17 Great Tools for Designers

Every designer, regardless of their niche, needs certain tools of the trade to get the job done. Some of these tools for designers will be fairly obvious, but there may be others you hadn’t considered or were holding back on that could make a real difference in your productivity. You don’t necessarily need all of these things as a designer, and plenty of designers get by without some of them, but they’re all worthy of your consideration.

17 Great Tools for Designers

1. Desktop or Laptop Computer (Both if You Can Afford It!)

Having a powerful workstation is essential to your career. If there is any area where pinching pennies can hurt you, it will be your hardware, followed by your software. Saving a few dollars (or a hundred) here or there can never make up for the valuable time you lose when you can’t work as fast as possible.

2. Drawing Tablet

Having a drawing tablet whether it is an on-screen drawing tablet like the Wacom Cintiq or Artisul D13 can help you speed up your design and photo retouching workflow, or offer you the ability to create unique freeform artwork.

3. A Full Bookcase or Two!

You may not have seen this one coming. Creative blocks show up when you aren’t stimulating your creativity and stretching your imagination. Reading books, particularly fiction books, help you to visualize and strengthen your imagination, where non-fiction sharpens your analytical skills and ability to retain and contextualize information. A healthy balance of reading both fiction and non-fiction is vital for you as a creative problem solver and the key breaking through creative blocks or avoiding them all together.

4. Quality Headphones and Speakers

One of the things grossly estimated, despite the science behind it, is the relationship between music and creativity. Music (depending on genre) set at moderate levels stimulates the creative parts of the brain and increases productivity. Quality sound makes the experience much more enjoyable.

5. Adobe Creative Cloud

There are some creatives who still struggle with the idea of joining the Creative Cloud, but it’s a matter largely of the myths outweighing the benefits. Firstly you don’t have to ditch your existing licenses, you can retain those and have the comfort of a back-up solution and just add a Creative Cloud membership. One of the other myths (that I can’t believe still is circulating) is that the software is in the “Cloud” and you have to be online all the time. The Software still is on your desktop and you only have to be online once every 30-60 days. If you’re not, then I’m not sure how happy your clients are going to be!

Lastly, there is the resistance to what some are calling the “Adobe Tax,” or the idea of paying Adobe money forever. If you’re reading this, you’re a well-informed creative professional, so you understand that time is infinitely more valuable than money. Faster more robust software that has more productivity features means you can save a minimum 10% of your overall time. That is on average 16-20 extra hours a month you could be spending with your family, working on personal projects, or making more money. Buying back that time at roughly $60/ month is a bargain no matter how many years go by.

6. External Drives and Backups

I can’t stress enough how valuable having a backup of your most important work and assets are. If your files are not backed up in a total of 3 places then they may as well not exist! This is a popular saying within IT circles, but it holds true for the most part. I personally prefer to have an external portable drive for each computer system and I back those up regularly. Important client files are backed up to my physical cloud storage here at home, as well as to my Dropbox professional account. Using a service like CrashPlan or Carbonite can also be a great option for backing up your systems to the cloud. You could also backup your projects on physical DVDs, this is something I still do on occasion when it comes to client projects (just in case).

7. Website and Online Portfolio

Today, it should go without saying that designers need an online website and portfolio. This is a topic that I’ve covered in other articles, but it is worth mentioning here since there are still many designers that let this fall by the wayside because they are uncomfortable using web design tools. Adobe Portfolio has made it easier than ever for non-coders to but together a website and portfolio to showcase their work and still use a professional domain name. There are other solutions like SquareSpace that can make web design a simple task for non-coders, and if you want complete control in the same way you would with a traditional layout design program, there is always Adobe Muse.

8. Mobile Phones and Tablets

One could make the argument that these are a luxury, but in the professional world they really are a necessity. These devices replace the need for several things that could be on this list, such as a day planner, calendar, calculator, research tool, the list goes on. Because these smart devices can be customized to the needs of a user they have unlimited potential. For designers, the Creative Cloud Mobile Apps that we’ve reviewed here on CreativePro such as Comp CC, Premiere Clip, and Lightroom Mobile make it very practical for creatives to perform task on the go.

9. Microsoft Office 365

Yes, I’m pushing yet another subscription service on you. In my opinion, this one is a simple enough value proposition, despite alternatives like Open Office and Google Docs. At $10/month or $100/year you have can have Microsoft Office 365 on up to 5 computers and an additional 5 mobile devices, whether you use MacOS, Windows, iOS or Android. This is an incredible value if you have several members in your household, particularly students. But if that still doesn’t feel like enough to justify the cost, the alternative if that you can use Microsoft Online for free if you get a free Microsoft account or Outlook.com email address.

10. Skype, a Webcam, and Headset

Video conferencing with clients can help alleviate quite a few problems, it also means you have the ability in a corporate environment to work seamlessly from home while keeping your superiors happy. When you can work face to face with people while being remote and still screen share (letting them look over your shoulder from across the globe if necessary), it helps make people more comfortable and adds a level of accountability.

11. A Wireless E-Printer

I’m specifically stressing a wireless printer because that is a recent upgrade for me and it honestly changed everything. Knowing that I can shift my office workspace around anyway that I choose without feeling beholden to the printer was a complete game changer. The ability to print from any device I’m using at the time, as well as print remotely from my smartphone, has also been very helpful in saving time and eliminating frustration.

12. A Comfortable Chair or a Standing Desk

Health is something many creatives take for granted. Creatives tend to work at their desk for extended periods of time with few breaks in between. First of all, I would like to stress that we should all break away from our work area to stretch and get some circulation going. Secondly, having a comfortable chair and or standing desk can dramatically improve your health, posture, and productivity. This is worth making an investment in.

13. Digital Cameras

Having a digital camera can help designers capture their process, as well as high-quality images to use in their work. By either capturing video or photos of a finished project, designers have the ability to promote themselves and show rather than tell. Cameras are more affordable than ever and having a dedicated camera beyond your smartphone can also open up your creativity as a designer, as I’ve mentioned in a previous article.

14. Stock Photo Accounts

We’ve covered Adobe Stock here on CreativePro before, but I’d like to stress how valuable having access to high-quality stock images are, rather than relying on free websites. Having the ability to use stock images commercial and be sure that you have appropriate copyright permissions is going to save you tie and frustration, so it is worth what you’re paying for. In the event that there is an issue with licensing when it comes to these things, it becomes dramatically more expensive when you cut corners or try to save money. I’ve covered a bit more on this topic in one of my videos.

15. Good Computer Monitors

Having quality computer monitors that help reduce eye-strain is not only good for your career, it’s good for your health. You’ll want monitors with 99% sRGB coverage and if possible a matte finish instead of glossy. Unfortunately, Apple no longer offers the choice between matte and glossy and gives you glossy. This is why many Mac Pro users have opted for monitors from Asus, BenQ, Dell or Samsung rather than the Apple Cinema Displays.

16. Fonts and Font Management Software

This is a series of tools that can be easily overlooked. Font management doesn’t get nearly the attention it should, but the time savings are huge and having good font management software means that you may not end up using the same 5 variations of Helvetica in all of your work. If you are a Windows user, then NexusFont is a free tool you can use. Suitcase Fusion is the popular choice for the Mac, though it has that $120 price tag attached to it. Font Explorer X is a free font manager for Mac, it is a bit older, but it can still be found online. For an in-depth look at font management issues and solutions, check out issue 87 of InDesign Magazine.


17. Pen and Paper

As far as creative tools go, pen and paper still are a practical and affordable solution for most problems. I’ve put considerable effort into making my office and workflow as paperless as possible, yet I still find myself coming back to good old analog tools in this digital world. I would encourage creatives to continue to use pen, pencil, paper and traditional crafting tools to explore and hone their creativity. I know it can be tempting to go all in on digital, but the old ways still have much to offer us!

Designers, what are your must-have tools? Let us know in the comments!

Posted on: July 8, 2016

Roberto Blake

Roberto Blake is a Graphic Designer helping Entrepreneurs and Small Businesses improve their branding and presentations. Roberto also teaches Graphic Design and Adobe Tutorials through his YouTube channel and community. Roberto's Photoshop artwork has been featured in publications such as Advanced Photoshop and Photoshop Creative Magazine. See robertoblake.com

1 Comment on 17 Great Tools for Designers

  1. I’ve put considerable effort into making my office and workflow as paperless as possible, yet I still find myself coming back to good old analog tools in this digital world. I would encourage creatives to continue to use pen, pencil, paper and traditional crafting tools to explore and hone their creativity……

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