Free Design


If you are a digital designer with a shoestring budget (or no budget, for that matter), there is no need to compromise on powerful tools or resort to software piracy.

Enter the world of free and open source design software…

Many of these projects are community driven efforts with a price tag of $0. You might just need a little more elbow grease to get up and running as they sometimes lack the design polish of familiar commercial products. They are also usually in perpetual 'beta' and constantly undergoing changes and fixes.

If you already own or have access to comparable commercial products, you might as well continue on with those. However, if you are looking for an alternative with low overhead then these might serve your purposes quite well. Just remember that you are getting what you pay for. No whining allowed.

The tools in this article are on standalone tools that I have personally used and also have familiar points of reference with similar commercial packages for Windows… The list below also contains useful free products from some of the big industry players such as Autodesk, Bentley, and Dassault… the world of free and/or open source software is much larger and much more complex than this page lets on.

For more information about tools (and many others like them), be sure to check out There you will find reviews, ratings, and descriptions of the many tools used in the AEC industry.

Free Stuff!

3D Modeling
Blender 3D
Blender is an open source mesh modeling platform with features for animation, rendering, and scripting. The new Cycles rendering engine and the Python API implementation are some of the most attractive features I have seen in any modeling software.
Vasari is a free conceptual modeling and anaysis tool from Autodesk. The tool allows you to work on early-stage modeling efforts and remain 100% compatible with Revit. It is also possible to develop Add-ins for Vasari using a limited version of the Revit API.
Generative Components
Generative Components is a free parametric design application from Bentley. GC lets users explore designs through modeling and scripting interfaces. GC used to be an extension to Microstation/Triforma, but is now a standalone application.
DraftSight is a free CAD program by Dassault Systems. The program is a lightweight clone of AutoCAD with DWG support and the all-to-familiar command line. It is strictly a 2D drafting program with all the expected features for layer control and referencing.
GIMP is an open source photo editing and raster manipulation tool akin to Photoshop. The program has a an extensive set of tools for image enhnacement, retouching, authoring. The interface is also very customizable.
Inkscape is an open source vector editor akin to Illustrator. The program allows you to author, import, and export Scalable Vector Graphic files (*.svg) and features some support for Illustrator files as well.
Scribus is an open source publishing application similar to InDesign. Scribus can be used to grate document layouts for portfolios and presentations. While it lacks the interface finesse of the Adobe product, Scribus has many of the same features that make it a viable alternative.
OpenOffice provides a collection of productivity tools comparable to Microsoft Office. Users can create and edit familiar file types such as work processing documents, spreadsheets, and slideshow presentations.
For those looking for a cloud-based solutions to office productivity, Google Drive has all the basics you will need to for authoring, editing, and sharing. Features include word processing, spreadsheets, surveys, and slideshows.
Processing is an open source programming language for creating interactive applications and graphic designs. The application functions like a "sketchbook" where users can program their application, play, and compile in one environment.
Unity is a development environment for 3D gaming. The free version provides some very powerful features for rendering, interaction, and publishing. Combine Unity with Blender and you have a very powerful game authoring workflow.
SharpDevelop is an open source integrated development environment (IDE). SharpDevelop allows you to develop .NET applications making it a nice alternative to Visual Studio. It also supports other languages such as Ruby and Python.
Notepad++ is a text editor on steroids. The tool supports syntax highlighting for numerous programming languages. I use it as a Python editor or to quickly view and edit XML files.
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