The best web design tools will make it easy for you to create and manage the visual elements of your website. While complete HTML and CSS skills were once necessary to hardcode even basic web pages, today, several web development tools and website design software are available to simplify the entire web design process.
While it's essential to choose a good development environment and content management system (CMS) / website builder (e.g., WordPress, Wix, etc.), this article will focus more on design-specific tools.
So without further ado, here are our top 20 picks for the best web design software in 2021.
This category details multi-function design software that can't fit in one specific category. The rich feature set and pricing make these solutions more suited to larger enterprise design teams.
InVision Studio is a UI tool that's been a significant player in the design world for longer than most other applications. It can handle rapid prototyping, design system creation, and animation — all within a framework facilitating team collaboration.
InVision's true strength lies in rapid prototyping for animation. Its products make it easy to create custom animations and transitions through intuitive gestures — swiping, clicking, and hovering.
You can easily export prototypes and invite team members for collaboration. External clients can also easily give feedback by commenting directly on the prototype.
Invision Studio's layout engine is another nifty feature that users like for creating multiple artboards across several devices. It adjusts design dimensions to fit any screen automatically.
Figma is another interface design tool that also promotes team collaboration in real-time. It boasts compatibility across platforms, so remote teams distributed across Windows, Mac, and even Linux machines can collaborate without friction.
Compared to InVision, Figma has more robust collaboration and interaction tools, but currently, you can't create sophisticated interactions, motion graphics, or animations without the use of plug-ins. Most design teams won't tolerate modifying existing workflows to accommodate these plug-ins. But again, it's only an issue if your design teams revolve heavily around animation.
Sketch is quickly becoming one of the most popular web design tools. Called a "powerful vector-based tool for collaboratively building interfaces and prototypes," the vector-based files are dramatically smaller than traditional Adobe Photoshop files.
Users say file organization is better with Sketch when compared to Adobe XD, and the built-in grid system and more minimal UI make the design experience feel cleaner.
In terms of how Sketch compares to Figma, they are nearly head-to-head when it comes to features. Their strengths and weaknesses are similar too. Both Sketch and Figma are better for real-time collaboration when compared to InVision, but they both lack the capabilities to handle prototyping for animation elegantly.
The most notable difference between Sketch and Figma is that Sketch is only Mac compatible with no public roadmap plans to expand. So for teams needing to accommodate diverse operating systems, Figma is a better choice.
Remember, think beyond internal collaboration requirements. Your team may be entirely Mac-based, but consider whether you need to share and collaborate on design files with external clients. If the answer is yes, Figma's multi-OS capability could be make or break for your business.
Another consideration of all vector-based design tools, not just Sketch, is that they don't include print design features. For web design specifically, this lack shouldn't pose a problem. Still, since most large design teams and freelance designers work in various mediums, the absence of print-related design features might give some designers pause.
While the platforms above can certainly handle prototyping and mockups, the below suggestions are for those looking for purer wireframing and prototyping tools that don't come with other features that might be overkill for smaller teams.
Founded in 2008, Balsamiq is a well-established choice for pure and efficient two-dimensional wireframing. The Balsamiq UI includes lots of intelligent drag-and-drop elements for faster wireframing. Also, each wireframe page can link to another to present an entire thought-out information architecture. It's a no-fuss tool suitable for individuals with little to no design experience who efficiently communicate visual web design concepts.
UXPin is a dedicated prototyping app with desktop versions for both Mac and Windows, and it also has a browser-based version that can work on other operating systems.
UXPin dips into some coding elements, unlike other prototyping apps, enabling you to work with various code components, logic, and interactive states.
The integrated element libraries offer hundreds of free icon sets for iOS, Material Design, and Bootstrap (more on Bootstrap below). UXPin also integrates well with Sketch.
Last but certainly not least, UXPin includes accessibility features to align with WCAG standards.
Proto-io is best described as a "full-stack" prototyping tool that allows you to start a prototype from a hand-drawn style to a cleaner wireframe to a high-fidelity prototype.
Used by several well-known brands, Proto.io can manage the end-to-end design process, but it integrates with Sketch and Photoshop through plug-ins for teams that need it.
User testing features collect valuable feedback. Other features include prototype recording, developer guides, and an assets manager.
A design framework or library refers to the components, templates, UI patterns, and design standards used throughout a product to serve its design language. Creating a design framework can feel overwhelming for the uninitiated, but it's a necessary step to scale design projects. The following tools make framework building easier.
Bootstrap has been around the block, and most designers are familiar with it. However, it's still on our 2021 picklist because it continues to influence and shape web design and development.
Bootstrap shines for users focused on responsive design. With the most recent Bootstrap release (as of 5/19/21), responsive containers allow specification of a class that is 100% wide until the specified breakpoint is reached. Responsive .row-cols classes efficiently fix the number of columns across breakpoints.
Bootstrap also offers its own open source icon library that works with Bootstrap components.
If you like Bootstrap but are intimidated by the technical concepts of web design, Startup 4 is a Bootstrap Builder that combines drag-and-drop elements and built-in templates and themes to create prototypes based on Bootstrap 4's twelve column grid. Note that while the interface eliminates technical aspects, you will still need basic HTML and CSS knowledge to finish your prototypes fully.
Pattern Lab is a static site generator that pieces together UI components. It's a pattern-driven design framework tool based on the Atomic Design school of thought that breaks design elements into their most minor components (atoms) to be reformed into larger, reusable components (molecules and organisms) that can, in turn, be turned into usable templates.
Pattern Lab is designed for flexibility, language, and tool agnostic, and it's backend structure allows easy plug-in development for full extensibility.
Other key features include the ability to design with dynamic data and nest UI patterns within each other.
Long dominated by Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, there are now other graphic design tools available. While Adobe Creative Cloud remains the gold standard of design suites across the industry, these more cost-effective options offer similar capabilities at a price more suited to beginners.
Canva is a widely used web-based app that is great for quick infographics and banner images. Used by both designers and non-designers to create digital and print graphics, Canva is so easy to use that it's popular with non-design-based professions like marketers and social media managers.
In terms of feature parity with Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, Affinity Designer and Photo are very comparable at a much lower price point. They work well on both desktop and iPad.
Users say Illustrator gives you greater control over small details and has more specialized vector tools, and Photoshop has faster processing times.
However, for editing on mobile devices, many people prefer Affinity.
For quick and straightforward icon creation, Orion Icon surpasses other design apps, hands down. With a vast, searchable icon library, sorted by art style (line, solid, color, flat), finding an iconography base is simple. Orion Icon then simplifies workflow with simple customization options, so you can manipulate the icons to suit your needs fully.
Export options include both SVG vector and .png file formats.
Animation offers complex and time-consuming work. These three apps abridge some aspects of the animation process.
Principle is another iOS only app that makes interaction animations a breeze. You can independently animate all individual assets, assigning timings to each one. The ability to design multi-screen app experiences makes Principle especially suited for animation editing for mobile applications.
As stated above, the widely used platform Sketch isn't suited for sophisticated animation prototyping. Anima is a plug-in that can bridge that gap for shops that use Sketch but need to create smoother transitions and complex interface animations.
Hype Professional is an HTML5-based app that aims "to make common animation tasks easy, and complex tasks possible." Designers without technical experience will appreciate the ability to animate using visual tools rather than through keyframes or code. Hype Professional's "keyframe-based animation system is based on multiple timelines which can be triggered independently and bound to touch gestures."
These tools make soliciting feedback from both your internal team and clients a snap, cutting down on unnecessary meetings, and getting out of the hell of articulating visual elements through email.
Pastel allows you to create a canvas of any website over which team members can then lay real-time comments. You can invite unlimited guests to each canvas so that all project stakeholders can weigh in at no additional cost. And you can export the resulting tasks to Trello, Asana, and Jira to create the most efficient feedback and revision loop. It's a convenient app to cut your web design revisions cut in half.
Loom is another visual feedback tool, but instead of working off a static canvas like on Pastel, Loom allows you to record and talk through a video capture of your screen. The ability to record your screen, through your camera, or both means designers can use Loom for asynchronous feedback meetings, making it great for globally distributed teams.
Quality Assurance and Testing are the less glamorous but still vital phases of web design. These tools make QA and development much easier for larger organizations and enterprise design teams.
Zeplin is a must-have tool for large teams that simplifies prototype hand-off from designers to developers. With Zeplin, designers can publish finalized design prototypes with all associated code snippets, specs, and exportable assets and design files that developers need to make the designs come to life. Zeplin automatically generates tailored specs for the selected platform (web, iOS, and Android). Zeplin eliminates version conflict by sending a locked file to developers while allowing designers to move ahead and innovate.
Avocode is a design hand-off tool that makes it easy to open, share, inspect and collaborate on Sketch, Adobe XD, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Figma designs between designers and front-end developers. Designers can export images, code, text, colors, and dimensions with a single click.
"If you can't stand things like exporting design assets for someone else, opening a Sketch file on Windows or a PSD without Photoshop, eyeballing a distance between two design elements with a Marque tool, we will be good friends," states Avocode's knowledge base.
Last but not least, here's our pick for a helpful typography app beyond the standard Google Fonts.
Type Nugget aims to address the headache around CSS typography. It's a web-based typesetting tool that gives you finer control of typestyles. After tweaking fonts (size, weight, style, color, spacing, text-decoration) in a live visual editor, Type Nugget will produce a link to a style sheet hosted on its CDN — with the push of one button. It's a nifty tool that can streamline your workflow.