Draw Freely is Inkscape’s apt tagline and what could be better than free, professional-level software that works on both Mac and Windows platforms? Not much, but for seasoned users of popular, industry-leading design software like Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape comes with a price in the form of a steep learning curve and an unwieldy interface. If you are a PC-based illustrator, a designer who is subscription-averse, or you’re unable to invest in expensive software packages, then Inkscape might be for you. However, expect a learning (or unlearning) curve if you are accustomed to working in mainstream products like CorelDRAW and Adobe Illustrator.
On both PC and Mac, Inkscape is an eyesore—worse so on the Mac because everything you see is chunky because of anti-aliasing issues. This is because Macs must run a less-stable version, which is incompatible with Retina and high-resolution Mac Screens (at this writing). Though the interface is smoother in Windows, there’s no specific support for touch or stylus input. The program isn’t optimized for high-DPI Windows PCs, either.
There’s a lot going on in the interface, so I benefitted from going to View > Hide to hide some panels until I learned my way around. Note that Inkscape refers to panels and palettes as dialogs. On the top of the program window is the Tools Control Bar, to the immediate right is the Snap Controls Bar, and on the far right, the Commands Bar. On the left is the main Toolbox, and on the bottom, is the Status Bar and Color Palette. If you wish to streamline the interface further, you can also show or hide the Rulers at the top and the Scroll Bars on each side, as well as guides and dialog boxes.
Text-handling tools and features in Inkscape are basic, much like those you find in word processing programs. What’s different from word processing programs is the easy ability to create standalone, frameless text lines (called Regular Text in Inkscape and Point Type in Illustrator) in addition to paragraph type (called Flow Text in Inkscape and Area Type in Illustrator). The latter exists in a text frame whose boundaries control line breaks and position. Using Flow Text, you can set type within any shape, and with Regular Text, you can run type along any path.
A word of caution, however: Inkscape’s Flow Text is not supported outside the app, so you need to convert it to Regular Text in advance of exporting for website art, for example. Also, if you copy and paste text from Illustrator or other programs with more-sophisticated typography tools, Inkscape may paste gobbledygook. To fix this, Inkscape has a Remove Manual Kerns feature that eliminates all custom formatting and usually solves the problem.
I find the program’s formatting features significantly less flexible than those of similar programs, such as CorelDraw. Accessing OpenType features is cumbersome, and you must manually assign specific features like alternate styles and discretionary ligatures. Other drawbacks are the inability to create paragraph or character styles, and spot formatting within Flow Text often results in a global change. There is, however, a good spellcheck tool, which I find works better than Illustrator’s.
Inkscape elevates itself with a full-featured and well-working toolset for creating, editing, and transforming vectors. Each tool has its own preference dialog box that appears with a double-click on the tool. Included are all the resources you’d expect and need to make basic angle- and curve-based shapes, as well as special polygons. Tools include a pen, brush, freehand pencil, spiral tool, paint bucket, and an object sprayer.
Inkscape can handle point-to-point gradients and has a separate mesh tool for complex blends. The program packs interesting tools like the Diagram Connector, a 3-D Box tool (which does what it says, as well as adding handy perspective lines specific to each shape), and a Sculpt/Paint tool that lets you push and nudge paths. You’ll also find an adequate tracing tool for turning color and black-and-white bitmaps into vectors—though this tool crashed every time I tried it on my machine. Once you have your shapes drawn, Inkscape impresses, with a wide range of snapping tools to control precise placement and all the path operations you need to direct how the shapes and paths interact.
Inkscape offers vector novices a way to get their fingers wet and explore the Bezier world. It levels the accessibility field by providing a free, solid-featured program to anyone who wants to learn it. However, this software doesn’t meet the needs of heavy-use mainstream designers who expect compatibility between apps, stable performance, and a state-of-the-art interface. If you try Inkscape, learn it, and love it—fantastic. If you subsequently snag a regular paying client or two, consider coughing up for the CorelDRAW suite or Adobe Illustrator, our Editors’ Choice. Yes, Inkscape has some unique tricks, but it’s just not fun to use. Centralized support is limited, and for Macophiles its interface is uncomfortably different. This is a tool that too often throws up roadblocks between users and their work.