How many different software applications should a designer be familiar with? I've been asked to work on Illustrator, and also .paint [Paint.NET? -Ed]. I'm confused about how many applications I need to practice. If I don't learn .paint, will I still be able to survive in the industry? I can't settle for only knowing Photoshop.

My questions is: What software applications are most important for graphic designers to know?

I list Photoshop as major and Illustrator as minor in my portfolio, but I've also been asked about Inkscape, PaintShop, GIMP, and others. I don't feel like my portfolio is complete with just PS and AI.

We all know this field is very vast, but I don't have time to master every application. I want to learn, but I need to decide which software to focus on.


5 Answers 5


Not to sound too much like Charles Dickens, but yours is a good question and it is the wrong question.

It is a good question, because you do need some kind of starting point for your software toolkit. But it is the wrong question for two reasons: first, because unless you know what kind of design work you want to do, nobody can say what's the best software; and second, because if you want to be a graphic designer, unless you know the basics of graphic design it doesn't matter what software you know.

If you don't know how to design, then it doesn't much matter which programs you learn, just as having a great set of woodworking tools won't make you a carpenter. Learning how to use the software does not equal learning how to design; if it did, Microsoft Publisher would have created tens of thousands of good designers instead of millions of really bad designs.

So my advice would be this: It doesn't matter what program you start with. Illustrator is a good starting point. Photoshop is a good starting point. But get a couple of good books on how to design (Robin Williams "The Non-Designer's Design Book" is a good one to start with) and use whatever program you have to practice making great designs. Next, buy magazines, surf the web, collect posters -- just find lots of examples of design work that looks well done, that is the kind of stuff you would like to be able to do, and build your own library of great design ideas. You won't copy these, but you will use them for inspiration in your own work. Every designer has an "idea book" or an "idea file" like this.

When you begin to get the idea of what area of design you would like to work in (print, web, logos and corporate identity, packaging, whatever), push the tools you know to the limit. If you find that what you have won't do what you need, then it is time to expand your toolkit by learning a program that will let you do what you're trying to do. Build your toolkit one program at a time, as you find you need new tools, not based on what someone else thinks.

You can't learn everything at once, and what you know right now is good enough to get you started. Follow the route that seems natural to you, that you enjoy, and you will get better and better over time. Don't expect it to happen overnight or in a couple of weeks, just persist, and make every design you create, every job you do, better than the last one.

If every piece you do is your best work so far, you'll eventually become a great designer. But it isn't software that will get you there. It's you, and your knowledge of design. The stuff you want to create will pull you into the software you need to learn so you can create it.

Good luck!

  • Your bolded question and the title are two separate (but related) questions. Matt gave a good answer to the bolded question, but this is a better answer for the question in the title.
    – jhocking
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 14:42

As many of the other answers point out, software is just a tool to bring your concepts and ideas to life. So, most importantly, make sure that you are very well versed in creating unique concepts. Always start with sketches, as they help you to explore ideas quickly and possibly come up with things "by accident," which can often lead to some of your best ideas.

That being said...

Photoshop - great all around tool, the MacGyver of design tools

Illustrator - great for vector work and illustrations

InDesign - great for print layouts and multi-page projects. The standard in the print industry

Dreamweaver - helpful for wysiwyg web design, although not necessary. Depending on your coding background/experience, many people just do the coding by hand.

After Effects - great for motion graphics. If you are into video and motion graphics this application is EXCELLENT and is very powerful

Flash - great for web application design (some people will refute this) and animation. Great in small doses but is often overused, esp in web design.

Fireworks - helpful for web graphics and slicing, but not essential

PowerPoint 2010 - Although PowerPoint has gotten a very bad rap over the years for its misuse and terrible presentations(the users fault), the new version of PowerPoint is capable of making some graphically stunning presentations, and is fairly easy to use. Check out this great example of what is possible.

Expression Web - helpful for web design. Very similar to Dreamweaver, but offers some more optimization tools.

Autodesk Maya - Amazing 3D rendering software. Most places don't specialize in 3D, but this can really help to give you an edge against another applicant. It can also help a design firm to have an extra asset on their team. Be forewarned, there is a bit of a steep learning curve

Again, the bottom line is to have a strong background in graphic design. The ideas far outweigh the means of expressing them, and any piece of software can be learned over time.

If going for a job in print: Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are a must. The entire Adobe suite recommended.

If going for a job in web: Photoshop, Illustrator and Dreamweaver/Expression Web are a strong recommendation.

Hope all this helps.

  • now i'll pick some of these,and will try to perform better. thank you so much.
    – Jack
    Commented May 20, 2011 at 11:45
  • 1
    If we're mentioning Maya as an example of 3D, we should also mention that Cinema4D is a bit cheaper, about as powerful (similar uptake in film effects business etc) and has a more designer-friendly interface. And also, that Blender exists, which has a crazy interface, but is free and can (with a lot of work) create awesome, comparable-quality results. And Zbrush which a designer/illustrator might find fun as a more natural, arty way of sculpting (rather than configuring) static 3D. +1 for the guts to defend PowerPoint on a designers' site by the way :-) Commented Aug 2, 2012 at 22:26
  • this answer should be updated for 2018 - I'd add some replacements for Flash and Fireworks (snif)
    – Luciano
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 7:39

It's much more important to understand the concepts the various software uses and the reasons to use said software than it is to known every keyboard command in every app.

Understand the difference between vector drawing, raster image editing, page layout and composition tools and when to use which one. After that, it's just a matter of learning the nuances of each particular software's UI...which isn't that hard to do once you understand the basics of what the software does.

"I don't feel like my portfolio is complete with just PS and AI."

Your portfolio has little-to-nothing to do with the software you used to create it. It's about the the conceptual process to get there and the resultant final product. If a place is hiring you only because you know a particular piece of software, it's likely not a job you want (unless you're set on being a production artist--which is certainly fine, but not necessarily a graphic design position).


For me, tools are technical stuff and if there's a technical part in graphic design, there's also an important part of creativity. And since pure genius in creativity doesn't come with experience you can however be a great designer if you learn:

  • to listen and understand the needs of your client
  • to put those needs in relation with the needs of your client's customers (the users)

Then you'll have to find ways to get inspired, you'll have to keep a steady eye on what's new in the world of design and you'll have to know some rules (like rules for a balanced layout). Those things come with times and believe me after 10 years I'm still learning and I believe I'm gonna be learning for at least 10 more.

Yet, software is an important part of GD and I think the CS suite is a classic... But in your portfolio, what stands out is not how much you know the software or how many apps you know. What stand out is how great your ideas and concepts are, and how clean your work looks.

  • Right on! Great response. Commented May 20, 2011 at 20:29

Usually Adobe Suite is all you need to be a complete graphic designer. What you need to know very well in particular is Photoshop and Illustrator. Spend time learning how to use these tools, because knowing how to use the tools is what will distinguish you from amateurs.

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