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.