Advice on Building Your Own Custom Graphic Design PC

Custom PC Building is not for the faint of heart. One of the reasons many creatives favor Macs from Apple is because they work as soon as you plug them in, and you don’t have to be a technical person. I’ve been using a 2011 iMac for years as my desktop machine alongside a Windows Laptop, in a cross-platform workflow that has been just fine for me. In this article I wanted to share some practical advice for those considering building a custom graphic design PC of their own, and what led me to that decision instead of just buying a new Mac.

Recently, I found myself feeling like some of my applications were a bit sluggish when performing a complicated task. I found myself longing for a faster machine, and I just didn’t feel like another Mac was going to satisfy me. I found myself wishing for larger hard drive capacities, and having more than 16GB of ram without necessarily having to get a 27 inch iMac or a MacPro given how expensive they are. I wanted multiple drives to organize things without resorting to external drives cluttering my desk.

In short, I wanted things that Apple just wasn’t offering me anymore since they retired the Mac Pro towers a few years back (one of which I still own which is no longer working). I really miss that option.

Does every designer need to build a custom PC? No. But there is a value in it, and if most of us are honest with ourselves, using Windows is not a real problem, since we spend most of our time in our applications, and the user experience is 99% the same in those applications regardless of OS.

What You Need to Know Before Building

Short version:

  • CPU– get an Intel i5 or i7 Processor if using Adobe Apps primarily
  • Motherboard – get a motherboard that supports 32GB or more Ram and SATA 3.0
  • GPU– you don’t need a powerful GPU/ Graphics Card, but get NVIDIA
  • Ram– get 16GB-32GB of Ram for serious work
  • Drives– get an SSD for your Apps and OS and another for your Scatch Disk, get a 2TB-4TB HDD for data storage and your final files.
  • Power Supply– this is more complicated than it sounds, go with 600w or 750w
  • Monitors– try to get IPS monitors with a Matte Finish and 99% or better sRGB coverage, Dell, Asus and BenQ make some of the best for designers concerned with color accuracy.
  • OS– in theory, if you wanted to you could still put MacOS on a custom built PC.

Before you decide to build a PC for your graphic design workflow, you need to understand what the requirements typically are. One of the common myths is that you need a power GPU (Video Graphics Card) to do graphic design.

CPU and Motherboard

The Adobe Apps used by most graphic designers rely less on GPU (even though some features are enhanced by it) and rely heavily on Processor and Ram. Focus on getting the fastest CPU you can afford, Intel i5 or i7 processors are usually best for working with the Adobe Apps. Motherboards are also important because they dictate what you can do overall: how many RAM slots you have, how many drives you can have, Wifi, audio, etc. I chose a robust motherboard with expansion options that could grow with my needs.

RAM/Memory

For RAM, 16-32 GB is usually optimal, though Photoshop and After Effects can utilize 32GB or more depending on how you are using them. In my recent build, knowing I will be working with Photoshop, After Effects and Premiere Pro in combination, I went with 32GB of RAM.

Drives

The reason that I prefer to have multiple drives, especially SSDs (Solid State Drives) is because it makes everything faster and more streamlined. If you use Photoshop, you maybe familiar with the term “Scratch Disk”. This is temporary file storage while you are working, if you have a secondary or external drive, then it means that Photoshop and other Adobe Apps like After Effects can store temporary data here while you’re working and reduce lag, creating a better experience. If you have your applications and operating system on SSDs, you will see much faster launch times and load times for projects.

Graphics Cards

If you work with tons of layers in Photoshop or do motion graphics or video editing using Adobe After Effects or Premiere Pro, then go with a NVIDIA graphics cards as they are optimized to work with Adobe applications. AMD graphics cards are still compatible but offer significantly less performance advantages.

Monitors

In terms of monitors, color accuracy is a concern and I prefer Dell, Asus and BenQ for that reason, as they are competitive with Apple displays for sharpness and color accuracy, while also offering Matte vs Glossy finish (which Apple no longer offers). This could be important for print design projects.

You can reference this Adobe Hardware Performance Whitepaper for specifics.

Building a PC Has Never Been Easier

Last year at PePCon 2015, while talking with Bob Levine I found myself excited about the prospect of building a new computer. It had been a few years since I’d built one completely from scratch vs. doing a few upgrades for friends. This summer I took the plunge and I’m happy to report back that building a PC has never been easier. Armed with nothing more than a clean workspace, an anti-static wristband, and a Phillips screwdriver, I was able to completely assemble my machine in a little over 90 minutes, 3 hours if you account for the delay in between parts shipping that needed to be installed later.

Armed with nothing more than a clean workspace, an anti-static wristband, and a Phillips screwdriver, I was able to completely assemble my machine in a little over 90 minutes, 3 hours if you account for the delay in between parts shipping that needed to be installed later.

The two most intimidating things in assembling my PC were adding the custom CPU cooling fans, and attaching the motherboard to the case. Attaching the motherboard to the case was fairly simple but required a bit of “elbow grease.”

Installing the CPU fans was intimidating for me because I had to uninstall the fan that came with the CPU (installing that was easy and required no tools), and it required me to remove the thermal paste from the CPU with rubbing alcohol and q-tips. This was not difficult, it just made very anxious because I didn’t want to damage what might be the most important (and expensive) part of the computer.

Building Something For Yourself Brings You Pride

One of the things that happened immediately when I booted up the new computer (and was rewarded with a successful boot screen), was a sense of pride and accomplishment. It is the same feeling I get when a client tells me how much they appreciate the work on a completed project or a productive consulting session. The feeling of “I built this” definitely trumps “I bought this.”

Cost and Value of Building vs. Buying

The instant nature of plugging in a Mac and getting to work is very seductive, but huge savings and tremendous value are also attractive.

If I were to buy a Mac Pro (Trash Can Model) it would cost me $3,799 to get a Quad Core processor at 3.7 GHz, 1x 512GB SSD and 32GB or Ram with a 2GB AMD Graphics Card.

For about $1500 what I built was a Windows PC with Quad Core 4GHz Processors (which I ramped up to 4.4GHz), 2x 256GB SSDs, 1x 512GB SSD, 2x 1TB HDD and 1x 4TB HDD (6 Drives total), a DVD Burner (could have gotten a Blu-ray player/ DVD burner combo for $50 more), 32GB of Ram and a 4GB Graphics Card. It also still has upgrade capacity.

For an iMac to be competitive with my build would cost $3,599. Yes, I know it comes with a 5K retina display included to offset the cost. Alternatively, if I included 2x 4K 27″ displays with my build it would cost about $2,400. This leaves plenty of room budget to add another graphics card and actually setup 3x 4K monitors if that is what you wanted. To take it to an extreme, you could add a Wacom Cinitiq 13″ to the setup and still be under budget compared to purchasing the iMac.

Your Mileage May Vary

Time and money were the two largest factors in my decision to build a Windows computer rather than buy a new Mac. I love my Apple mobile products, but I feel like when it comes to the needs of creative professionals, Apple has been “phoning it in” for a while now (pun intended). The Mac desktop line (and arguably the laptop line) has not remained competitive enough in terms of offering power, flexibility, and price. Creatives are not one-size-fits-all, but Apple products have moved in that direction.

For many of you, Apple is the ideal solution, and I respect that. This article hopefully has helped you understand the value of an alternative, and maybe feel more informed and less intimidated by the prospect of building a computer of your own.

Disclaimer: Because I also do video editing on a regular basis and have shifted to 4K video editing for certain projects, you can consider my system “overkill.” In fact, you could build a machine that is competitive with most Mac desktop solutions for well under $1000 with a little research. If you can live without MacOS.

What goes into your computer purchase decisions? Are you more focused on the ease of getting started, value for budget, or something else? Let me know in the comments section!

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Posted on: July 15, 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

11 Comments on Advice on Building Your Own Custom Graphic Design PC

  1. 5k display in iMac is by far the best display ever seen with my eyes.
    The best display for photo and video editing and the best for graphics in general.

    Add a 5k display to your PC and it will cost more than a Mac.

  2. Thanks for this. I’m self taught in graphic design and really trying step my game up. I’ve also been thinking about having to get a better computer at some point and I’m thinking building one could be a way more fun, flexible, and cost effective option, especially since I don’t do much video and could get away with starting with a less robust configuration.

  3. You just confirmed everything I’ve been researching! THANK YOU! I have been searching aimlessly for the Cpu vs gpu. I freelance and work full time as a designer, and am a full time marketing and economics student. I have used exclusively apple products but paying for school out of pocket has driven me to doing things quite financially creative over the past few years. I will say, this has allowed me to learn things I never thought I would! I have been building computers for a large portion of my life but, I think I am going to throw in a better gpu for funsies! Thanks again from Kansas City!

  4. Roberto, thanks for the details in this article! I have been wondering about a switch lately, too, since our IT guys are now saying the PC labs on campus are generally operating smoother with Adobe’s CC than our Mac lab. My question, though, is this: you wrote the article in July. Would you change anything about your configuration or about your switch-from-Mac decision now that you have worked with the PC for half a year?

  5. Thank you for all this wonderful advice! I’m looking into building a machine that will better handle graphics design. I’ve been reading a ton about building gaming computers (the most readily available advice out there) and that’s gotten me part of the way, but your additions are priceless and most truly appreciated. I’m definitely a value vs. cost person. I don’t need a machine as killer as the one you’ve built, but I need something decent that can be upgraded in the future.

  6. Thank you for all the great ideas and advices! I have long been considered to build such a computer. I have question about the SSD (disks) and how you do with the disks, “where to install the software” and “which disk for the scratch disk”. Let’s say I have 4 main disks and I would like to install “Windows”, “Photoshop” and “Lightroom”, and the disks are disk C, D, E and F. Shall I install the software in disk C (Windows), D (Photoshop), E (Lightroom), and F for the scratch disk? Or shall I install all software in C disk and all other 3 disks for each its scratch disk? For your information, I have considered to use 2 other big disks (1TB each) for data, “working disk (temp) and for backup. Thanks in advance for your answer and help. Greetings from Oslo.

  7. Thanks so much, this information is so helpful.
    But I’m wondering more if I can get or build a customized Laptop? Or what would you recommend? I’m in need of new hardware and was about to get a another Mac Book Pro, until I looked online and realized that the new ones only had 16 GD of RAM, and just too expensive really..I was disappointed. My design has branch out some and I do some video editing as well as lots of design work, and photography, (Also a very big movie person.) So I need lots of space. I travel a lot and I need something I can take with me, (but plan on getting a desktop in the future) I’m trying to get back into freelancing while working full time, and build up my small business till I might be able to work freelance full time if I can get it to pay well.
    I have a budget of $5000, this has to included the Adobe CC Software and a video Editing software at lest. and the Microsoft Office software as lots of people use it (customers) and it would be good to have it as well. If i can get Wacom tablet out of that budget, it would be fan-freaken-tasic.

    Any information would be greatly appreciated, Thanks 😀

  8. I heard NVIDEA graphic cards can cause vectors to not look very crisp on the screen. Is this true? Anyone experience that? Or possibly when I read that could they have meant vectors for things like CAD drawing? Because my work can range from vector drawings to video I would like a video card that could perform the range of tasks.

  9. I want a low cost cpu but better for Animation.

  10. Does the system have a heating issue because of the heavy duty graphics work?

  11. Nice article! I had a friend help me build a PC (meaning he built it and I watched) back in 2008 when I first started my Graphic Design business plan. Was top of the line back then.. I am now due for some replacements now that it is 10 years later. I will definitely consider the parts you mention. Thanks

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