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Ten Free Online Tools Every Designer Should Know

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When I pitched the idea for this article to my editor, I thought it would be an easy assignment. Was I wrong! There are so many cool, useful, and free online tools that it was tough to pare the list down to only 10. I first narrowed the list to those tools with the greatest utility and broadest appeal. When that still left me with a long list, I threw darts. The results are below.

1. Lorem Ipsum Generator

InDesign, InCopy, and QuarkXPress have built-in filler-text generators, but they only do paragraph type (without some work on your part). Moreover, few other design tools generate placeholder text. That’s why I use the Lorem Ipsum Generator. Available free and in 32 languages, the Lorem Ipsum Generator will produce placeholder text of any length you want simply by specifying the number of paragraphs, words, bytes, or lists.

2. Color Inspiration and Community

Before Adobe’s Kuler there was — and still is — Colour Lovers. Colour Lovers is similar to Kuler in that you can create, share, and discuss color palettes. Both let you create color palettes from scratch or from an uploaded image, and then tag, share, and discuss your palettes and others’, but Colour Lovers boasts even more impressive features.

The second biggest advantage of Colour Lovers is the inclusion of patterns: Not only can you create and share colors and palettes, but also patterns of colors, many of which were inspired by palettes shared in the community. Enhanced search capabilities make it easier to find colors, palettes, and patterns by hue, Web Hex color value, date, keyword, and popularity.

 

Colour Lovers’ biggest advantage over Kuler is the ability to download palettes not only in the Creative Suite-specific Adobe Swatch Exchange ASE format, but also as a Photoshop, Illustrator, or GIMP document, and HTML file listing the colors in Web Hex values, or even a Zip archive. Kuler offers only the ASE format.

Although Kuler boasts a better color mixing interface, the extra features of Colour Lovers nudges it ahead of Kuler in my (swatch) book.

3. Invoicing and Billing

FreshBooks is free invoicing and invoice tracking service. You can send invoices via e-mail or have FreshBooks print and snail mail them. The basic account is free and allows you to manage three clients concurrently, but e-mails you send through the system are branded with an ad for FreshBook itself.

To get rid of the ad, increase the number of clients you can manage, or number of individuals in your organization who can access the account, you’ll need to upgrade to a paid account. Prices range from as little as $14 per month for 25 clients and one staff member account on up to the “Time Machine” plan of 5,000 clients and 20 staff members for a still very reasonable $149 per month.

4. Online Meeting, Collaboration, and Document Sharing and Proofing

If I had written this article last year I would have had to pay for competent online tools for online collaboration, white boarding, document proofing, and approval. This year a single free service addresses all of those needs, and it does so very well.

Acrobat.com, released concurrently with Acrobat 9, includes a quartet of very powerful tools.

In Buzzword, you can create and invite others to view or contribute to word processor documents. I’ve come to love Buzzword because of the ease with which it facilitates collaboration with clients and partners. In particular, it’s useful for creating to-do or Q and A lists that multiple parties can change at any time. You can even export Buzzword documents to the desktop in a variety of standard word processor formats (and PDF, of course).

ConnectNow (see below) is Acrobat.com’s online meeting and screen sharing service. Invite clients, colleagues, or remote employees to meet live and share files, screens, and a whiteboard while conversing via integrated text chat, audio via computer microphone or telephone, and even Web cam video, all for free.

Do you want an easy way to share proofs and large files with clients without worrying about e-mail attachment limits or walking clients through the process of using your FTP server? Every free Acrobat.com membership includes 5GB of file storage (see below). You can access your own files again from any Web browser, but more importantly, you can also instantly share any uploaded document with others. Although there are file-sharing services out there with larger capacities and more advanced versioning, it’s the clean and intuitive user interface, as well as the tight integration with the other Acrobat.com services that puts the free My Files and Share services top of my list.

A bonus fifth feature of Acrobat.com is the free conversion of various file types to PDF. If you don’t have Acrobat on hand, upload your file to the site and download a PDF.

5. Project Management

Liquid Planner is a hosted project-management application that includes project scheduling and analysis; task management; resource scheduling; milestones; drag-and-drop ordering of priorities and tasks; integrated e-mail and other communication tools; personalized dashboards; and more. Like many such services there are paid plans, but the free plan might do you with a respectable 2GB of file storage, up to three team members, and an unlimited number of projects and tasks.

6. Understanding Your Pay Rate

How do you know if you’re being paid what you’re worth? What is the average pay rate for someone in your position, at similarly sized organizations, in your city or region? Would it benefit you to move? Find the answers to these and other burning questions with the ultra useful Design Salary Calculator. Choose your position, type and size of organization, client base, and location(s) to generate a report based on the information AIGA, Aquent, and Communication Arts magazine collect annually from 50 thousand of our creative peers.


 

7. File Storage and Synchronization

You may be surprised to find a Microsoft service among a list of ten free online tools every designer should know about, but I swear by the free Windows Live FolderShare service for Windows and Mac. I’ve been using the service for years now, since before Microsoft bought it.

FolderShare is a complete solution for keeping two or more computers in
synch — in total or just specific folders — as well as for sharing documents with individuals and accessing the files on any of your computers from any place with an Internet connection.

Setting up is as easy as 1-2-3: Create a free account on FolderShare.com; install the tiny desktop client software for Windows or Mac; and register each computer through the FolderShare client. Your computers will automatically appear in your secure account screen. Now you can explore and download any file from any of those computers through the FolderShare.com Website. As long as your host computer is turned on, connected to the Internet, and running the FolderShare client in the background, you can access any file on the system remotely from any computer — through a browser, without the need to install the client software all over town.

FolderShare’s remote file access has saved my butt more than once. Occasionally during a presentation or consultation I discover that I need something from my always-on main workstation back home. Rather than tell the client “I’ll have to e-mail it to you,” I fire up a Web browser, log into FolderShare.com, and download what I need directly to my laptop or the client’s computer.

Equally as valuable is the ability to automatically synchronize files between two or more systems running FolderShare client software. Pick the folders to mirror via FolderShare.com and set automatic synchronization. Done. As long as your computers are on, online, and running the FolderShare client, selected folders (or entire drives) can be synchronized with each other in the background. I, for instance, keep the folders containing my font library, in-progress articles, client projects, accounting, and other files in synch across all four of the computers on which I might need to use or work with those files. Whether I’m home working on a desktop system or on the road with a laptop, I always have the latest version of everything I need with me.

Finally, FolderShare offers a way to share your computer files with others. The Shared Libraries feature allows you to pick one or more folders to share with different people, and you can give those people different permissions — view-only, add files to the library, delete files from the library, and/or change files in the library. Unlike online file sharing services, the files you share don’t go to Microsoft’s servers; they stay on your computer, accessed by other through the secure tunnel of FolderShare.com and the FolderShare client.

8. Covering Your Assets

Every week in online design communities, I see the same questions:

“Can I copyright this?”
“What is ‘Fair Use’?”
“When is my work copyrighted?”
“How long does copyright last?”
“Do I own the copyright in this scenario or that?”
“Should I register for a copyright?”

and so on.

More importantly, I also see wrong or incomplete answers to those questions. When we’re talking about your work — your creations, your competitive edge, your livelihood — and when following bad or incomplete advice can so cause you to lose some or all rights and control over your own creations, competitive edge, or livelihood, are you sure you want to listen to advice from Joe Nobody in a design forum?

Get the real facts about copyrights from the horse’s mouth: the United States Copyright Office. Free and easy to digest online guides explain in plain English — not legalese — the basics about copyright, who owns what when and for how long. After the basics you can delve as deep as you want into specific questions like issues related to the Fair Use Doctrine and copyright protection across international boundaries.

Considering registering your work for federal copyright protection? Online tools help you search the registration database for possibly similar works and submit your copyright registration.

9. Font Identification

Do you ever have to identify mystery typeface used in someone else’s logo or design? Save yourself hours of scrolling through a font manager or squinting at type spec books with the free What The Font typeface identification service.

Upload a decent-quality black and white image containing type and this hosted service will do its darnedest to identify the font (and provide a convenient means of purchasing it). Identification isn’t always perfect, but it’s surprisingly accurate for an automated system. You can also request human font identification assistance for a small fee.

10. Free Stock Photos

No list of 10 free online tools every designer should know about should be without a free stock photo resource. I know of several such resources, but the Morgue File is a good first stop. It contains thousands of high-resolution digital stock photos that are completely free for either public or corporate use.

Search for photos and/or illustrations, by keyword, phrase, author, or date, and then download them — no muss, no fuss. The Morgue File even includes lightbox functionality like the big paid stock photo sites, all for free.

It Doesn’t End Here

Do you have suggestions for other free online tool? Leave them in the comments on this article. And let me know if you’ve tried any of the tools recommended in this article. You can share your experiences publicly in the comments, or contact me directly through my Creativepro.com author profile page.

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Posted on: November 10, 2008

Pariah Burke

58 Comments on Ten Free Online Tools Every Designer Should Know

  1. Thanks for this article, great resources. I wanted to add another favorite font identifier — identifont.com. This or whatthefont have almost always given me the right font info.

  2. Great list. Thanks! Looking forward to the updates too!

  3. I prefer 37Signals’ Basecamp to Liquid Planner. Also, I love logopond.com for inspiration.

  4. ..till I actually tried to use Folder Share. 1. It’s a beta site, at least for Macs, 2. It doesn’t work, which substantially decreases its value :) and, 3. Help page doesn’t load. So, overall a real woof-woof. Maybe you should test cross platform before recommending?

  5. FolderShare does work once you get the hang of it. The interface could be more intuitive, for me anyway, but it actually did synchronize all of my safari bookmarks. I could not, however, synch only the bookmarks without also synching the history and last session links. Never could get support page to load, though.

  6. Don’t get me wrong i agree that all those tools are great, but why not look for one tool that can do most of the stuff? like for example http://www.comindwork.com has project management, collaboration, file sharing, invoicing etc. Or for example even a more powerful http://www.attask.com will be more expensive, but has even more enterprise features.

    http://management.blogvis.com

  7. You asked for suggestions. If you need to use movie clips, say from youtube, there is a great site that will convert it to a format you can use on your computer. Doesn’t matter whether you are a PC or Mac person and what format you require.

    Go to http://www.zamar.com – all the instructions are there. You can choose whether you want to convert a file you have already downloaded or put in a URL for a site.

    Jenni Wright
    Public Speaker, Emotional Intelligence Trainer and Coach
    http://www.emotionalintelligenceaus.com
    http://www.askjenniwright.com

  8. While not advocating violation of trademark/copyright laws, sometimes you just need a logo in EPS format and your client refuses to send you anything besides the logo they got off their website. In those cases:
    http://www.brandsoftheworld.com/

    Ever do a Google search for “free icons”? Nightmare!
    Try this instead:
    http://www.maxpower.ca/free-icons/2006/03/05/

  9. Pariah,
    This is a seriously cool list. Thank you, thank you!

  10. I’m glad everyone liked the article! Thanks so much for the compliments.

    I’d like to respond to a couple comments, if I may.

    re: Basecamp: Basecamp is indeed an excellent–and popular–tool. Although I really wanted to include it in the list, the fact that the free account is so limited compared to other applications knocked it off. Although I think it’s a great value for the money they charge, I wanted to provide a list of useful tools that were completely free. Now, if Creativepro.com lets me write “10 Low Cost Online Tools Every Designer Should Know,” well, you’ll definitely see Basecamp on it (as well as some of the other offerings from 37Signals).

    re: Identifont.com: I wasn’t kidding when I said I had a huge short list of free tools for this article. Identifont.com was on it from the very beginning. I didn’t want to use up my limited 10 slots by including two font identification tools, so I chose WhatTheFont.com because I thought it wasn’t as well known as Identifont.com, but should be. Although I couldn’t include it in the main list, I’m VERY glad to see that Identifont.com got mentioned in the comments. It’s an absolutely wonderful tool.

    re: Zamar.com: Ooh! Sounds great! I’m going to check that out as soon as I finish this comment. Thanks, Jenni!

  11. By the way, Creativepro.com and I are strongly considering other similar articles to this one (I’m pitching, they’re considering)–lists of the best resources, free or low-cost tools, and so on. Infact, with all the resources I couldn’t fit into this article,I already have “10 (More!) Free Online Tools Every Designer Should Know” written!

    CP says that whether I get to write those is predicated on how popular this first one turns out. So, if you like this article and want to see more like it, please share the link around and get your colleagues, friends, clients–heck, even your parents–to come visit and drop a comment and/or click the rating at the top of the article.

  12. Download thousands of logos from Best Brands of the World in EPS format. Also some fonts and photos are available. Great resource.

  13. Here are two that I use occasionally:
    http://www.barcoding.com/upc/
    will make a barcode.

    http://www.fantomaster.com/fantomasSuite/mailShield/famshieldsv-e.cgi
    will translate an email address to Unicode, so you can use it on a web page without it getting picked up by spammers.

    Thanks for a great article!

  14. This was excellent! Thank you for sharing!

  15. thanks a bunch… some will come in hand for me to :)

  16. I have only one advise, use Projectplace.com. It’s Free, it’s fantastic! Planning, document management, online meetings…

    /Pat the cat

  17. http://pxtoem.com
    to make conversion a looooot easier

  18. dafont.com has some decent fonts. The auto kerning is often something to be desired, but for free.

  19. It is also available as an App for the iPhone. Works great. The one thing you do need to do is have the photo straight and clear.

  20. filehero.com – another great video conversion utility online

  21. I use What the Font regularly because it is built into CorelDRAW, and it has never let me down. One tip: if you have a less than optimal image to sample, try sampling only one distinct character. Works more often than not when sampling a whole word gave me no result or an incorrect result. Another favorite site for great high quality letterpress ornaments, many of them free: Briar Press (www.briarpress.org).

  22. John S Brandt

    May 5, 2009 at 10:00 pm

    Great starter list, and I hope for many more to come. Like I assume most of us, I’ve been developing my own list of free online resources, but am always on the lookout for more.
    Some from my list…
    A couple great free texture sites:
    http://cgtextures.com/, http://free-textures.got3d.com/index.html
    A couple free vector (& more) art/icon sites:
    http://www.vecteezy.com/, http://www.fordesigner.com/
    & a couple favorite free font sites (favorite because they feature higher quality fonts, arranged by category):
    http://www.fontsquirrel.com/, http://www.urbanfonts.com/

  23. I work alone and miss the exchange of ideas that comes from an office of creatives. Thanks for this!

  24. Thank you so much for the time and thought that went into this compilation…. I’ve explored some of the sites and already found several tools I’ll be using. And thank you also to the many comments posted with additional sites!

  25. Identifont is another great free site for finding fonts. There is a newish feature that allows you to enter the letters that you have if you only have, say, a company’s name. It’s not perfect, but it gives you a place to start, and the list of similar fonts can be very helpful.

  26. Liquid Planner no longer seems to have a free plan past the 30-day trial.

  27. Timesheet Software by Replicon provides complete solution for employee time tracking, expense and employee scheduling needs.
    You can try free trail or visit The Timesheet Blog.

  28. OfficeClip provides suite of online enterprise software such as
    Business Contact Manager,
    Issue and Bug Tracker,
    Web Timesheet and other applications.

    Use it free for 2 users or visit OfficeClip Small Business Blog.

  29. Hey, great post. WorkingPoint also has free online invoices and bookkeeping for web desginers.

  30. Liquid Planner looks good, but these days there is no free LP, but there is a 30 day trial period. After that there are different choices, including $25/month.

    Going with software, I think.

  31. This is one of the best and most practical article I’ve read in al ong time! Will check out all 10 tools.

  32. I would like to suggest HourDoc Time Tracking Software. It is useful for web designers who work as a freelancers. http://www.HourDoc.com is right treatment for time tracking of virtual assistants, has to be an easy-to-administer and affordable solution for Freelancers.They offer free application to Freelancers/companies less than 50 Users.

  33. Pacific Timesheet is a very good tool to track the time, especially with so many added features, like California Labor law rules, etc.

  34. 1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary: http://www.merriam-webster.com/
    2. Firebug: http://getfirebug.com/ (Web Designers / Developers)

  35. I’d like to find an app for logging time on various projects, wherein you could start and stop the clock for times that you switch to another project. Then, the app would total up the time fo that day. Must be a simple few clicks operation; something small and lightweight that could sit on the desktop.

    Something that would work like this:
    Select project.
    Click START CLOCK
    Click END CLOCK

    Select diff project
    Lather, rinse, repeat.

    Ring anyone’s bells?

  36. Nice thought you share it good keep it up.

  37. I use this online time clock. It is very simple tool for calculating how long you spend on jobs for clients. You can add as many different logs (jobs) that you want. You can email the times to yourself for invoicing, or they can remain forever on the server if you register.

    Loo

  38. Freshbooks is awesome. Have you also come across a time tracking tool called 1DayLater? It’s focussed around being quick and easy. An essential tool for any freelancer or consultant types who do their billing or invoicing on a per-hour or per job basis – http://1daylater.com

  39. Our company is small but growing fast, and outgrew our Excel timesheets. We are now using Pacific Timesheet On-Demand (http://www.pacifictimesheet.com) for the last few months and it has really streamlined time tracking, time report and billing. We added payroll integration last month to integrate with our Lawson system, and have seen near 100% adoption across the company.

    So, I would suggest to add the software on the list.

    I hope this helps!
    Jamil

    Pacific Timesheet – Web Time Tracking Software

  40. We saw an ad for

  41. Used What the Font? last week for what I thought was an obscure font. Had my answer in seconds. Wish I had this site years ago.

  42. If you prefer something simple I would propose http://mrticktock.com – intuitive time tracker with the agile spirit.

  43. It is a great time tracking software. You can use it free for 45 days.

  44. Thanks for this – really helpful and I’ve bookmarked most of the sites. More articles like this please!

  45. One problem I overcame with the right software tool was managing client feedback and approvals. I found Approval Manager from MetaCommunications.

    I’ve been using the free version and have been very happy with the ease of use, particularly the proofing tool itself. Worth a look.

  46. Great article. I have been wondering what other tools I can use.

    I’ve tried harvest, replicon, and bill4time. I’ve also looked at some of the other tools listed here.

    One site you forgot to mention was eBillity.com. I’ve been using it for a while now.

    I can honestly say it is MILES ahead of the other solutions! I love it!!!

    I have definitely billed more time because of it. It also works great from my iPhone.

    You can see more at http://www.ebillity.com

  47. Our time tracking software makes the complete method of entering, editing, updating, approving and distribution a timesheet easier and less time consuming. We’ve helped various organizations with their time Tracking needs.These companies admit our full suite of cloud and SaaS -based solutions that embrace merchandise like Time Tracking Software,Project Timesheet, Timesheet for Payroll, Attendance Timesheet; All fully-accessible in the office or on-the-go through the internet

    I-workforce’s time tracking software strives to supply you the most effective hassle-free experience attainable. Our goal is to add hours to your day and make your work-life easier through 24×7 global support, quick adoptions,quick maintenance, and single click implementation that may cause faster time to value.

    http://www.i-workforce.com/free/

  48. its good tool i m using it
    try it free for 180 days for 200 users
    Thanks
    Jennifer

    http://www.i-workforce.com/free/

  49. Nice post..really liked it
    We are using a nice software .Please try our online cloud and web based time and leave, exception tracking system ,
    time off tracking system fully functional for 180 days for 200 users.
    I-workforce time tracking software which is user friendly cloud,SaaS based software that is hosted
    in datacenters over USA and Canada ,gives 24X7 support

  50. Wonderful! I am really looking for this types of tools for my new website.

    http://www.livetecs.com/Solution/Web-Timesheet.aspx

  51. Article is very helpful. I want to add one more tool in this list i.e ProofHub which is very powerful tool offering features like proofing, time tracking, gantt chart etc.

  52. Hi, Guys,  I am vikram kumar a student of it . i like to commenting on time sheet software blog post. I am recently join office timer dot com . it is time sheet <a href=http://www.officetimer.com>tracking software</a> company provides emplye timesheet track . it will helpfut to you kindly visit here.over all i love this post. i must refer this to my friend circle.

  53. These tools are all single purpose web applications – to run the average small business you end up paying for multiple applications and then run into all sorts of headaches merging data…
    We looked at proofhub (took me like 2 months to make my mind up!) but what it means is we now do all our project management, proofing of designs, collaboration and time tracking on the one application. That is really useful. http://goo.gl/sTFNyM

  54. Great Post! Another tool every web designer should know about is http://www.proofhub.com. It’s proofing tool  designer can add notes, mark changes and draw shapes to highlight errors and suggest improvements within a design.

  55. JasonKnighte

    May 8, 2014 at 8:45 pm

    i can understand why it would be important to know how those 10 things work for designers. I think that knowing how to do your pay rate is one of the most important things that you brought up. You need to find a good ballance because if it is too cheap then people wont come to you. And if you are expensive you better be able to do a quality job to back it or else you wont get far.

    Jason|http://www.m13.com/

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