Unleash your creativity, keep your pockets full
As computers became more powerful (and more user-friendly), their potential as creative machines has increased leaps and bounds. Stunning graphic designs and easily-understood visuals are literally a handful of clicks and keyboard presses away, especially if you rely on the fifteen pieces of software we list here. Even better: all of our selections cost nothing to download, save for the money you'll spend on your net connection and electricity.
GIMP (short for The GNU Image Processor) has long been pushed as a free alternative to Adobe Photoshop. That's because this open-source application features powerful raster editing (or working with graphics based on small dots called pixels) tools, comparable to what you'd find with Photoshop itself. GIMP will take some time to learn, which applies to any capable image editor including the others we'll feature here. What's more problematic from our end is that the software tends to crash on our test Windows PC a lot.
Think of Inkscape as the GIMP of vector graphics software: it's also a free download (an alternative to Adobe Illustrator), and builds images out of mathematically-defined shapes and lines. In practical terms, this means vector images can be resized to any dimension without a loss of quality. On the other hand, it's not suitable for complex visuals like gradients and detailed photos. In any case, Inkscape does the job. However, artists who are used to Illustrator will need to break through a significant learning curve—and it's also a bit unreliable for Windows machines as well.
To be clear, Leonardo Sketch isn't designed for production-quality output. But for those who need to quickly plan how a visual experience will progress (such as the workflow of computer programs, the animation on an application, etc.), the software fits the bill. This tool has plenty to offer to those who can maximize it, and makes sharing work with colleagues, like-minded individuals, or even the general public, easy. It can also quickly integrate online content that's been marked as freely usable.
LibreOffice's Draw already has two things working against it: the fact that's a bit hard to download separately from the rest of the LibreOffice software suite, and that it lacks in more complex drawing tools. Like Leonardo Sketch, Libre Draw is great for formulating concepts rather than finalizing them. However, this alone makes it effective as an everyday productivity-oriented application. Draw is particularly great for working up flowcharts, diagrams, and good ol' organizational charts. It's the creative tool for those in an office setting, which isn't surprising considering what it was designed for.
Here's a long-time favorite of Windows PC users with relatively simple roots. Originally created by undergrads mentored by Microsoft as a capable replacement for Windows' default Paint application, Paint.NET has since evolved into a very effective image editor. It supports layers, text editing, and even filters similar to what you'd find on high-end counterparts like (yes) Adobe Photoshop. Among the strengths of Paint.NET is how straightforward the interface is, especially its built-in image manager. And unlike most of the other software we feature here, Paint.NET has unlimited undo, a boon for indecisive artists trying to find their visual groove.
One of the creative ironies made possible by computers themselves is pixel art. Such imagery celebrates the visual limitations of older PCs that are trivial problems for modern machines. Pixen is a tool designed just for this genre and includes numerous guides and features designed to facilitate the creation of dot-based representations of real-life or virtual objects. To be clear, Pixen will only work for artists who already have a strong visual sense. The software makes great results possible if the creator has the talent and skill to match what it offers.
Here's an application that was originally designed to help anime fans realize their creative visions (it was created by a Japanese programmer, after all). However, it turns out the software is also great for digital painting in general. To be fair, most of what you can do with Pixia can be done on Microsoft Paint, the default graphics editing software that comes with Windows. That said, Pixia has a strong set of text painting tools that make better graphic design possible.
Unlike the other software featured here, ChocoFlop is, for all intents and purposes, defunct. The author set out to create a strong image editor to take advantage of Mac OS X's fast image-processing tools (known as CoreImage by programming geeks), designing ChocoFlop so that it could apply changes without affecting the source image irreversibly. The easy-to-use interface makes this workflow clear: just load an image, apply different visual "filters" to it, and save as desired. ChocoFlop's author has since stopped development and pointed to an alternative that he claims is the best for this kind of image editing setup. However, his suggestion costs money, while ChocoFlop itself is still available as a free download.
Old layout artists will remember Aldus PageMaker while younger ones are probably familiar with InDesign. Regardless of your age, Scribus provides a comprehensive desktop publishing solution for publications working on a tight budget. The interface and workflow is easy to pick up: just place elements to complete your pages and move them around or resize them as required. What makes Scribus worth a look are high-end features like support for vector-graphics editing and even a mode that lets you preview your publication as seen by the colorblind.
GLIPS Graffiti Editor
Another vector graphics editor, GLIPS makes a case for itself via its strong support for technical visuals. Just like LibreOffice Draw, GLIPS is perfect for flowcharts, organizational charts, and other kinds of diagrams. At the same time, the software is a good SVG editor, meaning it can work with the many vector graphic files you'd find on popular websites like Wikipedia.
A notable open-source project, Blender seeks to offer similar functionality to Maya (which costs thousands and thousands of dollars) at no cost. In other words, it's a computer modeling and animation application that's available as a free download. The learning curve is steep, which is par for the course with any 3D graphics software. Yet, as the relatively large and active Blender community shows, with enough time and patience, practically any kind of virtual environment can be worked out with this application. What's more, ost of the time, the userbase is eager to help others through even the most complicated problems generated by a program of this complexity.
You can have the best visual but no impact because the accompanying audio couldn't match the quality. This is where Audacity steps in, with its strong sound editing tools. The application can even edit MP3 files without any conversion and can work with multiple channels. We've had our fun, making Linkin Park's 'In the End' ("It starts with...") transition into Brian McKnight's Back at One ("One... you're like a dream come true") seamlessly, but Audacity is probably better for creating high-quality soundtracks for your moving images.
Dia Diagram Editor
If you really just want to make diagrams and charts, and nothing else, then Dia Diagram Editor is for you. It makes all the visual elements it supports available through a quick-access toolbar. Otherwise look elsewhere.
Compared to the other image editing software we've included here, CinePaint is quite limited. Additionally, for many users, it commits the sin of not working properly on Windows. However, for those who require faithful colors when working with visuals, this application does the job. In fact, CinePaint is so faithful that it's used in professional environments like movie studios. Not bad for a program that started out as a fork (a modification that eventually evolved into its own thing) of GIMP. The key strength of CinePaint: it works with high-resolution and high-color files with the aim of perfecting the visual impact of a digitized movie or film.
If you thought Pixen's retro orientation was off-beat, wait 'till you check out TundraDraw. This application lets you build creative visuals but only through the use of text-based characters. That's right: it lets you draw using letters, numbers, and other special characters available on computers. The other notable feature of TundraDraw is its strong collaborative features. With the right setup, you can literally draw a text-based image in real-time with someone else halfway around the world.