Affinity Designer for iPad review – the best vector art and design app by far

Artwork © Tobias Hall
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  • Price When Reviewed: £19.99

  • Pros: Work in vector and raster. Great depth to functionality. Really versatile. Amazing value

  • Cons: Occasionally buggy performance. No vector Eraser tool

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Serif's Affinity Designer for the iPad wants to be Adobe Illustrator for your Apple tablet – and largely it succeeds, finds illustrator Tobias Hall.

I’ve been an avid user of Procreate on the iPad for almost a year now, and it’s completely changed the way I work; it has sped up the sketching process dramatically and I’ve even used it to create entire raster pieces to a finished standard. But Procreate has its limitations, not least with regards to the lack of vector support. So when I heard about Affinity Designer and it’s ability to work in raster and vector I was really keen to give it a go.

At £19.99, Affinity Designer is double the price of Procreate (£9.99), but as soon as I opened the app it became clear that this was in an entirely different league to Procreate in terms of functionality; the interface looks closer to that of Photoshop or Illustrator than what I was used to with Procreate – there is far, far more depth here.

A quick look around the menus only added to the good first impressions.

Pantone colour books are included within pre-loaded swatches; there are a ton of official iOS 12 UI symbols, buttons, widgets under the Assets menu; and extensive list of effect similar to what you’d find in Photoshop; there’s a fully functioning Type menu; the Transform menu also includes detailed alignment options… I could go on and on, but in short it’s a seriously powerful bit of kit for 20 quid/bucks.

Before starting work on anything or checking out any tutorials, I wanted to play around with some of the tools and their settings, to see how intuitive they were to use. Overall, things were pretty self-explanatory at the basic level, but such is the depth to the functionality it felt like I’d need to experiment more andread up to fully understand what certain options and tools did.

Specifically, it took me a little while to realise that the gesture for undo was a simple tap with two fingers. There are buttons for this, but they’re hidden by default – and there’s also a full History menu of up to 8,000 steps if you wanted to quickly go back to a specific point.

Once I’d had a little play around, I started on my first piece of artwork. I’ve been doing a lot of woodcut style illustrations recently, and Procreate has been great for working in that style (albeit limited to raster output), so the first task I set myself was to create one in vector.

The basic tools and options are pretty intuitive, especially if you’re familiar with Procreate.

On creating a new document, I had the opportunity to choose from a wide range of new document presets spanning different media (web, device, print), as well as the opportunity to import from the cloud or local files, as you’d expect. Crucially though, it doesn’t appear as though there are any limitations with regards to the size of your canvas or the number of layers you can have, as is the case with some other iPad apps.

I worked mainly with the Vector Brush tool to create the drawing itself, then the Pen tool to fill out blocks of colour, and I was generally impressed with how they performed. The pressure sensitivity was good – I’d say on a par with Procreate – and there’s a great depth of options to give you good control over everything for the most part.

I was able to adjust the smoothness of my strokes/curves in a number of ways. First off were the Rope Stabiliser and Window Stabiliser options to smooth my lines as I was drawing them (users of the Dynamic Sketch plug in for Adobe Illustrator will be familiar with how the former of these works). Alternatively I could manually adjust the Béziers with the Node tool after I had drawn the paths.

The Rope Stabiliser function on the vector brush tool made smooth curves easy.

That said, the vector brush tool did occasionally have a few quirks: the terminal/cap at the end of each stroke sometimes appeared as a large semi-circle when used with pressure sensitivity. This happened only on long strokes while working on a large canvas size. I’ve since learnt that this is a bug, the fix for which will be included in the next free update. I also found that the app occasionally lagged pretty badly when using the brush tool, although simply coming in and out of the app seemed to sort that out.

Another slight negative is the absence of a vector eraser tool. So if you want to delete part of a path or shape when in Vector Persona, you have to do so using the Node Tool to manually delete nodes (anchor points) one by one, which I personally find a lot more fiddly and time consuming.

I used the Pen tool to fill blocks of colour for this piece.

The next task I set myself was designed to test out the the Pencil tool (in ‘raster persona’) and the Pen tool (in ‘vector persona’); one of the things this app could be really useful for personally is vectorising logotype sketches or general pieces of lettering, which usually requires more precision than using the vector brush tool for example.

I started by sketching out an ampersand in raster persona, using the Pencil tool. It performed pretty much as you’d expect, but as with most brushes in Affinity Designer, it felt more customisable than those you get in Procreate.

The pencil tool in Raster Persona performed just as well as the equivalent in Procreate.

Once I was happy with the general shape, I switched to vector persona and the Pen tool. The Pen tool works well and is generally easy to control ≠ however it’s not the most accurate when it comes to placing ‘nodes’; unless you’re zoomed right in, they often don’t appear exactly where you touch with the Apple Pencil. But they’re easy to move afterwards.

It’s also pretty easy to control and edit Bézier handles: by holding down one, two or three fingers on the screen with one hand, you can edit them in different ways using the Apple Pencil with the other. An especially useful function is that when holding down two fingers and dragging a handle, it will magnetically ‘snap’ to being the same length as the handle on the other side of the node. Other nodes on the same path remain on show as you’re editing one node in particular, which is handy when creating nice, even curves.

I used the pen tool to achieve the accuracy I needed; the Bezier handles performed just as I was used to in Adobe Illustrator

Once I was happy with the shapes I’d created, I wanted to combine them into the one ampersand shape.

This is where I had a few problems: for me, the ‘Geometry’ menu containing the Boolean operations doesn’t have the same level functionality as Pathfinder in Illustrator. I had an issue where the intersecting area of my main ampersand shape was left unfilled when I combined the three shapes together, and it took ages to work out a clunky way to solve the problem – I couldn’t find a simple, clean solution using the operations available.

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I then used the Fill tool to create a gradient on both the ampersand and the background, which was very easy to use. At this point I also played around with the range of ‘fx’ options such as bevel and emboss, 3D and Gaussian blur. All of these were simple to use and worked pretty well, but I preferred the simple look so left it as is.

Artwork © Tobias Hall

Overall, barring the odd glitch here and there – which I expect will get ironed out soon enough – I think Affinity Designer for iPad is an incredible piece of software for £20. It’s pretty easy to use and didn’t take me long to pick up the majority of its functions. It is going to save a lot of time for a lot of people, and could potentially even be a ‘one-stop shop’ for some creatives.

For me personally, I would still occasionally need a little more control on the vector front in order to get some pieces to final artwork standard, so would probably bring things into Adobe Illustrator toward the end of some pieces. But I will absolutely use it going forward to get the bulk of the work done when I’m on the move or need to implement those hand-crafted drawing styles.

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