7 min read

Enjoying creative work outside the Creative Cloud.

A few years ago I took over the operations of a small WordPress development company. There were twelve employees with one full-time designer. Not long after starting an audit of expenses, I came across a $750 charge from Adobe. At first, I thought it was for an annual fee and then I noticed it’s a monthly cost. This small company with one designer was paying $9k per year for Creative Cloud licenses. So I dug in more to find out who had access to what and why. We were paying an extraordinary cost for customer service reps to update a site logo six times a year. Another employee wanted to “keep up” with tools, but mostly used Lightroom to edit his family photos. Nobody but the single designer used Adobe products more than once a month, and sometimes not even once per quarter.

The company could afford the expense but it was a considerable waste and it bugged me. Creative Cloud was the gym membership that everyone demanded to have but never used it. I didn’t care so much about the cost as I did that nobody thought to consider if they needed to continue a subscription that they never used. 

Prior to the Creative Cloud, Adobe Photoshop used to cost several hundreds of dollars. I think I remember paying $1k for a combination of Adobe tools. This was back when software was sold, distributed, and installed on a CD-ROM. Back then you needed a real reason to shell out that kind of money upfront. Now we pay incrementally, a small fee each month in perpetuity. Out of sight, out of mind.

In those days we paid that kind of money because there were few, if any, alternatives. I think the closest competitor was an open-source software effort on Linux. There were likely a few more applications for MacOS but I have forgotten about them because they weren’t up to par with Adobe. Things have changed a lot since then and today there is a very competitive suite of tools called Affinity. Designer, Photo, and Publisher are Affinity's version of Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. Their products are amazingly on par with Adobe with two exceptions:

  1. Affinity sells software not subscriptions, and the cost is insanely affordable. A fixed cost of roughly $170 will get you all three applications for macOS and iOS. Or if you prefer, each application is available for $70 each. And that’s it. No additional charges. Not even for the continual updates and upgrades Affinity releases regularly. For roughly the price of two months of a Creative Cloud subscription, you can have lifetime access to the Affinity suite.
  2. Affinity sells software, not SAAS products that have been bundled with features and “freebies” into a platform that makes it more difficult to migrate away. Fonts, stock photography, portfolio hosting, and AI enhancements are the cardio classes, pool access, and the spiffy juice bar that entices people to keep their gym membership. When you buy Affinity you get applications, robust tutorials, and a very helpful community, and that’s it. 

Depending on your need or desire to use AI to generate design for you, Affinity will likely not be the right set of tools for you.

Now, I have nothing against Adobe and AI, but I am weary of everything being a service. And last time I checked, my design skills are pretty great. I don’t need or want WOPR in my design work making shit up. Where is the fun in that?

Switching from decades of using Adobe pretty much every day of my life to Affinity took about as much effort as remapping my brain and motor functions to switch from using a computer keyboard and mouse to a console controller for playing first-person shooting games. For two weeks I couldn’t walk and throw a grenade at the same time but eventually I got better, much better with a controller than I ever way with a keyboard and mouse. The same is true about switching to Affinity.

I had a rough time knowing where everything was and what it was called. There are a lot of similarities between the interfaces of each suite of applications but different enough that one minute in the Adobe world felt like ten in the Affinity world. Thank the Lord for all of the extremely useful YouTube videos made by Affinity, many supporters, and the users who came before me that helped map my exact problem to a useful tutorial ala Google’s algorithm. I can’t think of a single time that I could not find an answer to my question within minutes of needing help.

There are four things that took me some time getting used to.

  1. The idea of “Personas” that are found in the top left of the window. They are a part of each application and it was a bit confusing when I watched people in tutorial videos move back and forth between them. Personas in Affinity-speak are essentially a collection of functions that are specific to a task. For example, the “Export Persona” will reduce the applications functionality to focus only on switches and buttons related to the single task of…you guessed it, exporting an image. I honestly still don’t understand the need here but maybe that’s because I’m still so used to Adobe that it feels weird that someone would want or need to go into a different specific mode for a specific outcome. Then again, maybe these things are in Adobe too and I just never noticed. Having shared all of this, I have yet to encounter a time when I had to switch back and forth between Personas to get anything done.
  2. Affinity is a big believer in preserving any images that are brought into the application. Any adjustments are attached to an image as a non-destructive layer. Even in Affinity Photo if you want to modify an image you first have to rasterize it. Now, I like this method but it is so different than I am used to working, especially in a photo application. I think this has a lot to do with teaching myself how to use Photoshop right after version 3.0. Not Photoshop CS 3. Photoshop 3.0 immediately rasterized type into an uneditable layer, that capability came in 3.1 and it was a game changer. Anyway, non-destructive editing is the way to go, but I am still grappling with it. 
  3. Resizing elements feels different from application to application. In one application you need to hold the shift key down to preserve the height and width ratios. While in another application, doing the same will allow you to freely distort the ratios. Maybe I just made that up in my head, but I’m pretty sure it’s different and it’s a pain.
  4. I’m still unsure about color profiles. I have never had a problem or needed to dial in a color profile on Adobe, but I can not say the same about Affinity. Adobe just worked, Affinity took some searching and searching and I may still have this wrong. This problem comes up when I am copying an image out of an Affinity application and into something very different like Keynote. I think I’ve fixed it because I haven’t had the issue come up in a while but I don’t recall what I did, if anything (It might be Pop-Pops time to start working on brain games).

My wrists are starting to hurt and I have to wonder, how in the hell does Gruber write long blog posts like this? He must lift weights with his wrists. Has anyone noticed if he wears sweat bands on his wrists? Moving on.

So, I’ve shared a high-level take on the difference between Adobe and Affinity, and I provided an overview of the challenges I have had migrating. Now, what do I really think?

Back at the Wordpress dev company switching everyone, including the designer off of Adobe and onto Affinity made all of the sense in the world. The little amount of design they needed to do did not necessitate access to Adobe’s robust tools and features and price tag. That decision was, as they say, a no-brainer. The largest “pain point” was having to learn a new set of tools and that can never be a pain point if you’re going to work and flourish in technology.

Now, for the folks and friends who are serious designers. People who use these tools day-in and day-out. They know every keystroke and have well-established muscle memories mapped from InDesign to Lightroom to After Effects…that’s a difficult proposition. Like asking a rabid fan to switch from one brand to the next, one sports team for another, Chevy and apple pie for Audi and pizza (clearly the better choice). 

While I still like Adobe as a company and as a platform (And how could I think or be any different? I built a career with Adobe and the many products and companies they have acquired along the way—RIP Aldus, Macromedia, Figma. There’s no way I’m going to talk shit about the company that enabled my career and the careers of hundreds of thousands of people) I wanted to try and use a set of tools that wasn’t a subscription connected to a cloud cross-promotional ecosystem that is always trying to get me to adopt another perk. “Pssst….hey kid, try this new typeface, you’re going to love it and it’s going to look super dope 100% on your new Behance community profile.”  

I like being a part of smaller communities, especially when there is an underdog or underground element to them. That’s one of the reasons I loved being a devoted customer and passionate fan of Apple even when they clearly made slower more expensive computers. I’ll admit this is weird, but Affinity ticks that box for me and that’s why I enjoy the times I have to engage with the community to find an answer or discover a new way to finish a task. It also helps that a handful of my favorite add-on makers like Frakentoon and True Grit Texture Supply have recently adopted all or most of their coolest tools to work with Affinity. And because of that, I find that this little $200 experiment is going better than I had hoped. 

Anthony, I don’t know if this is what you were asking for but there you have it. Also, I've have moved from Lightroom to Apple Photos because their evolving tools do everything I want them to do.