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.



Add Yours
  • Interesting. I am a Photoshop user, but on a personal level and by no means professionally educated on all things Photoshop. I’ve been looking for a software that is maybe a little less complex, yet giving me good results. I will def. take Acorn for a test spin.

    • Alakazaam-inframotion found, problem solved, thanks!

  • Photoshop isn’t bloated it’s just for professionals and people who know what they’re doing.

    • Sorry but no, Photoshop has become a huge bloated beast since Adobe bought Macromedia and renamed their products Creative Suit. I’ve used PS almost every day for the past 12 years and it’s turned from a lean image editing tool into a tool with absolutely no direction or focus.

      I would kill for something tightly focused, leaner and aimed at UI design and image editing. They already have an app tightly focused on *photo* editing.

      • Well, your PS usage and mine differ. Except for 80% of the filters (Sketchify? Emboss? whatever…) , I need most of the other Photoshop utilities frequently, from Vector paths to HDR to photo editing even natural brushes.

        You want something aimed at “UI design”? Well, Photoshop is usable for 10 times more stuff more than UI design…

        The only “bloat” in Photoshop in the Flash panels it uses.

      • Some people probably would argue Photoshop got bloated once they started adding tools that didn’t have anything to do with photo editing.

        I’ve been using Photoshop for many, many years and still find it to be nimble and easy to use (unlike some other programs I use regularly *cough* Illustrator * which have become harder to use with their added tools and code.) If you find the tools in Photoshop that you don’t use get in your way they definitely look for other programs. Acorn does sound really good and I might give it a work out.

      • Photoshop is still the king of image editing, but its interface and features have become a huge mess, only decipherable for those that have been working with photoshop for years. I can very well imagine photoshop doesn’t make any sense from a beginner perspective, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend photoshop to a starting designer.
        Photoshop is a relic of the past, but its functionality still hasn’t been matched by any new software.
        Adobe faces the same problem as Microsoft does: if they change even the slightest thing, the whole creative community goes bonkers. But I don’t see why Adobe just doesn’t start fresh with a new, simple, clean, lean and mean image editing tool.

  • Thank you very much for this great review. I have never stumbled on acorn before and the truth is I’ve never found a good image editor on the mac (besides photoshop). Acorn looks very promising so I’ll check it out in detail tomorrow and hopefully buy it. FYI: The $29 special finishes on the 30th. Unsure what timezone is so you’ve got a minimum of about a day if you want it for $29

  • Yes I admit it. I’m with the people that whenever they think “digital graphics” the first think that pops in mind is “Photoshop”. But for a good reason.
    It’s a professional tool that does what it does very well and had expanded its capabilities over the years, becoming a standard in the world of graphics and printing.
    But I do agree that it doesn’t have to be the only solution for gfx designers. Sometimes a job can be done with a lighter tool – as long as it does provide quality results.
    And it’s good to see that one can find such tools in the shape of … an Acorn.

  • Thanks for that review. Good level of detail.

    Reading it made me think that perhaps this is a little more tailored to my tastes that the (admittedly pretty excellent) Pixelmator. But then I realised, even if I bought them both then it is still a tiny fraction of the cost of a Photoshop license.

  • What´s the difference between Acorn and Pixelmator?

    • I’ll admit I’m not overly familiar with Pixelmator, which is why I didn’t mention or compare it to Acorn in the review. I stuck with what I knew, Photoshop. That might be an interesting article topic though, a head-to-head between Pixelmator and Acorn.

    • From my limited experience, Acorn has more flexibility for UI designs and graphics, while Pixelmator shines for photo editing and “artistic” things. That’s mainly due to the lack of a vector tool in Pixelmator and the fact that Pixelmator’s brushes just seem to give better results. All in all, both are pretty good.

  • Acorn (v2, but still) versus Pixelmator:

    A good read!

  • I already use photoshop, but after seeing the review it took me 10 minutes to review it, love it and buy it. For me it’s a killer app for simple photo editing. It opens fast! I am using it for simple photo edition and I’m loving it.

    • For the most basic of photo editing I always use ‘Preview’ on the mac. It’s super fast and simple, and will crop and color correct your photo just fine.

  • After reading your review I decided to buy it and I’m really impressed. It’s really powerful and very fast. Most of us aren’t professional editors and yes, photoshop has become too bloated over the years!
    Thanks for your review!

  • timthumb to generate thumbnail image as default

  • Loving it. Thanks for sharing the tip on layered screenshots. Still going through the walkthroughs for the software bit by bit.