Acorn 3: A Robust Graphics Tool for Designers and Artists

It’s going to be the 800-pound gorilla in the room for the entirety of this article, so I’m just going to acknowledge it now: Photoshop. There. I said it.

Photoshop has been king of the computer graphics hill for a very long time. Even though other software exists, and other applications take more specialized approaches to creating digital graphics, in a professional environment it always comes back to Photoshop.

This article isn’t about Photoshop. And yet it kind of is. It’s about Acorn, the image editor for humans, from Flying Meat Software. Specifically it’s about version 3 of Acorn, and how this update brings Acorn so close to taking on Photoshop in the minds of so many people.

For a lot of those people, it’ll beat Photoshop. Let me show you why.

What Can It Do?

I really hate the idea of software being judged by a checklist. As if the way to decide the quality of something is the number of things it can do. That’s part of it, sure, but it isn’t the final word.

Acorn embodies this idea to me. Because in a checklist fight, Photoshop will win every time. But because of that, because of the unwieldy Swiss Army knife that Photoshop has become, it loses in the hearts and minds of a lot of Mac users. We appreciate thoughtful minimalism, skilled restraint, and subtle utility and power. That’s what Acorn is. This is what it can do.

Acorn's Full UI

Acorn's Full UI

Layer Styles

Layer styles are one of those things that Photoshop has that keep people coming back to it. To someone who hasn’t used them, they’re kind of hard to explain, but if you’re familiar with them, then you get why Acorn having them is so important.

Acorn’s implementation isn’t identical to Photoshops, but it’s similar in enough ways that you can understand how they work pretty quickly.

Acorn's Layer Style Palette

Acorn's Layer Style Palette

Vector Editing

Acorn’s vector editing capabilities are equally impressive. It’s something that’s frequently overlooked by simpler, more consumer-focused editors, but is a huge feature for anyone wanting to do user interface design or asset creation. Vector graphics in an app like Acorn, when coupled with something like layer styles, allow for something akin to resolution independence, but with the look and feel of traditional raster-based graphics.

Nestled within the Shape tool’s options, you can create vector paths with either freeform Bezier paths, or predefined rectangle and ellipse tools.

Custom Brush Engine

Another defining mark of a mature image editor is a custom brush engine. It was what put Photoshop on the map all those years ago, and its present in Acorn. All the essential controls are there. You can even use a custom image as the brush shape, there’s no real difference from Photoshop’s brush engine, just the learning curve associated with a different interface.

Acorn's Brush Designer

Acorn's Brush Designer

Layer Masks

You might be surprised this feature made my list. But layer masks were one of those things I didn’t realize I relied on so heavily, until I didn’t have them anymore. Layer masks are critical to so many artistic techniques, that having them really is a must. And I’m glad to see Acorn does. They aren’t fancy, but they aren’t supposed to be. They’re a tool, and an important one at that.


Filters get a bum wrap from most professional Photoshop users. I think many designers think of them as cheating. But filters are a big draw for the average consumer, and Acorn has them in spades. There are a lot of filters at your disposal, with some that even Photoshop doesn’t have – though I’m not going to get into a filter fight with Photoshop, because Acorn wouldn’t win that.

Acorn's Filter Editor

Acorn's Filter Editor

One thing I really like is the chained nature of how you apply filters. Acorn encourages you to experiment, watching the results in a live preview window, because the order that you apply filters changes the end result.

Selections, Screenshots, and Scripting

If you would pardon the alliteration, these are three other features of Acorn that I feel deserve attention. So much of skilled photo editing work relies on the ability of the artist to make selections with precision. Acorn provides a wide range of tools to do this, and I think the toolset would be adequate for most professionals.

Baked into Acorn is a screenshot feature that truly borders on magic. If you have Acorn open, you use a key command and Acorn will take a layered screenshot. That means you’ll get a file with each window separated into groups and layers which you can show and hide as you please. I love this feature, and for me it by itself makes Acorn worth the purchase price.

Another feature with a power user feel is the ability to script Acorn with AppleScript, Automator, or even JavaScript. Often times a repetitive task can be simplified in Photoshop by using Actions, and this puts Acorn on par with Photoshop when it comes to automation.

The Final Verdict

Ok, so if you’ve made it this far you’ve probably realized I really like Acorn. Now, while I did focus on the positive, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some things that bugged me. Selecting multiple layers is impossible, you have to create a group first. And I’d like the tools for editing pre-existing shapes to be a little more intuitive. As it stands now, they’re the same tools that are used for creating new shapes, and I’d like some kind of feedback to the user that they’re editing a shape rather than planning for a new one.

But I won’t end of the negative. Acorn is a stunning image editor, and I challenge any professional to go out a try it. Give it a fair shake though, don’t go running back to Photoshop after 20 minutes. Be prepared to learn something new, but be prepared to enjoy doing it. This is the kind of software that makes me proud to be a Mac user, and a shining example of what can be created by an indie software house. Go check it out. Right now.

Bonus: iPhone Wallpaper

In the course of me reviewing Acorn, I felt the best way to get a real feel for the app was to use it to create something. So I’m releasing the iPhone wallpaper I designed during my testing. The photograph is one of mine, and I hope you, dear readers, will enjoy it.


Acorn is the image editor for humans, offering a fantastic alternative to the bloated Photoshop.