to once I’d spent a few minutes playing with the application.
When it comes to scrolling, which I’ll be honest I don’t use all that often, Illustrator allows you to vertically scroll through a document by holding down the Shift key and then using the mouse wheel. To go horizontally, all you have to do is press and hold the Control key while moving the scroll wheel.
In Affinity, you use the Shift key in combination with the mouse
wheel to scroll horizontally, and the Alt
key to go vertically. Now this isn’t a big change, but I thought it would be
good to mention, especially if you’re used to navigating this way.
When it comes to being able to navigate to a specific section of your Artboard, Illustrator gives you the option to do that using a dedicated Navigator panel.
If you rely heavily on this function, you’ll be happy to see it implemented using a very similar approach in Affinity Designer, where you can easily click on a specific section and the software will immediately move to that part of the Artboard, allowing you to zoom in or out using either the two dedicated buttons or the percentage slider.
Personally, I prefer using the Hand Tool (H) (View Tool (H) in Affinity Designer) which you can easily switch back and forward to by holding down the Spacebar, while clicking and dragging to move the Artboard around.
4. Basic Shape Creation and Selection
As soon as I'd gotten used to interacting with my Artboard, I went on to see how Affinity handles shape creation and selection, since that’s usually what you actually do in this type of graphics application. This is where things start to change a bit, but not so much as to make you go crazy.
4.1. Creating Geometric Shapes
When it comes to creating simple geometric shapes, Illustrator gives you five types of shape tools that you can use to start creating your artwork: the Rectangle Tool (M), a Rounded Rectangle Tool, an Ellipse Tool (L), a Polygon Tool, and the Star Tool.
All of them can be found within the left tool panel, underneath the Rectangle Tool (M), and can be quickly accessed by simply holding down the left mouse button until the dropdown list appears or by using the keyboard shortcut for those that have one.
While there isn’t a dedicated visual indicator, both the Polygon and Star tools give you the ability to add or remove sides, using the Up and Down arrow keys, which can increase or decrease the complexity of the object, allowing you to create different shapes.
To create an actual shape, you have the option of going manually by clicking and holding while dragging the mouse to get the desired size and shape, where the Shift key allows you to create a perfect shape (be it a square, an ellipse, a polygon, etc.) and the Alt one lets you draw or resize the shape from the center out. You can also move the shape around as you’re creating it by holding down the Spacebar, and then repositioning it using the mouse.
The second method—which I personally use a lot—gives you a higher level of precision, since you can select the desired shape tool and then left click anywhere within the work area to bring up a little pop-up window, which allows you to fine tune its different features (width, height, corner radius, radius, sides, and/or points).
At a first glance, Affinity seems to follow a similar approach since you have your Rectangle Tool (M), an Ellipse Tool (M), a Rounded Rectangle Tool (M), and a Triangle Tool, which come individually separated within the left toolbar.
Now, if we take a closer look at the Triangle Tool, you’ll notice that it has a little dropdown arrow which, if you click on it, will show you the other available options, which to my surprise are quite a few.
When it comes to using one of the tools and creating an actual shape, things get a little bit different since the only way you can do it is using the click-and-drag method. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since you get a visual Width and Height indicator, but can be a little slower and more annoying, especially when you know the exact dimensions that the shape needs to take. Another thing that’s different is that you can’t add or remove sides to the different types of shapes, as you were able to do in Illustrator using the Up and Down arrow keys, but to be honest I never used that option all that much.
Similar to Illustrator, Affinity gives you the ability to use the Shift key to constrain the proportions of the shape while dragging (useful when creating squares, perfect circles, etc.), and/or the Control key to draw or resize the shape from the center out. You can also move the shape as you draw it by holding down the Spacebar, and even rotate it—whaat?—using the mouse’s right click.
4.2. Basic Shape Selection
So we’ve seen that creating shapes in Affinity isn’t all that different, but how does it behave when it comes to selecting them afterwards? Well, if you’re familiar with Illustrator, you probably know that you can easily select a shape by left clicking on it using the dedicated Selection Tool (V).
If you need to select multiple shapes, you can quickly do that by holding down the Shift key, while clicking on the ones that you want to include in your selection.
You can achieve the same result using the click-and-drag method, where you click and drag using the Selection Tool (V) in order to select the desired shapes. While it might be faster, this isn’t as precise and helpful once you’re dealing with a larger number of overlapping objects.
Another way of making a selection is by using the Layers panel, where if you expand a layer, you can see all of the shapes on it, which you can then easily select using the little target circle.
If you need to select all the existing shapes, you can quickly do this using the Control-A keyboard shortcut.
When it comes to shape selection, Affinity comes equipped with its own Move Tool (V), which basically behaves the same way as Illustrator’s Selection Tool (V), where you can easily select a shape by simply clicking on it.
If you try to use the click-and-drag method, you’ll notice that things are a little bit different, since you’ll have to make sure that your selection overlaps the entire surface of the shape(s), otherwise the software won’t include it/them within your selection.
After working on a few projects, I found that the easiest way to make a selection out of a larger number of shapes is using the Layers panel, where you can quickly select a shape by simply clicking on it, adding and/or removing new ones from the selection while holding down the Control key.
As with Illustrator, you can quickly select all your shapes when you need to by using the Control-A keyboard shortcut.
4.3. Shape Grouping
When dealing with multiple shapes, the ability to select and group them together becomes a must have, and I’m excited to say that Affinity takes a familiar approach, where you can quickly create a group of objects by right clicking > Group or by using the Control-G keyboard shortcut.
To break a group, simply select it and then right click > Ungroup or use the Control-Shift-G keyboard shortcut.
5. Adjusting the Shape of an Object
Okay, so we’ve seen how Affinity behaves when it comes to creating basic geometric shapes, but how about when you want to adjust them?
5.1. Terminology: Anchors vs. Nodes
As you probably know, Illustrator uses what it calls anchor points to define the shape of a path (be it open or closed), which behave as little squared pins that help constrain its form.
Affinity works pretty much identically since it uses what it calls nodes, which are basically the same thing, since they serve the same function.
5.2. Anchor/Node Selection
The key difference between the two is in the way the applications handle their selection.
In Illustrator, the anchors aren’t directly accessible using the regular Selection Tool (V), which is why it comes with a dedicated Direct Selection Tool (A) that allows you to individually select each and one of them by simply clicking on them.
Affinity also comes with a dedicated Node Tool (A) of its own, but it behaves slightly differently, since if you’re dealing with basic geometric shapes you won’t be able to directly access their nodes until you convert them to curves using the Convert to Curves function.
Once your shape has been converted to curves, you can easily select any of its nodes by clicking on them, which will fill the little box in order to let you know the selection was made.
Now, I’ll be honest, if you’re new to the software and don’t go through the official documentation, this will probably throw you off a bit, especially if you’re used to the way Illustrator handles this specific type of selection, which is why I wanted to point it out.
5.3. Basic Shape Adjustments
When it comes to basic shape adjustments, based on anchor repositioning, Illustrator gives you the ability to quickly change the appearance of an object, by selecting and dragging anchor points using the mouse or by pushing them using the directional arrow keys. Depending on the level of precision you need, you might choose one over the other.
Once you go through that extra step, Affinity basically allows you to achieve the same result using a click-and-drag approach, which is pretty understandable since it’s probably the most natural way of doing these types of adjustments.
Now, if you want the achieve the highest level of precision, Illustrator comes prepacked with a dedicated Move tool (right click > Transform > Move or Shift-Control-M) which allows you to reposition any selected anchor point (or even an entire shape) using an exact numeric value of your own choosing.
Unfortunately, Affinity doesn’t come with a similar tool. Instead, it allows you to achieve the same result using the Transform panel, where you can control the x and y positioning of your nodes (or the entire shape) in a similar manner.
The problem is that it’s kind of tricky, since each time you make an adjustment, you have to add or remove the number of pixels that you want the nodes to move from the respective coordinate. For example, in my case, I wanted to re-align the top-left node to the right one, which means I have to do some quick math where I remove the distance between the current position and the one that I want to achieve from my y coordinate, so 288-128=160 px.
5.4. Advanced Shape Adjustments
So we’ve seen that you can easily change the shape of a geometric object by repositioning its anchor points/nodes, but how does Affinity handle more advanced adjustments?
Most of the time, when I’m working on a detailed composition based on basic geometric shapes, I find myself making finer adjustments to them by removing parts of their paths.
For example, let’s say we want to open up a circle by completely removing its left half.
In Illustrator, you can easily achieve this by selecting the left anchor point using the Direct Selection Tool (A), and then removing it by simply pressing Delete.
Affinity makes things a little bit more complicated (but for the better), since if you try and apply the same method, you’ll notice that instead of opening up the path, it ends up removing the node from the shape’s path.
To achieve the same result, you’ll have to select the desired node using the Node Tool (A) and then open it up using the Break Curve Action, which will separate its two composing paths. Then, you can individually select and remove them using the Delete key, which will give you the desired result.
This happens because the software sees the left half as being composed out of two smaller paths that unite where their horizontal nodes meet. At first I looked at it as being impractical, but after getting used to it I found it really helpful, especially when I needed to remove smaller sections of a shape’s path.
In Affinity you can easily remove the bottom-left quarter of the circle’s path using the Break Curve Action, where in Illustrator you would have to add and remove a new anchor point from it.
6. Shape Alignment and Distribution
So we’ve seen how shapes are created and adjusted. Now let’s talk a bit about alignment.
I’ll be completely honest. When it comes to aligning a shape, I found that Illustrator has the upper hand since its Align panel, as simple as it may look, is really well thought out.
Using just a couple of clicks, you can easily position any shape in the center of your Artboard as long as you make sure that the alignment is made to it (Align To > Align to Artboard).
If you need to align one or more shapes to a specific object, you can easily do that by selecting them and then clicking on the one that you want to make the alignment to, in order to instruct the software to use it as the key object.
Want to distance two or multiple shapes from one another, you can quickly do that using the Distribute Spacing options, where you assign a key object from your selection, and then enter the number of pixels that you want the software to push the other shapes from it.
Switch over to Affinity Designer, and all the regular individual alignments work as you would expect them to, since you can easily align a shape to any edge of the Artboard or its center using the Align Horizontally and Vertically options.
What’s actually interesting is that the two axis controls come separated, giving you more control over the alignment method, since if you have multiple shapes selected, not only can you align them to different parts of the Artboard, but to one another as well.
I don’t know exactly how useful this would be for a real day-to-day workflow, but I was actually pleasantly surprised by the implementation.
Things start taking a turn for the worse when it comes to distributing multiple objects using a specific numeric value, since compared to Illustrator where you can select the key object to which the distribution is made, in Affinity the distribution is always made from the Selection Bounds. This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it does take some time getting used to, especially if your workflow relies heavily on this particular tool.
7. Copying and Pasting Behavior
Once I saw how shape alignment and distribution work, I wanted to check out how the process of copying and pasting behaves, since I tend to use this feature a lot.
In Illustrator, to copy a shape you use the Control-C keyboard shortcut, which will add it to the Clipboard, enabling you to paste it back onto the Artboard using five different methods:
- Control-V, which will paste the copy randomly within the Artboard’s surface
- Control-F, which will paste the copy in front of the original shape
- Control-B, which will paste the copy behind the original shape
- Shift-Control-V, which will paste the copy in place
- Alt-Shift-Control-V, which will paste a copy of the shape on all the available Artboards
In Affinity, you get to use the same Control-C keyboard shortcut to add a copy of a shape to the Clipboard.
What’s different is that to paste the copy, you use the Control-V shortcut, which will create and position the duplicate in front of the original, which is something that I absolutely love, since when I copy a shape, I expect the duplicate to appear in exactly the same place.
There are a couple of other variations that can be viewed from within the Edit top menu, but for me this one feels sufficient.
8. Shape Isolation
A lot of the times when I work on more intricate projects, I often end up isolating specific sections of it in order to take the time and fine tune their composing shapes without being distracted by all the clutter.
Illustrator comes with a dedicated Isolation Mode, which allows you to focus on a specific shape or group of shapes by double clicking on them, or by right clicking > Isolate Specified Path/Group. Once in Isolation, all the other shapes become unselectable, their Opacity levels being lowered so that they won’t distract you from your work.
Another way that you can isolate a single shape, a group, or even an entire layer is by using the Layers panel, where you first select what you want to isolate and then open up the panel’s menu and hit Enter Isolation Mode.
The panel will immediately indicate that you’re in Isolation Mode by hiding all the other shapes, so that if you have a larger group or a layer, you will only be able to select those shapes that are part of it.
To exit Isolation Mode, all you have to do is press the Escape key, or right click > Exit Isolation Mode.
Affinity Designer enables you to isolate any individual shape, group, or layer, but it does things a little bit differently, since you can only do it from the Layers panel, by left clicking on their thumbnail while holding down the Alt key. As soon as you enter isolation mode, all the other shapes are completely hidden so that the entire focus is on the one that you need to work on.
To exit isolation mode, all you have to do is press
the Escape key, which will bring back
all the other shapes.
9. Clipping Masks
One of my favorite Illustrator features is that of being able to use Clipping Mask in order to hide certain sections of the surface of an object.
The process is really simple, since all you have to do is create the desired shape, which you will position on top of the object or group that you want to mask, and then with both of them selected, you simply right click > Make Clipping Mask.
The shape from underneath will immediately clip to the surface of the top one, the software hiding the entire section that falls outside of that of the mask.
To release the mask, all you have to do is select it, and then right click > Release Clipping Mask.
Affinity, on the other hand, takes a different approach (again), where in order to mask an object you have to use the Layers panel, inside of which you will have to drag the shape that you want to use as a mask over the one that will be masked.
To release the mask, you’ll have to click on the second thumbnail (the one with the little crossed square) and drag it to the bottom, which will immediately break it free.
10. Grid Options
The last bullet of my list is in regards to grids, which is where Affinity took me by surprise and brought the game to a whole other level.
Don’t get me wrong, Illustrator gives you a very powerful Grid system that you can edit and use, but what Serif managed to implement makes me take all the little shortcomings and throw them out the window, since the grid possibilities are truly endless.
If you want to know what I’m talking about, just go to View > Grid and Axis Manager, which will bring up the following window.
Once the window appears, check the Show grid option, making sure to uncheck the Use automatic grid one, which will allow you to choose between Basic and Advanced. Since we want to use the full capabilities of the software, make sure you select the latter, and then click on the Grid type dropdown menu, and let it all sink in.
I won’t go into any further details, since my colleague Kezz Bracey did a fantastic job of presenting all the different functions and possibilities that come with setting up a custom grid within Affinity Designer, which I strongly recommend you read.
So, as you can see, transitioning to Affinity Designer can be a little tricky, especially if you’re deeply rooted to the way Illustrator handles different tasks.
As I pointed out, not too long ago I was in the same situation as many of you are right now, where I needed to find out if there are any viable alternatives to Illustrator, and I’m glad to say that I’ve managed to find one in Affinity.
I’m going to end on that note, but if you have any questions, feel free to post them within the comments section and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.
Also, don't forget you can further expand your Affinity Designer skills by checking out these awesome tutorials: