Every industry has tools of the trade – the instruments, devices, and programs that make your craft possible and help you work faster and better. The designer’s toolbox in particular has been changing through the ages, especially as digital design has given rise to a whole new sector of work.
With an overwhelming choice of cutting-edge software and hardware options out there, how do you know which tools to add to your design arsenal? We previously shared the short list of graphic design tools, which covers indispensable tools of the trade and the best brands and products to source these tools from. But there is so much more out there! In this long list, we share even more essential hardware, software, and accessories to complete your design toolbox. Chat with any experienced print or web designer and you’ll find that these tools are their absolute essentials for tackling any design project with confidence and creativity.
1. Raster Software
If you applied for any design job in the last decade, you would have found that for many roles the only standard requirement was proficiency with Adobe Creative Suite. Although Creative Suite has now been shelved by Adobe in favor of online-friendly Creative Cloud, the holy trinity of Photoshop-Illustrator-InDesign still remains one of the core graphic design tools for any professional designer.
Raster software is essential for editing photos and applying advanced image effects, and Photoshop is quite simply the pick of the bunch. In the hands of an enthusiastic amateur or seasoned professional, Photoshop has the ability to transform lackluster images into photographic masterpieces. With a range of easy-to-use Photoshop filters and actions available to buy online, the Photoshop editing process can be quick and easy too. Throw in web export tools, advanced colorspace settings and an intuitive interface, and you have the ultimate tool for creating, enhancing or radically editing any image. Read up on the Photoshop tips favored by top designers and artists.
Although most designers would probably agree that Photoshop is the best raster software, others would argue that Affinity Photo is an equally (if not better) alternative, and it’s cheaper than a CC subscription. Pixlr and GIMP are free, if more limited, raster programs if your budget won’t stretch to Photoshop or Affinity.
2. Vector Software
With your photo editor sorted, you’ll also need to add a vector program to your arsenal. This software allows you to create illustrations that can be scaled without loss of quality —essential for creating logos, easy-to-edit illustrations, infographics, icons, custom typography and much, much more.
Adobe Illustrator is still considered to be the king of vector, but there are cheaper or free alternatives which offer a competing level of functionality and usability. Try out CorelDRAW for a paid-for alternative with a long-standing fanbase, or InkScape – a fantastic free program that’s constantly evolving.
3. Publishing Software
Unless you have a specific design skill, like logo design or image retouching, it’s likely you will have to frequently dip into publishing as a professional designer. Publishing isn’t limited to books, but rather encompasses the whole spectrum of layout media in print and digital formats, including magazines, flyers, brochures, posters, eBooks, stationery, branded materials, social media banners, and more.
For these sorts of tasks you’ll need software that is equipped to create flat layouts for both print and online. A couple of decades ago QuarkXPress was the industry standard and although this still has a following, mainly across more traditional sectors of the print industry, Adobe InDesign has since overtaken it. The most recent incarnation, InDesign CC, stretches the boundaries of publishing design, allowing you to creative interactive EPUBs or embossed business cards with equal ease.
4. Adobe Acrobat Pro
While your raster-vector-publishing trio of software might form the foundation of your graphic design toolbox, it’s often the add-on extras that help to make your workflow (and life) simpler. Acrobat is one of those tools that many designers take for granted, but it plays an absolutely essential part in getting your designs from drawing board to reality.
PDF formats are considered the industry-standard file type for high-quality printing, and interactive PDFs are a quick and simple way to get your layouts up online without compromising on interactivity and petite file size. Acrobat Pro has more editing functionality than standard incarnations of Acrobat, allowing you to shuffle or delete pages, apply drawn notes and signatures, optimize file size, and apply security measures — perfect for sharing sensitive design work with clients.
5. A graphics tablet
If you’re planning to do advanced photo-editing or create digital illustrations, a good graphics tablet will be a solid investment. With more sophisticated functionality than a mouse, a graphics tablet allows you to use your computer as you would a sketchpad, steadying your hand and working with pressure to create a more sensitive, accurate drawing experience. If you spend more than an hour a day creating or editing images, a tablet will also limit the strain to your wrist and hand that are commonplace with extended bouts of mouse-usage.
Wacom is the market leader in professional graphics tablets. They don’t come cheap, but there are several model series depending on your needs and expertise. The Intuos series is entry-level, with great options for budding designers, while the Intuos Pro models are the perfect upgrade for advanced image-creators.
6. A Pantone Reference Library
For serious print designers, a Pantone Reference Library is the ultimate color tool to add to your arsenal. This physical library, with guides stored in an attractive display case, allows you to assess the 5000 colors Pantone offers. That includes all the spot colors, metallics, pastels and neons as well as process colors for print, packaging, web, video and other applications. While screens may deceive if not calibrated effectively, the Pantone library never lies.
If your budget won’t stretch to Pantone’s offering, a simple color wheel can help you to find color inspiration when you’re running dry, as well as finding complementary colors in an instant. Adobe Color CC is a nifty online color wheel, and you can craft complete color palettes organically or from an image of your choice, before exporting to your Adobe CC applications if you have a subscription. If not, you can still see finely-tuned choices for color combinations in CMYK, RGB and HEX modes. And, if you need images to match your chosen color scheme, try out Shutterstock Palette, which matches images to your selected color palette.
7. A decent digital camera
This goes without saying if you’re a photographer or frequent Photoshop user, but having access to a high-quality digital camera is essential for any designer. Whether it’s to seek inspiration from the world around you, or to simply get an image from real-life to screen at a professional standard, you’ll find numerous occasions when having a camera to hand really makes the difference when time is short.
That’s not to say you have to go out and buy the latest Nikon or Kodak (although these do make great investments) as a high-quality phone camera can serve a similar purpose these days. For quick image inspiration a phone camera synced to your email can save the day. Scanners are also a bonus tool to have to hand when a tripod isn’t available or shaky hands are effecting image quality.
Check out how you can combine the functionality of your smartphone with your digital camera to create a design match made in heaven.
8. A great local print shop
If you’ve already found your friendly neighborhood printer who prints your design work to exceptional quality at decent prices, and on short notice to boot, you’ve found the holy grail of print design. If you’re still waiting to find ‘The One’ amongst your local print shops and photo labs, keep searching. A reliable printer is the one factor that will minimize stress when you have a high-pressure project.
A good test of whether your printer is reliable is to check if they’re willing to provide free-of-charge proofs while you wait. Are they happy to advise you on suitable paper stocks and weights, and do they have samples of past print jobs available? It’s worth visiting several printers and testing their services before committing to large jobs. Once you’ve found the right match, you’ll be able to tackle any print design project with the confidence that you’ve found the right business to do your on-screen designs justice.
9. External and cloud-based file storage
Ever accidentally deleted a file, or come back from lunch to find your computer has decided to crash? These despairing scenarios do unfortunately happen, and they can happen more often when you’re dealing with large design files that take a lot of processing power. You can limit damage by investing in file storage. If you have a Mac you can initiate Time Machine back-up to allow you to access files that have been accidentally deleted, edited or misplaced. It’s always best to back-up your files to an external hard drive, whether you’re using a Windows or Mac machine, and do this periodically.
You should also set up a decent cloud storage system, which backs up your files online on a daily or weekly basis. Dropbox or Google Drive allow you to access your files in the worst-case scenario that you can’t get onto your computer or find your external hard drive.
10. A large file transfer site
Sample of a stressful (and all too common) scenario:
Client: “Send me over the files for the project on email, I need them today”.
You (looking at huge size of files in despair): “Argghh, I’m sorry it won’t attach to the email, it’s too big!”
You never really think of the sheer hugeness of your design files as you’re designing, but often clients do need access to native files in their original formats, and at short notice too. Rather than shelling out for a courier to transport a precious USB stick across the country, turn instead to a handy large file transfer service. Dropbox can be used for instant file-sharing, on the condition you’ve paid for enough storage. Alternatively, an online service like Wetransfer or MailBigFile is quick and free (up to a generous limit), and will have your client accessing the files within minutes if you have a decent internet connection.
11. Font identifying software
Ever seen a fantastic design and wanted to know what the font was? Font identifying software is a handy accessory for typography enthusiasts. Even if the exact match can’t be found, apps and sites like WhatTheFont, Identifont, and Font Squirrel’s Matcherator can suggest close alternatives to suit a range of budgets. As long as your source image is high-resolution and the type isn’t custom, you’ll be amazed at the lovely fonts these sites can generate in a matter of seconds.
12. A font-pairing tool
For the budding typographer, much time can be spent and lost on seeking out perfect font combinations. Avoid time-wasting and discover that perfect slab-serif/sans serif pairing with a font-matching tool. Typewolf has an elegant interface and even more elegant typeface combinations, demonstrated in action using exceptional design examples.
13. Commercially-licensed free fonts
What’s better than something free? Something that’s free and high-quality. Search for free fonts and you’ll find thousands upon thousands of ready-to-download typefaces, but it can be difficult to find diamonds in the rough. Avoid the pitfalls of free novelty fonts with a reliable free font site. Font Squirrel is a true favorite — it has a wonderful choice of beautiful typefaces, and you can filter by trending and newest styles to find cutting-edge choices for your projects.
The key factor to look for when browsing for free fonts is to check that they are licensed for commercial use. If not, you won’t be able to use the font for client or saleable work. Font Squirrel cuts out this worry, with a guarantee that all its fonts are commercially licensed. Often you can find a real gem—some highly respected type designers will use the site as a testing ground for demand before later moving them to paid-for sites. So check back to the Recently Added section frequently to find high-quality fonts at no expense.
14. Google Fonts
For the avid web designer, Google Fonts is an absolute treat. Long gone are the days of limited font choices for web—now you can choose from nearly 900 beautifully designed web fonts in Google’s simply laid-out directory. Google works with celebrated type designers and often releases early access trials to help you stay at the forefront of digital typography. It’s certainly one to bookmark if you’re into web design, but it’s a great trend-gauging tool for print designers too.
Take a look at the 9 fonts that are going to be trending everywhere in the coming months.
If you want to create a professional website on a budget, WordPress is your web design must-have. The ability to build on existing templates which are design-forward and cost-effective can cut your design time down dramatically. Trickier features to code can be supplied via purchasable or free plugins, and the WordPress CMS is intuitive to use once you get to know your way around. It’s also a great tool for creating websites which can be handed over easily to the client, without the need for them to purchase external WYSIWYG (“What You See is What You Get”) software. The client can access the CMS with ease and tweak their website content without damaging carefully-crafted code.
16. A reliable hosting account
Web hosting has evolved into a more efficient service these days. Gone are the days of having to source the building blocks of your website from separate sources—now most hosting providers also allow you to build and manage your websites within one control panel. Businesses like GoDaddy and SiteGround provide basic or professional hosting services at ultra low prices, and allow you to hook up your WordPress CMS easily.
If you’re not an experienced web designer but on the hunt for beautiful website designs that are easy to edit, web development companies like Wix and Squarespace offer intuitive website building as well as budget-friendly hosting services.
17. A reliable stock image site
Imagery is the backbone of graphic design, but it’s not always practical or possible to source your own images for all projects. Finding a great stock site can feel like having a faithful friend accompanying you while you design. A site with a wide variety of choice, superb image quality, advanced search facility and various file formats will prove to be one of the hardest-working tools in your kit. Comprehensive stock libraries like Shutterstock are paid-for, but offer great value, quality and convenience, which is a lifesaver for time-pressured projects.
18. An image-compressor
Created the perfect image, but it’s slowing down loading time on your website? A nifty image-compressor will reduce the size of your image instantly. You can also upload a batch for ultimate efficiency. My favorite has to be TinyPNG which compresses 25 MB worth of images for free in a matter of minutes. You can use the online tool and download images in a ZIP file format, or install a plugin if you have Photoshop CC. This is a great little tool to have on hand if you want to make your websites work more efficiently.
19. A sketchpad
We may have left this old-fashioned tool until last, but we couldn’t not include the trusty sketchpad in our list of essential graphic design tools. For drafting logo designs, mapping out website plans, or sketching inspiration, all great design projects start with simple pen and paper. It’s useful to have two sketchbooks on hand — a small one to fit in your bag when you’re on the go, and a large (A3 or larger) pad to use at your desk. Get yourself a range of good-quality graphite pencils for sketching, as well as a selection of ink pens in a variety of colors. You don’t need to spend a fortune on a fancy pen – Something as basic as V5 Pilot pens, can make high-contrast drawings perfect for scanning into the computer.
20. The Internet
Every designer needs to start somewhere, and Google should be your first port of call. It may sound obvious but a Google search can lead to so many avenues for a budding creative. Search for online courses or tutorials, and update your software skills within a lunch hour. Hopping onto Pinterest can give you an instant sense of the ebb and flow of design trends. Search for networking events, lectures, design fairs or conferences in your local area or further afield and you’ll start to build valuable connections with other designers and potential clients. Online project apps like Trello can help you easily communicate with others on design collaborations, while news sites like Wired can keep you up-to-date with cutting-edge shifts in the technology and design sectors.
The internet is now the hardest-working tool for graphic designers, allowing you to communicate with others remotely, share work and inspiration easily and educate yourself at little or no cost, among many other purposes. It makes a fitting finale to our list of essential tools, and is a great springboard to making your design business a reality once you have your software and hardware tools in place.
Do you have any other design tools you couldn’t be without? We’d love to hear what would be your top tool picks — go ahead and leave your tips in the comments below.