What Vector Drawing Packages Are Available? [Ask AstroBetter]

by saurav on March 28, 2011

Matthew K. sent in a question for our Ask AstroBetter series:

What vector graphics drawing package do you use for your figures?

I’ve been using xfig for all my “hand drawn” plots, but I wonder if anyone has successfully moved on to more recent drawing packages … [a package] to draw simple figures like optical layouts or circuit diagrams, where freehand drawing is not good enough and you want text boxes with aligned text in them, something similar to Inkscape.

Ideally, Matthew would like the package to

  • have binary/compilable versions for all major platforms
  • be able to organize each item in a layer
  • snap items to grids of definable size
  • include other graphics (both vector and pixel) as input elements
  • export to PS/PDF


I would recommend OmniGraffle, which costs $59.95 for the Standard and $119.95 for the Pro version for a single-user license with educational discount (along with a free two-week trial period), for Mac users. While it does not meet (at least) one of the above requirements, it is a fairly powerful and easy-to-use software.

Another excellent option, especially if you do not care about GUI,  is using LaTeX’s pgf and tikz packages.  While layers can be tricky and learning curve is steep, it can do pretty much any schematic drawing, unless you are an engineer designing actual circuit boards (see some nifty examples here). And it is open source!

A quick look around the web tells me that the open source XCircuit and CADsoft’s Eagle are also used “widely” for schematic drawings.  So what programs do you all use to draw your figures?

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tad Thurston March 28, 2011 at 7:44 am

That sounds like my path — I used to use OmniGraffle for everything, then I found tikz for LaTeX, so I use that for pretty much everything on tests, handouts, and quizzes. If I need 3D I’ve started using the Sketch package (like pgf with 3D), PovRay, or Blender. Really good options available.

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2 Kelle March 28, 2011 at 8:45 am

I know this isn’t the answer you’re looking for, but I’ve had really good experiences with using Keynote. The freehand pen tool is actually really flexible and seems to always do what I want it to. To export to PDF, I use copy and Preview: In Keynote, select all the drawings elements (cmd-A), group them (optional), copy (cmd-C), and then in Preview, Create New from Clipboard (cmd-N).

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3 Marshall March 28, 2011 at 9:31 am

I’m confused – you say you want something similar to Inkscape, but then what’s wrong with Inkscape itself? It’s my standard tool for this sort of work. Keynote is good to, for simpler sorts of tasks, but especially when I need to take an existing PDF and break it apart and change things around, Inkscape is what I reach for first.

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4 Ivan Zolotukhin March 28, 2011 at 11:07 am

There’s also one more noteworthy no-GUI piece of software, Asymptote (http://asymptote.sourceforge.net/), a powerful descriptive vector graphics language. It’s the only open source package that is able to export 3D PDFs as far as I know.

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5 Jeremy Sanders March 29, 2011 at 4:43 am

LibreOffice/OpenOffice is an obvious program for producing simple diagrams. It is available on all systems, and recent versions can do PDF import. I believe it supports layers and snapping. It can export in a variety of formats including EPS and PDF.

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6 Erik Tollerud March 29, 2011 at 6:18 am

As mentioned by others, I find inkscape quite straightforward to use as long as you’re willing to commit a little bit of time to the initial learning session.

Adobe Illustrator is the Elephant in the room (although “simple” certainly doesn’t apply there). Thus, if you look at http://alternativeto.net/software/adobe-illustrator/ you’ll get a decent cross-section of many of the alternatives. Most of those mentioned here appear, and a few other lesser-known ones.

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7 Brent April 7, 2011 at 2:44 am

Skencil is an excellent package for making figures and accepts a good variety of figures.
http://skencil.org/
http://star.herts.ac.uk/~brent/howtos/skencil.html
Its development has been frozen for a while but now seems to be changing
http://sk1project.org/viewpage.php?page_id=21

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8 Brian April 11, 2011 at 4:15 pm

There is a nice GUI for pgf/tkiz called LaTeX Draw

http://latexdraw.sourceforge.net/

that should be cross platform. I still use xfig most of the time though.

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9 Joshua Peek May 5, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Yeah, I use the elephant. Illustrator is incredibly powerful, and it is a very well supported tool. I have a lot of friends and relatives in the art and design world, so working with a package like Illustrator means I have a built in support network. It was $100 when I bought it, but it seems to have gone up to $200. I use it to massage almost everything I make, from plots in papers to images in presentations to posters, so I think it’s a good investment. But I am all about paying people for well crafted software.

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