11 Tools For Graphic Designer

If you’re new to design and want to get off to the best start, here are the tools you need at your disposal.

If you’re just getting into graphic design, or think you want to be a graphic designer, here’s what you need to invest in. You may not need the latest hardware or software – ideas and execution are far more important than the latest equipment – but it’s worth investing in the best kit you can afford!

Here are 11 must-have tools to get you started…

01. iMac/MacBook or Surface Studio/Book

Of course you’ll need a decent computer that’s capable of running your software at the same pace as your brain. Whilst Macs have traditionally been the choice of graphic designers, the landscape is changing at a pace.

Sure, the new MacBook Pro Touch Bar with a 4K screen from say, LG, is a fantastic set up, but put it against Microsoft’s revolutionary Surface Studio and you have a few questions to ask yourself. Why? Because the Surface Studio looks to be a true artists’ tool – it can be used in regular desktop mode or laid flat so you can design directly on the touchscreen. It’s not available quite yet, but when it is the 28-inch touchscreen desktop could be well worth a look – even if it’s likely to cost over £2,500.

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And then there’s the Surface Book; an ultra-powerful laptop/tablet hybrid more than capable of running Creative Cloud apps. Microsoft has really upped its game in the creative space whilst Apple has arguably focused on the consumer a lot more. It could be an exciting time of transition – and maybe you should be at the forefront of it?

02. The right software for you (and your budget)

Adobe’s Creative Cloud is the industry standard for design professionals, the range and depth in its suite of tools unrivalled by any other company. But it comes at a cost. As an individual designer, prices for the entire suite start at £50 per month if paid annually or nearly £80 per month if paid on a monthly basis. It’s a lot of cash. Still, you get Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, After Effects and loads more. If you’re looking to be truly multi-disciplined and are confident of the work rolling in then it’s the way to go.

But if your work revolves purely around vector design (illustration, logos and so on) and photo-editing/manipulation, there’s another option you could plump for. Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo are both excellent tools from Serif – believe us, they even top Photoshop and Illustrator in some areas – and they only cost around £50 each. No monthly subscription and free updates. What’s more, superb file compatibility means you can work with others using Photoshop or Illustrator with very few problems.

03. Wacom tablet/interactive pen display

A Wacom tablet is critical for design and illustration work
Using a mouse is just not natural – when you learn to write and draw at school you don’t just move a pencil around with your wrist, do you? A Wacom tablet (Intuos) or more expensive Interactive Pen Display (Cintiq) is therefore critical for design and illustration work.

You’ll get pressure-sensitivity in Photoshop, Illustrator and the like, but more importantly you’ll be creating in a more intuitive, natural way. Plus there’s health benefits – using a stylus rather than a mouse is proven to reduce RSI.

04. Pantone Reference Library

If you’re doing a lot of print work, you’re likely to be asked to use (or want to use) a fifth colour at some point. The only way you can really get an accurate idea of how your special colour will print is to invest in a Pantone Reference Library – a series of swatch books and folders containing chips that show you a printed representation of each colour. So not only will it show you how the colour you select in say, Illustrator or InDesign, will print, but it will also enable you to tear a swatch out and pin it to your proof for the printers – so everyone’s clear on what colour you need.

There are also swatch books that enable you to match a fifth colour to a CMYK value – perfect for situations where your client’s budget doesn’t stretch to a fifth colour for a certain job.

The Pantone Reference Library isn’t cheap, however: It’ll cost you over $1,400. That’s for all 14 books plus a storage and display stand, though – you can buy books individually if you just need, for example, a metallic colour guide. And you can always add the individual cost of a book to a particular job if needed.

05. Top-end smartphone

OK, so you may not need a top-end smartphone for your daily design work, but when dealing with clients, replying to emails and viewing images and soft proofs on the go, you want a smartphone that’s easy to use, sports a vibrant, large screen and has the power to do everything you need it to do at once.

Of course, the iPhone has long been the choice for designers – mainly thanks to its integration with Mac OS. And whilst the 7 Plus is a cracking phone, there are other options. The Google Pixel XL is lightning fast and offers a completely native Android experience – with no ugly add-ons or skin. And Samsung’s S7 Edge is a beautiful piece of design (soon to be superseded by the S8, so look out for that).

All of these are stellar devices, and you can even run cut-down versions of Photoshop and Lightroom on them. Oh, and of course all have great cameras for shooting on-the-fly reference material.

Next page: six more essential graphic design tools…

06. Calibrated monitor

Following on from the Pantone Refence Library, it’s vital that your colour workflow is as accurate as possible. The last thing you want is for your hard work to look completely different at output than it did during the design process. Calibrating your monitor isn’t hard, but it does require a specialist tool.

One of the best is the Datacolor Spyder 5 Pro. This tool hangs on your monitor and creates a unique colour profile (or the profile your printers are using) adjusting the monitor’s brightness level based on your room lighting. Calibrating your monitor is the only way to guarantee complete accuracy when moving from print to screen – so you should invest as soon as possible.

07. Variable desk

Sitting down all day is just not good for you. In fact, it’s terrible for you. Whilst we’re not suggesting a Silicon Valley-esque treadmill desk or anything, using a desk that can raise up so you can stand or sit down depending on your preference is a no-brainer.

Varidesk is the undisputed king of, er, variable desks, and offers a few different models depending on your equipment. Just stick the Varidesk on your own desk, pop your laptop and/or desktop on it and you can raise it or lower it with sublime ease. Expect to pay in the region of £400, but your back and health are worth far more than that, right?

08. Ergonomic chair

We all know designers work long hours – hands up if you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter to meet that deadline! With more and more cases of back pain and RSI occurring in office environments, it’s hugely important to have the right chair. And the Herman Miller Aeron chair is pretty much the gold standard when it comes to offering ergonomic comfort (adapting naturally to your body and seating position) in a stylish design. The one drawback? Some models will cost you over £900.

09. Compact system camera

There was a time where we’d say ‘go for a DSLR’ but the times they are a-changing, and compact system cameras are now almost on a par. Plus, there’s a raft of uber-stylish retro CSC cameras on the market from all the big players – and us designers love a bit of retro styling, right?

Just take a look at Fujifilm’s X-Pro2, for instance. Compact, beautiful, water-resistant and rugged… and with a 24.3mp sensor it’ll do you for all of your creative needs, even if you need to take some pro shots for a client job. It’ll cost you around £1350, but it’s a great investment.

10. An (interactive) sketchpad

A sketchbook is the staple of every designer – whether it’s for creating quick wireframes, doodles or simply taking notes. You may want to opt for a Moleskine or product from Field Notes if you’re a traditionalist (and we wouldn’t blame you – they’re beautiful) but there’s another option – which combines the fluidity of a traditional sketchbook with the ease of getting your ideas into a digital format.

And the option is Wacom’s range of smartpads. For instance, the Bamboo Slate is a sketchpad that enables you to move your handwritten notes to files that you can open in Photoshop or Illustrator with a touch of a button. The Bamboo Slate comes in A4 or A5 sizes and will only cost you around £100. For that kind of productivity, a ton is nothing!

There are plenty of other innovative options, too. Take a look at our roundup of 5 alternatives to traditional sketchbooks for one that suits you.

11. Reliable solid-state storage

Have you ever lost files due to a creaking hard drive or because your computer failed without you backing up? If so, you’ll know how soul-destroying this can be. Our advice is to get a reliable, fast hard drive that you can quickly back up to – either manually or using automated systems such as Mac OS’s Time Machine.

Solid state drives are still relatively expensive, but because there’s no moving parts they’re less likely to fail. And in the case of Samsung’s T3 range, they’re portable enough to take anywhere – kind of like a mahoosive thumb drive.