This list of essential graphic design gear has all of the hardware, software, online tools, and supplies that make freelance designing a breeze.
In my decade of working as a freelance graphic designer, I’ve tried and tested all manner of computers, software and gadgets, and not everything has made the grade. But what are the things I really can’t do without?
Discover the hardware, software, and special extras I couldn’t function without on a day-to-day basis. If you’re here to make a few purchasing decisions yourself, I also included gear options to suit a range of budgets. Whether you’re just starting out on your graphic design career, or want to give your gear a refresh, these workspace essentials make a good foundation for a well-rounded and effective workstation.
Scroll down to discover suggestions for hardware, software, and online tools, as well as pick up tips for when it’s best to invest…and when to save your hard-earned cash.
Hardware for Graphic Designers
For most designers, hardware will be the most expensive gear category, but with the right choices it will be well worth the investment. These purchases – computers, tablets, and hard drives – will house the majority of your workflow, so it’s not a place to skimp.
Here’s what I use…
After much internal debate I made the switch from PC to iMac four years ago. This was in part due to the fact that most of my design agency clients were Mac users, so the switch enabled smoother file sharing. However, Macs do offer other advantages for graphic designers. The large twenty-seven inch screen offers plenty of screen space for designing. I’ve found it to be particularly useful when editing print documents with two-page spreads, without needing to either zoom or squint. The retina display also ensures graphics look crisp, clear, and vivid, making the designing experience a pleasure every time.
However, any desktop Windows or Mac with a large screen, quality graphics card, and decent processing power (for managing large design apps) will be fine. Spend as much as you can comfortably afford, since a good desktop computer will be your reliable workhorse for years to come.
Portable Hard Drive
A USB stick won’t cut it for moving most large design files. Packaged InDesign files can be chunky, and Photoshop files even larger.
For transporting large files between computers easily, or for setting up periodic backups, a hard drive is a great time saver…just don’t leave it on the bus.
I use a 4 TB WD My Passport for Mac, but any hard drive over the 2 TB capacity will do the trick. Make sure the device is compatible for Mac or Windows (or, even better, both), depending on what you’re using.
Is illustration, logo design, or photo retouching a regular part of your workflow? A drawing tablet gives you a smoother and more professional sketching experience than a mouse, and offers more competency with detailed design work. I use my large Wacom Intuos Pro tablet for photo-editing, logo sketching, and illustration, but you can also find smaller tablets that are equally user-friendly.
If you’re not sure a drawing tablet is right for you, you can also try a touchscreen tablet, like the iPad, equipped with drawing apps like Autodesk Sketchbook or Procreate. If you go this route you’ll also need a stylus, like the Apple Pencil. But, Apple isn’t the only option. There are plenty of other lower-cost tablet and pen combinations for different types of users.
If you prefer the flexibility of hot-desking or simply the ability to move your workstation around the house, a laptop is essential. Large screen laptops will offer you the best design experience, but these can be heavy and cumbersome.
In contrast to almost every other Mac user I know, I’ve so far been stubborn enough to resist investing in a MacBook. Instead I opted for a Windows HP OMEN 15.6” Gaming Laptop, which although aimed at gamers has an excellent graphics card that suits designers too. The 1920 x 1080 screen resolution and Intel Core i5 processor makes opening and using design apps a breeze.
When shopping around for laptops, look out for the same key features you would expect from a desktop—large screen size and excellent processing power. A lightweight design is a bonus if you’re carrying your laptop to and from the office or meetings.
Aluminium Mouse Mat
When I’m not using my drawing tablet, which is in fact most of the time, I like to use an aluminum mouse mat to make my mouse work feel smoother and more seamless. I use a cheap DIGIFLEX mouse mat, but you can find a wide range of alternatives online.
Aside from technological hardware, graphic designers will still find a core set of traditional sketching items to be extremely useful. I frequently use:
- Large and small sketchbooks for at-home and on-the-go sketching.
- Tracing paper for refining logo designs.
- Set of H and B pencils, and my favorite ink pens—Pilot V5 Hi-Tecpoint with a fine nib.
- On my wish list is a drafting table with drawing board, which is really useful for producing large-scale drawings for 2D and 3D designs. It’s also the best way to encourage a little more hand-drawing than screen time.
Graphic Design Software
With your hardware equipment set up and raring to go, you can start populating your desktop with creative apps and programs to help you create design work to a pro standard. These are the paid-for apps I can’t work without.
Skip to the next section for free online tools and apps that help round out your creative workflow.
Adobe Creative Cloud
As editor of InDesignSkills it’s not surprising that I’m the ultimate fangirl of Adobe Creative Cloud, although I’m certainly not alone. Many pro designers look to the Adobe core suite of design apps—InDesign, Illustrator, and Photoshop—to create graphic work for print and online.
Whether it’s creating vector logos in Illustrator, advanced photo-editing in Photoshop, or designing print layouts in InDesign, there’s an app to suit any graphic design task.
An all-app subscription to Creative Cloud also includes access to a wide range of other apps for video-editing, website design, and much more. I frequently dip into Premiere Pro and After Effects for editing video tutorials.
While there are free alternatives to some Creative Cloud apps, such as InkScape and GIMP, there aren’t any decent free publishing design options that rival InDesign. However, Affinity Publisher is an excellent good-value alternative, and its sister apps, Designer and Photo, allow you to mimic the core Creative Suite format offered by Adobe.
SketchUp and Rhino
While most graphic designers tend to work solely on 2D media, it’s good to know there’s an exhaustive list of 3D design programs available to designers who want to dip a toe into 3D design, whether it’s creating packaging designs, exhibition setups, or furniture.
For 3D work, I use SketchUp, which offers a basic but intuitive 3D interface. I also use Rhino, which is a little more intimidating for new users but offers the flexibility to experiment with more fluid, organic shapes in your 3D designs.
Online Tools and Sites for Designers
You can find a wealth of useful online add-ons to improve your graphic design process, many of which are completely free to use or download. These are my favorite extensions, sites, and apps, all of which I use almost every day.
Like the look of a color scheme you’ve spotted on a website? This nifty Eye Dropper extension for Chrome allows you to pick up and identify HEX and RGB colors in an instant.
HTML Color Codes and Adobe Color
Converting colors from HEX to RGB to CMYK to Spot etc can be a drawn-out process in design software like Photoshop. A few online apps make color conversion quick, easy and inspirational.
HTML Color Codes is particularly useful for web design, allowing designers to choose and code colors from an extensive coor chart. Adobe Color bridges the gap between web and print color, allowing you to choose from trend-led schemes, identify color palettes from photos, and integrate palettes into your Adobe Creative Cloud apps using the My Libraries function.
Memo – Sticky Notes
Perhaps it’s the creative stereotype, but I can remember the names of dozens of fonts I adore but never the fact I need to send a file to a client by midday.
After many years of plastering the perimeter of my desktop screen in unsightly paper post-it notes, my deskmates are thanking me for cleaning up my act with a sticky notes app instead. I use the free Memo – Sticky Notes for Mac. For Windows users, try Microsoft Sticky Notes, which is also free to download.
Rather than spending hours creating mockups from scratch, I use the mockup graphics on the Shutterstock library for easy-to-edit graphics and photos of product, print, and device mockups, from magazine covers to eReaders. These are extremely useful for showing clients how a design would look IRL, especially when they need a little convincing.
The quality of compressed these images, which I can then move onto websites or email newsletters, seems slightly better than other compression apps I’ve used.
There’s a multitude of ways to resize images for the web, but I consistently come back to TinyPNG for ease of use.
The Shot List
While most graphic designers would probably loftily like to consider themselves above the whims of trend, no profession is more reliant on the periodic shift of tastes and styles to maintain success. Keep yourself abreast of the most significant monthly trends in graphic design, illustration, and photography with the Shot List.
For font inspiration, font pairings, typography trends, and merely to feed my growing and embarrassing font enthusiasm, Typewolf is a beautifully-presented font guide for designers.
Ditto above, but as a source of inspiration for almost every design thing imaginable, from color palettes to vintage book cover designs, punk posters to brand identities. However, disappearing down the Pinterest rabbit hole of balcony gardens and wedding stationery can hamper productivity. You’ve been warned.
Looking for more advice about the best tools and gear for designers? Don’t buy anything until you’ve checked out these top tips, gear reviews, and articles:
- When Should You Upgrade Your Visual Design Gear?
- 10 Indispensable Creative Tools for Graphic Designers and Illustrators
- Fun and Affordable Design Apps for the Perfect Distraction
- The Gear and Accessories Stock Photographers Can’t Live Without
- Choose the Right Software or App for Your Next Graphic Design Project
Cover image by contributor Twin Design.