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How to Edit an Adobe Illustrator File in Affinity Designer

How to Edit an Adobe Illustrator File in Affinity Designer main article image
Posted on February 25, 2021 by Helen Montgomery

Are you looking for a drawing app that opens Adobe Illustrator files, without hogging system resources and RAM? Have you considered buying Affinity Designer, and wonder if it has any advantages — besides its low price — over Adobe Illustrator? Or are you a digital design beginner, and need to know if Affinity Designer offers more flexibility and features than something simple and cloud-based like Canva?

Read on to discover why Affinity Designer is a powerful low cost alternative to Illustrator, and to view a tutorial on how to open an Adobe Illustrator file (AI) in Affinity Designer and save it in a variety of formats.

Adobe Illustrator Is Powerful – But Is It Right For You? 

When Adobe Illustrator was released in 1987, the computing world was weaning itself off the CPM operating system, enduring Windows 2.0 crashes, and experiencing WYSIWYG on a Macintosh that looked like R2D2’s homely cousin. Many of us who “grew up” with Illustrator in those early days remember how it opened our eyes to the possibilities of digital artistry. So it’s no wonder that more than 30 years after its debut, most full-time digital artists consider Illustrator the industry standard for vector-based drawing software.

But what if you’re not a full-time designer, yet still need to open and edit Adobe Illustrator (AI) files once in a while? Ever since Adobe moved to a subscription pricing model — one that requires an investment of anywhere from $225 to $377.88 per year — it’s difficult to justify such a high price tag for occasional access to Illustrator’s functionality.   

Luckily, in the last few years, the market has opened up for more budget-friendly challengers to Illustrator’s dominance. One of its most brilliant competitors is Serif’s Affinity Designer. Winner of numerous awards from Apple and PC developer and designer organizations, it’s more than just a workable alternative to Adobe Illustrator. For many, Affinity Designer provides superior performance for a one-time fee that can cost less than one month of Adobe’s Creative Suite.

Advantages of Affinity Designer – Low Cost Makes Affinity Perfect for Occasional Users  

If you are starting a home-based business selling printables or POD (Print On Demand) merchandise, you’re probably operating on a limited budget. And while you definitely need graphic design software, you don’t necessarily need Adobe Illustrator. Affinity Designer is a great choice for you, since it’s a low-cost way to experience virtually all the features of an app like Illustrator, but at a fraction of the cost. 

Affinity Designer is normally available for $49.99. This is a one-time fee, with no subscription or renewal charges, and as of this writing, future upgrades are included. A version for the iPad is only $19.99, again with no monthly or annual fee.

And if you can exercise a little patience, Serif runs periodic sales of up to 50% off during holidays and Black Friday/Cyber Monday. Here’s an example:

How does this compare to Adobe’s subscription pricing model? For Illustrator alone, you must choose one of three pricing models: (1) a monthly fee, (2) a monthly 12-month contract, or (3) an annual lump sum payment. Depending on which plan you choose, you could be paying from $20.99 per month to 31.49 per month.

And you must choose wisely. As Adobe explains on its website (highlighting added):

Wait, what does this mean? According to Adobe’s website (highlighting added):

In other words, when you sign up for the annual plan with monthly billing for $20.99 per month,  as shown here…

… it’s not like your subscription to Hulu, Netflix, or even Canva. When you select one of Adobe’s annual plans, you effectively enter into a billing contract with a steep penalty for early termination.

Let’s consider what would happen if you cancel on day 15 of your subscription. You could be charged for 50% of the remaining 12 months, amounting to a cancellation fee of about $125. Ouch! And if you cancel after 6 months? You could still be charged $62 for software you won’t be able to use.

Of course, a full-time digital artist/designer could justify the cost of Adobe Illustrator as a business expense. But Affinity Designer is much more cost-effective if you need Illustrator-like functionality only a few times a month.

Performance Advantages, Especially on Mac OS

Both Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer are available for Mac desktops and laptops, iPads, and Windows PCs. But there’s a big difference between installing and running software, and how fast and reliably it performs on your particular hardware and operating system. This is why many full-time artists update their hardware setup frequently, making sure everything is optimized to handle the demands of digital design apps. 

But what if you’re a solo entrepreneur, and need to rely on your older, all purpose laptop or desktop? If you’re someone who is still in love with your aging Powerbook, Macbook Air or Mac Mini — or if you’re not ready to make a massive investment in new Mac hardware — you’ll probably be quite pleasantly surprised with Affinity Designer’s performance on older Macs. 

For example, this article was written on a 2014 Mac Mini, running Mojave with 8 GB of RAM. On this setup, Affinity Designer runs noticeably faster and smoother than Illustrator, especially when working with extremely large files that contain numerous objects. Functions like pan, zoom and preview performed with no lag, so no need to hold your breath and cross your fingers when adding and manipulating new design elements. And Affinity Designer allows you to undo 8,000 times (yes, eight thousand) while seeing history snapshots. 

So if your Mac is less than 10 years old, you probably meet all of Affinity Designer’s system requirements:

And if you’re shopping for new Mac hardware, Affinity Designer is optimized for the next generation of Macs:

Supported File Types and Photo Tools

If you have used both Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, you know that each application’s tools and file types are different. For a beginner, this makes the learning curve more difficult. And for the occasional user, or for someone who isn’t perfectly fluent in both apps, switching between them means a more complex and inefficient workflow. 

This is where Affinity Designer has major advantages for the occasional designer. You can purchase Serif’s alternative to Photoshop, called Affinity Photo, for a low one-time fee and switch between them without performance or compatibility issues. 

Affinity Photo shares Designer’s proprietary output format, so you can save and open your assets in either. Many of the brushes and tools that work in Affinity Designer will also work in Affinity Photo. Best of all, in the latest update, Photoshop’s Smart Objects can now be imported into Affinity Photo. That means using POD mockups with Smart Objects no longer requires a Photoshop subscription.  

But even if you don’t want to purchase Affinity Photo right now, you can open Photoshop (PSD) files in Affinity Designer. In fact, Designer can handle all the most popular image and vector file types, including SVG, PNG, JPG, TIFF, GIF, and even PDFs. 

Now let’s do a quick Affinity Designer tutorial, in which you’ll open an Adobe Illustrator (AI) file, do some basic edits, and export it as a PNG file.

Step 1: Open Affinity Designer

When you open Affinity, you’ll be shown the empty Affinity workspace.

Your installation of Affinity Designer may open in Dark Mode. If you find it difficult to see some of the tools on your desktop computer, you can switch to Light Mode.

In the top menu, go to Affinity Designer > Preferences. A window like this will open. Look for “U Style” near the center of the window, and click on “Light.”

The interface should now switch to Light Mode. To duplicate the gray setup you see in this tutorial, move the sliders to match the settings in the image below:

Step 2: Open an AI file

Now it’s time to open an Adobe Illustrator (AI) file. Go to the top menu and choose File > Open.

Navigate to an AI file on your computer. We found this elegant package of social media post backgrounds from Creative Fabrica.

After unzpipping it…

… we see the package includes an AI file. Go ahead and open it.

Before Affinity Designer loads the file, it asks you how to deal with the fonts used in the designs. In most cases, you will want to choose “Group lines of text into text frames” and allow Affinity Designer to “Replace missing fonts” as shown below:

By selecting those options, you’ll be able to manipulate the text inside of text boxes and choose a new font. After you click “Open,” you’ll see all the AI files, each on its own artboard. Affinity Designer calls these “Pages.” We’re going to work with Page 2.

Step 3: Practice making some edits in the AI file

Let’s change the colors to something bright and sunny! As you can see on the right side of the screen, Affinity Designer has preserved all the layers for us. If you don’t see the layers panel, click on the “Layers” tab underneath the brushes. 

It’s easy to select a layer. Just move your mouse over the image, and Affinity will put a frame around it. The frame is shown in dark blue below. You’ll also see the layer highlighted in the pane on the right.

Learning Tip: Thanks to a nice feature in Affinity Designer, you can learn as you go along by watching for the dynamic tips that appear underneath the workspace. Here’s a closeup from the image above. See how Affinity Designer coaches you on what to do next? You’ll get comfortable working in Affinity Designer quickly if you keep your eye open for these prompts.

Let’s follow Affinity’s advice, and click on the object. A frame will surround it. We’re going to change the colors. Click on the “Color” tab on the right. A color wheel will appear, like this:

Click anywhere on the wheel to choose a color. Let’s pick a yellow-green. The color change will appear on the selected layer.

Now we’ll repeat the selection and color change for another layer. This time we’ll choose a Robin’s egg blue.

Repeat this for the next layer with a chartreuse green.

And finally, we’ll go with a pink for the fourth layer.

Step 4: Save your work

We could keep going, but for now, let’s just save and close the file. You can’t save it as an AI file, since that is Adobe’s proprietary format. But that’s okay. When you save the file as an Affinity Designer file (AFDESIGN), it will preserve all the layers, just like Illustrator. 

Go to the top menu, then click File > Save.

We’ll save the AFDESIGN file in the same folder, with the same filename. Like this:

Step 5: Export in a different format

Would you like to turn your edited image into a PNG, SVG, or JPG? It’s easy in Affinity Designer. Open the AFDESIGN file, and click on the artboard/page you just edited. 

Go to File > Export.

Now you’ll see this. Choose the PNG option.

Click the “Export” button to save it as a PNG. Easy!

Now that you’ve seen how easy it is to import and work with AI files in Affinity Designer, it’s time to learn more. Start with Affinity’s own free video tutorials, which will teach you some of Designer’s best workflow shortcuts. Creative Fabrica has an Affinity Designer category here on The Artistry with inspirational and helpful articles.  And if you’re craving more lessons, Udemy and LinkedIn Learning offer hours of affordable Affinity Designer training.

To sum up, consider Affinity Designer if you are new to digital design, need to open and work with AI files, or just want a low cost vector-based drawing app.

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Venus Hensley

December 30, 2023

Very useful information. I have Affinity Designer, Love it! This article teaches me how to unlock more with Affinity Designer - Thank you.

Gained so many insights from this article. Thanks for sharing!

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