Thursday 30 January 2020

Affinity Designer: Alternatives to Adobe Illustrator for Lettering

Anyone who follows me on social media will know that I fairly regularly point people to Serif's Affinity suite (Designer, Photo, Publisher) as a viable alternative to the design/print portion of Adobe's Creative Cloud offering (Illustrator, Photoshop and InDesign respectively). The software is very reasonably priced, is a one-time purchase for a perpetual license rather than Adobe's subscription model, and is available for Mac, Windows and iOS (although only Designer and Photo at present).

I've been intermittently doing test pages lettering with Designer, usually whenever the application gets an update, but I'll confess that I haven't attempted to actually do a job using it, until now. For the record, I'm running the current Mac versions (1.7.3) of all the Affinity applications on Mojave (10.14) but I've seen no reports of issues running them on Catalina (10.15).

Designer certainly covers a letterer's requirements in all the big ways — you can set up colour-managed CMYK documents with bleeds, control important trapping settings like knockout/overprint, and export files successfully in all the commonly-used file formats (TIFF, EPS, PDF for print and JPEG or (God forbid) GIF for web comics). 

(As an aside, I've checked how these file exports fit into an Adobe-only print workflow of the kind a publisher is likely to be using. EPS files place in InDesign exactly as expected, and a lettering-only PDF file with transparency effects places over a separate artwork file in InDesign with all the transparencies rendered correctly.)

One thing you can't do is export a file that is fully editable in Illustrator — in theory, a PDF exported from Designer should be fully editable in Illustrator, but in practise, it isn't. The developers at Serif have had this flagged and report that this is down to how Illustrator is interpreting the PDF data, which is 100% standard-compliant. Short version: this is something Adobe would have to fix on the Illustrator side, and they have no reason to do so and I have no realistic expectation that they will.

So, if you have clients who want lettering delivering as live .ai files, Designer isn't going to work for you.

The typographic controls are also good. OpenType features are fully supported and all the fine-grain controls over tracking, kerning, leading, horizontal scale and the like are present and familiar.

The shape and pen tools will all also be very familiar to Illustrator users, so the creation of captions and speech balloons is pretty much as you'd expect and the ability to merge balloons and tails non-destructively (so you can edit tails separately to the main balloon within the merged shape) is very welcome.

Text can be outlined, manipulated, merged, stroked and filled, so sound effects are also taken care of.

But… it's important to remember that this is a product that hasn't yet reached v2 and doesn't have the massive resources of a company the size of Adobe behind it, so there are some notable omissions that might catch you out.

There is no direct shear/skew tool. You can achieve this by numeric input into the Transform panel (which is how I usually do it in Illustrator anyway) but you can't deploy a tool to do this by eye on your document.

There is also no free distort or perspective distortion option, nor any warp/distortion tools at all. I use these, Roughen along with specific distortion effects like Wave/Flag, all the time in Illustrator, so this is a fairly big negative.

There are workarounds — most of these options exist in Affinity Photo (and the Affinity Suite allows you to switch between applications to utilise specific features without actually leaving your current application) but this requires the text to be rasterised. If you don't mind mixing your vector and raster elements, then this is a perfectly workable solution.

If you're supplying finished files with lettering and art combined, then using Photo for these effects is a reasonable option, but if you're delivering EPS/PDF files of lettering only, then it's likely to border on a deal-breaker.

I should add that the existence of these features in Photo suggests that they should be implementable in Designer (the applications share a large amount of common code) and all of these features are on the developers' 'Road Map' for features to be added. My suspicion is that we may not see them until Designer hits v2.0, which will be the next upgrade that will be paid-for and which (to the best of my knowledge) does not have a release date.

There are other Illustrator features that have no equivalent in Designer that I would characterise as "would be nice to have but not a deal-breaker" but which other letterers may use more and whose absence they would feel more keenly. There's no equivalent of Illustrator's Image Trace, for example. 

Also missing are a Knife tool (for slicing up shapes after they're drawn) and a Blend tool (where you can map one shape onto another and the software draws a user-specified number of intermediate steps transforming, say, a triangle into a square).

There's also no way to apply a calligraphic brush stroke to a shape (like a balloon). I like this effect a lot and use it frequently, but I can live without it. You can apply a slight stroke weight variation, however, which is a decent approximation of the same effect. Again, other people's mileage may vary.

All of these are on the developers' road map, but there's no formal timescale for when any of them will actually appear.

So, in summary, yes, you probably can replicate an Illustrator-based lettering workflow using Designer, with some fairly significant caveats. Some of those caveats listed above may well be deal-breakers for many letterers, but everyone's workflow is so different and so personalised that it's impossible to say which ones might be problematic for a specific letterer.

Nonetheless, Designer is very, very near to being a direct replacement for Illustrator and I continue to watch its development closely. The iOS version is particularly exciting since it brings the very real possibility of being able letter comics on an iPad Pro, taking advantage of the best-in-class digital drawing capabilities of the Apple Pencil.

Further posts on this as and when updates to the software bring us closer to that goal of a feature-complete Illustrator replacement.