If you’re starting out as a designer or illustrator, arming yourself with the best graphic design tools and technology available will transform your workspace and your creative process. You’ll obviously need the basics – a powerful computer, a reliable broadband connection, a space to work, and an artist’s eye.
Beyond the bare necessities, however, there are plenty of crucial tools that you can invest in for long-term success. You may already own several of these illustration and graphic design tools, but browse our list and add something you may be missing to your creative arsenal.
1. A Mac(Book Pro, Probably)
Let’s get this out of the way at the top – we aren’t endorsing any particular brand across the board, but traditionally graphic designers, illustrators, and creative freelancers choose the latest and greatest MacBook Pro as their machine of choice. Why? The first version of Photoshop was originally built on a Macintosh, and the gorgeous yet simple user interface of Macs has made them industry favorites for decades. Change is in the air, however, so stay on top of the latest creative hardware to make sure you have the best machine for your purposes.
Choosing your exact computer will boil down to your position and your lifestyle – if you’re a freelancer, the portability of a MacBook Pro is a must, but if you work a steady desk job, the larger, crisper display on a 27-inch iMac is unbeatable. Regardless of your choice, remember that most of your design programs will invariably use plenty of RAM – don’t skimp on this element when purchasing your computer or you’ll be wringing your hands in frustration.
2. Wacom Cintiq 22-Inch HD Touch
If you’re a veteran, a Wacom has likely been one the best graphic design tools in your workflow for some time. Designers who are just starting out may invest in a starter drawing tablet like the Wacom Intuos Draw, a budget-friendly option that empowers you to make the transition from hand sketching or drawing with a mouse to the natural, organic, and controlled work you can accomplish with a drawing pad.
However, a monitor tablet (or graphic monitor) is essential for professional artists and illustrators to eliminate the disconnect of drawing with a pad. Digitize your art by drawing directly on the screen and experience less wrist pain and more creative control. For this experience, no graphic monitor outdoes the Wacom Cintiq 22-Inch HD Touch. The quality of the color, the viewing angle, and the anti-glare quality of the screen are all terrific reasons to invest in a Cintiq 22HD. With multitouch capabilities and 2048 pressure levels, what’s not to love?
3. Microsoft Surface Studio
For the cutting-edge artist looking to explore new possibilities, you couldn’t pick a better time to experiment with your graphic design tools. The Microsoft Surface Studio blends the best of both worlds to deliver an all-in-one PC that’s also a digital canvas for designers and artists. If you’re ever going to be wooed by Microsoft, this will be the computer that does it.
The 28-inch display can be mounted as a traditional monitor or folded down into a “Studio mode” so you can draw to your heart’s content. The touch capabilities make the experience immersive, and the fact that no other hardware is required is certainly appealing. Depending on your level of perfectionism, give it a test run – some Wacom diehards may not warm up to the Surface Pen, and at $3,000 and up the Surface Studio is quite the investment.
4. An Ergonomic Vertical Mouse
When you’re designing an infographic or simply completing tasks that a mouse will accomplish, keep your wrists and arms in an optimal and comfortable so you don’t suffer from chronic joint pain. Wrists are problem areas for most creatives glued to a computer, but you can alleviate the pressure and focus on your work with a vertical mouse.
The Kinesis DXT Wireless Ergonomic Mouse is one of our personal favorites, ensuring your body stays in a neutral, upright position while relaxing your wrist, hand, and arm. Though it’s vertical, this particular mouse is stable and accurate so your work is never compromised. You don’t have to fall in love with the Kinesis DXT – there are several other great vertical mouse options, including the Evoluent VerticalMouse 4.
5. iPad Pro
You’re not always going to be at your office, or in the comfort of your home. When you inevitably have to do some work on-the-go, the iPad Pro is one of the best graphic design tools for mobile work. When you consider the overall price, level of functionality, and the quality of this tablet, it’s the best on the market for illustrators and drawing in general. The pressure sensitivity is topnotch and palm rejection isn’t a problem.
The extra benefit of the iPad Pro is the great software available for designers and artists. Procreate is a must – touted as the “most powerful sketching, painting and illustration app ever designed for a mobile device,” Procreate gets you nearly all the way to a finished illustration: Just open your work in Photoshop to add text, labels, and more advanced options. With the combination of Procreate, the Apple Pencil, and the iPad Pro you can’t go wrong.
6. Pantone Reference Library
If you’re working in print, color is everything – and without a reference to keep your colors accurately calibrated your creative process could routinely become jammed. There’s a convenient tool that will help you determine how your colors will print when you’re adding a fifth color to your printer – a Pantone Reference Library. The numerous books and folders contain chips that show you exactly how each color in InDesign, Illustrator, and other programs will print.
As a professional you simply must have a standardized key that takes any guesswork out of the equation for your colors. While a Pantone Reference Library is an incredible solution for this problem, it’s also quite expensive – ideally, if you work for an agency or in a large department, your supervisors can purchase one for the office. But if not, it’s still worth the cost if you’re constantly printing your creations.
7. Datacolor Spyder 5 Pro
As our above entry demonstrates, your graphic design tools should allow you to perform your work accurately and confidently: As a designer, one of the most important components of your job is your color accuracy and workflow. If you can’t afford a Pantone Reference Library or you simply want to eliminate as many variables as possible, you should equip your monitor with a color calibrator that makes the transition from digital to print seamless.
One of the best models you can buy is the Datacolor Spyder 5 Pro. It adjusts the brightness of your monitor based on the lighting in the room to ensure that your unique color profile is never compromised. It’s loaded with helpful features, and is fully compatible with the Adobe suite. If you purchase it on Amazon the product comes with a free 90-day trial of the Adobe Creative Cloud photography package, in case you still need to invest in software.
8. Adobe Creative Cloud
On that note, one of the most important tools for any designer or illustrator is the Adobe Creative Cloud. In order to make your designs and illustratrations deliverable you’ll need the trusted combination of Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. When you sign up for a subscription you can access any of Adobe’s products you like, including After Effects and more. Keep your designs organized in files and libraries, and store all of your work on their easy-to-use cloud system.
The cost of Adobe is fairly steep (coming in at $50 per month for the annual plan or $75 per month for the monthly plan), but it should be considered one of your primary assets. As long as you’re working in the industry, forgoing a subscription is out of the question. However, if you purely do vector work, there may be a much cheaper option – for about $100, you might be able to get away with just using Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo. Check out reviews online to see if they would fit your needs.
For many of us creatives, music is not merely something to filter out background noise. Music informs our work, colors our ideas, and continuously inspires us to reach for more. That is, as long as we have a wide selection of tunes and melodies to suit our moods and projects. Spotify boasts a vast catalogue of music, a terrific interface, and the title of “cheapest creative tool” on our list, coming in at “completely free to use.”
However, as a designer who spends hours “in the zone” on your computer tinkering and creating, you may find the advantages of a Spotify Premium account appealing. The main difference, of course, is that your listening experience is uninterrupted. Some creatives are simply going to get sick of the occasional but constant ads interrupting their thought process. But there are more perks: the audio quality is better on Spotify premium, and you can download music to create some zen work playlists even when you’re offline.
10. Your Trusted Sketchbook
Never neglect the artist’s original and most important tool. Even if your workflow exists completely on your computer, invest in a sketchbook and a few top-quality pens for your desk so you can take random sketch breaks throughout the day. Sometimes you’ll find inspiration at random moments outside of work hours: Keep a portable sketchbook in your pocket so you always have the ability to actualize your ideas.
Now, we’re not going to pretend that there is such a thing as the “perfect” sketchbook for designers and illustrators – when you work in this field, your sketchbook preference and brand of choice is as personal a decision as your outfit for the day, or your favorite brand. Try out a few brands and sizes so you can determine what makes you most comfortable. Moleskine, Piccadilly, and Field Notes are all great places to start.
Bonus Items: Tools to Make Your Life Easier
These tools aren’t necessarily creative, but they’re vital to your success as a professional.
We all may know that simply storing files on our our computers is a risky option, but so many of us neglect to back up adequately. We recommend doubling down and protecting yourself by investing in both cloud storage (often free or inexpensive) and physical storage.
Obviously, Google Drive can solve a lot of your problems, and it’s free to use for 15 GB or less. For an entire terabyte it’s only $9.99 per month! Get to know the mechanics of Google Drive to save you a lot of worry if your computer ever crashes.
You should also purchase a hard drive, but don’t spend money on models that are likely to crash on their own in a few years. Solid state drives are more costly for a reason – without moving parts they’re more likely to last. Any of the Samsung T3 external hard drives are worth purchasing – just be sure to pick the right amount of storage for you.
A Good Backpack
As a designer, you’re probably going to have to take your precious gear with you all over, whether to meet with clients or to your sixth workspace of the month. A durable and waterproof bag is a must for any creative professional. Choose your bag based on your equipment and sense of style – for someone who brings their computer everywhere, a laptop backpack or rucksack is more feasible. Some creatives swear by messenger bags or duffels. Whatever your preference, find a reliable bag and stick with it.
Equip yourself with these essential illustration and graphic design tools and rest assured that your creativity can run free without any limits or hurdles.
Top image by karnoff