Best free and paid software for scientific illustrations

The best things in life come with a free trial.


Posters. Presentations. Grants. Your papers. It’s becoming more and more essential to be able to make scientific illustrations yourself, but which software could you use to make them?


Are there free options? Should you go straight for the high-end subscriptions?

There are a lot of options out there and to make your life easier we compiled this guide.


To start, align yourself with one of these three personas to help you figure out where you might want to try first!



Student, post-doc or lab head?

Persona 1: You’re a grad student. You’ve gotten used to the writing part of academia (as you’d hope). But when it comes down to making a pretty picture for your proposal or presentation, you might be feeling stumped on how to make your figures look professional. You want to start somewhere, but most good software is really expensive (and not within the budget!)


So, a good free software might be your gateway into developing your skills in graphic design. The paid stuff can wait while you learn!



phdcomics scientific illustration
Source: PhD Comics

Persona 2: You’re a post doc. You’ve been invited to write an article for a highly prestigious review journal. You reckon this is finally your chance to spell out your name in FULL beyond the et al. AND to be more than just the mysterious 7th author. But the journal is asking for a handful of scientific illustrations as figures. They need high quality ones that’ll sparkle at 300 dpi when they’re printed hot off the press.


Perhaps you could try a free trial of a high-end industry software? Then convince your supervisor that the software is worth fully funding under the lab equipment budget!


phdcomics scientific illustration
Source: PhD Comics

Persona 3: You’re a tenured lab head. It’s grant season and don’t want to be rejected this time. You need to make figures to illustrate your point on a 2 page document, but we all know the word count is horridly small. You realise that a good figure speaks volumes - so you try to make them yourself, or end up asking your students to make them for you just before the deadline. Neither you nor they have got a clue what they could use.

Then maybe it’s worth buying a license to a trusty and reliable software for the whole team!



phdcomics scientific illustration
Source: PhD Comics

Figured out what you’re after? If not, no worries!


We’ll walk you through an overview of the best free and paid software for making your very own digital scientific illustrations to use anywhere in your research! It’s up to you to try them out to see which fits you best.


We’ve got 6 recommendations (3 free, 3 paid) lined up to get you started.


Let’s have a look, shall we?



Free design software


Canva

Recommended for: Persona 1: The Grad Student, and anyone with fundamental IT skills.


canva scientific illustration

Looking to make a figure, but not from scratch? Canva’s got you covered.



Canva’s motto is “Design for everyone”. This means that even non-designers can create amazing graphics - including scientific illustrations!


You’ll first need to make an account on Canva, then you can use Canva directly in your browser.


How neat!

Then you can start straight away with any of their suggested templates, and there’s a lot to choose from in the free version of Canva.

I personally like to use their Poster template, or set my own canvas up at a size I want. Then, it’s all about dragging and dropping free stock images, or “Elements” as Canva calls them, from their menus. You can use any of their provided Elements to compose your picture, and they have plenty of science-themed ones. Here’s a scientific schematic I put together in just a few minutes!


canva scientific illustration

That was really easy!


But note that if you use these Elements, you can’t publish them anywhere that earns you money, so Canva’s more handy for things like presentations. It’s best to have a read of the Canva Terms of Use to be on the safe side.


If you end up loving Canva, you can optionally choose to upgrade to Canva PRO at $18.00 AUD/month (they also have a free 30 day trial of the PRO version!). This gives you access to a lot more Elements and a tonne of nifty features!


If you’re looking to make your own pictures from scratch, read on!



Vectr

Recommended for: Persona 1: The Grad Student, and Persona 2: The Post Doc.


vectr scientific illustration

Looking to try out vector graphics for the first time, without the long-term commitment?



Vectr is completely browser-based and gives you access to the simple tools for making shapes and writing out text. It’s also equipped with basic features like adding drop shadows or making objects transparent.


It’s a great way to start learning how a Pen tool works, one of the most common tools in vector graphic design. Here’s something you can quickly whip up with the tools available to you in Vectr.



vectr scientific illustration

Also if you’re looking to upgrade to another vector graphic design software in the future, you can save your Vectr creations as an .svg file to edit elsewhere.


If you’re keen to upgrade your vector game, we’ve got more to discuss.


Inkscape

Recommended for: Everyone!


inkscape scientific illustration

Welcome to the nitty-gritty of vector graphics, with your new best friend Inkscape. No fancy upgrades, just a full package that’s 100% free.


Inkscape gives you the ability to work with more complex vector shapes to make more detailed illustrations. You now have access to things like adjusting opacity, making 3D shapes in perspective, and a handy function you’ll see in most vector software called“clipping”, where you can combine shapes together to make new shapes.


inkscape scientific illustration

Inkscape is downloadable for use on both Windows and MacOS. And by now, being able to save as an .svg file is pretty standard - you can take your Inkscape creations wherever you go!


There’s also a large community of Inkscapers out there being one of the more popular free choices. It’s easy enough to find a guide or tutorial to get you started.



Paid design software


Microsoft PowerPoint

Recommended for: Persona 1: The Grad Student


microsoft powerpoint scientific illustration

It needs no introductions - it’s the classic, trusty, Microsoft PowerPoint.



The good news is that you likely already own a paid license for this through your institution. Though just in case you don’t, you can purchase it for $160 AUD to keep forever. There’s also a $10 AUD/month plan for the whole Office suite, if you would much rather test out the waters.


PowerPoint is easy to use, intuitive and you’ve likely used it all throughout your education. But did you know that it has fantastic design capabilities? It’s a popular choice for making scientific posters, and we even have free templates just for this.


You’re likely familiar with the Shapes panel, and we’ve discussed previously how you can make just about anything with the right shapes. And, they’re all vector-based!




But did you know about the Icons and SmartArt tools?


microsoft powerpoint scientific illustration

The Icons panel is full of symbols and presets that are neatly categorised - and there’s tonnes of science ones. Just like Canva, you can just drag and drop them onto your workspace.


Combine those icons with the ready-made layouts in SmartArt for diagrams and flowcharts.


It’s super easy!


microsoft powerpoint scientific illustration


But wait, there’s more. Did you know that PowerPoint could make animated videos? Surprise your reviewers with an animation for your next graphical abstract!

Hold up, what if you’re looking to upgrade from PowerPoint?

If you’re looking to go pro, we’ve got TWO industry-standard recommendations below.



Affinity Designer

Recommended for: Persona 2: The Post Doc, and Persona 3: The Lab Head


affinity designer scientific illustration

Think you’ve got the hang of the vector tools from Vectr or Inkscape? It’s time to take them to the next level in Affinity Designer.



Affinity Designer is a high-end vector graphics editing software developed by Serif available for MacOS, Windows as well as for iPads for that added portability.

You can access Affinity Designer with a one-off payment of $80 AUD - no subscriptions or anything. It’s incredible value, and there’s even a free trial to get a feel for it.


It features pretty much everything we’ve mentioned so far - a good selection of shapes and the ability to clip them, a fantastic Pen tool, intuitive text formatting. And, so SO much more! You’d just have to try it out!


Definitely, the one thing I particularly love about Affinity Designer is how fluidly it runs as a program, despite being a very intensive graphics machine. It rarely lags! Nobody wants to see program not responding before you’ve saved your work! With Affinity, there’s no worries!


Also, the unique hallmark of Affinity Designer is its handy Persona system. This allows you to preview your art for export on the fly, and is handy for checking whether your work will change depending on RGB/CMYK colour settings, changes in resolution as a raster image, and so much more.


The fewer unexpected surprises during printing the better!


affinity designer scientific illustration

Should you fall in love with Affinity Designer, it also comes as part of a set with Affinity Photo and Publisher for all your photo editing, painting and typesetting needs.


But, there’s one more piece of software we’ve got to show you, and is a top competitor with Affinity Designer.


Let’s roll out the red carpet.



Adobe Illustrator

Recommended for: Persona 2: The Post Doc, and Persona 3: The Lab Head



adobe illustrator scientific illustration

You’ve reached the Holy Grail, and our favourite vector software here at Animate Your Science, coming straight from the industry giant Adobe.


Welcome to Adobe Illustrator.



Illustrator is an intensive vector graphics editing software package, that if used well, is capable of taking your vector art to new heights. Fully capable of generating crisp 2D art pieces, through to complete 3D renderings - there’s little that Illustrator can’t do. In fact, there’s a million ways to make the same thing in Illustrator.

Here’s something I prepared in Illustrator during my days as a researcher studying malaria parasites.


malaria invasion plasmodium falciparum adobe illustrator vector art
Left: The malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum invading a red blood cell. Right: It popping out after 48 hours! Published in Burns et al. 2019.

Adobe can feel overwhelming when you first open it, but there’s ways around that. With Illustrator’s customisable menus, you can help prevent that “Whoa, this is too complex!” feeling.

You can hide the tools you don’t need, and keep the ones that you’re using to work. This is a mainstay hallmark in Adobe software called Panels - allowing you to fully control the look of your user interface. One day you might be drawing, another day you might be preparing text - there’s different preset Workspaces for different occasions.


adobe illustrator scientific illustration

And for those of you who loved Canva for its pre-made assets, Adobe still has you covered! With Adobe Stock Assets you have access to a huge collection of licensed vector illustrations and images. Each image comes with its own descriptive license, but chances are you’ll be able to use it anywhere you want! Check out their FAQ for this handy feature.


adobe illustrator scientific illustration

You can try out Illustrator today through a free trial, and when you’re ready to commit it’s available for $30 AUD/month. It’s available on MacOS, Windows + with added portability on the iPad.


If you’re loving Adobe (like we are!), you can switch to $80 AUD/month if you want access to the entire suite - which includes popular software programs including Photoshop (photo editing and painting), InDesign (document typesetting), Premiere Pro (video editing) and After Effects (animations). That’s fantastic value for such an expansive set of programs!


There’s a lot to tackle with this beast of a program, so we definitely recommend checking out a course on YouTube or SkillShare to learn the basics. Practice makes perfect!



Not looking to make your own illustrations?


You’ve got us at the AYS team.


We get it, academic life is hectic and expecting you to design neat graphics might be too much. That’s why we offer design services for busy people like you.

Here at Animate Your Science, we can discuss your ideas and turn them into professional graphics that will turn heads. We’ve got you covered for all your graphical abstract, scientific infographic and scientific poster needs.


Have a custom request? Contact us to find out what we could do for your research.


To keep up to date with our latest tips for merging the worlds of science and graphic design, subscribe to our newsletter!



Until next time!



Authors:

Juan Miguel Balbin

Dr Tullio Rossi




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