A graphic designer's top 10 favourite tools of the trade. By Graeme Leslie, Designtastic
“The best investment is in the tools of one’s own trade.”
When I recently employed a team of workmen to build an extension onto my house, the slater lost his favourite hammer and was most upset when he couldn’t find it anywhere. This got me thinking – what tools would I be lost without!? Franklin’s quote might come from the 1800s yet as a graphic designer / creative industries professional working in a b2b sector in the 21st century, I find that it still rings true. Some of the tools us designers employ are unsophisticated, yet others require the latest updates and top of the line bolt ons. I thought I would run through the tools of my trade, listing them in order of importance to me.
Something important to bear in mind – although not every tool is inherently necessary for the job, it may be necessary to help you complete the job (for me, it’s my coffee machine).
1. A5 Notepad
For a graphic designer it all starts here, and I'd be lost without it. I use my notepad for client briefings, to scribble doodles, thumbnails, layouts, phrases etc. But I’m not talking your run-of-the-mill notepad; it must be hard back (essential for absorbing coffee spillages), blank pages (can't use ruled pads – they just seem to spoil my flow) and ivory-coloured (just to be extra special).
2. 2B pencil
I hate writing with pens – always needs to be a 2B pencil. Why? Probably because I was forced to use H grade pencils at school to stop me pressing too hard on the paper. Not that I’m still bitter about it…
3. Mac Studio M1 Ultra
“Technology is nothing. What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.”
The party line – I needed to upgrade my workstation because my trusty iMac Pro was starting to struggle with video processing.
The reality – I'm like a magpie being attracted to shiny things whenever there's an Apple launch event!
My shiny new Mac Studio is the fastest Mac I’ve ever owned – in fact, video and 3D rendering takes a third of the time it previously did, so the efficiencies are huge. What’s more there are ports on the front of the device – something that’s been absent from Apple’s desktop machines for years – so you no longer need to blindly rummage around the back of your iMac to try and plug in a hard drive. It has a small footprint, very useful in helping to declutter the bomb scare that is my desk.
Apart from the obvious contact functions, this is another great tool. With my iPhone 12 Pro, I simply take images and transfer directly to my Mac. The camera is fantastic to photograph sketches for refining, shooting images, creating videos for concepts, and saving imagery for later use. It's a great repository for visual stuff. I also love to record client meetings (with permission of course) so I can refer back to them.
5. Adobe InDesign
My favourite app bar none. Traditionally a desktop publishing and page layout designing app, I use it for so much more, including storyboarding, designing graphics and presentations, as well as page layouts. The app handles multiple page spreads and layouts, and it’s where I can easily merge artwork from other apps to create the finished product.
6. Adobe Photoshop
This was the first app I learned to use at Art School and by far the most fun – who hasn't created a comedy image of their mates? But in all honesty, I don't tend to use it for the exciting elements anymore. I'm not an illustrator. It's a workhorse for me (an essential one) – tidying up, preparing and batch processing images for use elsewhere.
7. Adobe XD
I've only been using this app for two years, but I love it. It helps me prototype my designs into actual working interfaces to show our clients how users interact with the design, before it's signed off for development. It removes the guessing around how the site or application should work. It has a minimal and intuitive interface that's very easy to use and, most importantly, allows for a smooth and pain-free export process to web developers for build, which leads me to the next tool of the trade in my list.
File > Export > Zeplin. Three words that transformed my workflow. Zeplin is an app specifically designed to bridge the gap between web designers and developers. Now, instead of spending hours in Photoshop creating images and creating a complex brief, my XD designs are exported straight to Zeplin, along with all the specs, assets and code snippets that developers can make use of.
9. Final Cut Pro
As we have been picking up more and more video projects, getting our hands on a pro editing solution became a must. The industry standard Adobe Premiere Pro learning curve was too steep – I would need to be in it every day to get the most from it. So I decided to give Apple’s option – Final Cut Pro – a go.
Fortunately the macOS-only video editor is really user-friendly - I was able to jump right in and start editing videos quickly. That doesn’t mean it’s limited, just that all the really complicated features are hidden away, so I wasn’t immediately bamboozled. It comes with loads of standard effects and renders quickly. It has completely transformed video work for me.
10. Adobe Illustrator
Controversial choice this, especially if there are any ex-colleagues reading this. It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest Adobe Illustrator fan. I know I’m showing my age, but when I was starting out, there was a choice of two illustration apps: Macromedia FreeHand and Adobe Illustrator. I think it’s safe to say that Illustrator was aptly named, insofar as it seemed to be preferred by those who draw a lot. I was a layout man, hence, perhaps, my strong preference was for FreeHand. FreeHand was simple to use and intuitive. Everything Illustrator was not.
Imagine my horror when Adobe bought Macromedia and killed off FreeHand. Now, I could bang on about this for ages but I’ll spare you my grief and point you to a blog written by Alexandre Prokoudine, ‘Freeing FreeHand. The story of grief, revenge, and refusal'. So, while FreeHand rests in peace, I’m forced to use Illustrator as my defacto vector graphics editor. It's a necessary evil that forms part of Adobe’s Creative Suite of apps which is why I've reluctantly added it to my essential tools of the trade list. But only at no 10, FreeHand killer.
Okay, I think I sneaked in an extra tool (my trusty coffee machine, which helps everything along) – we designers need some creative licence after all! I’m not sure if my slater ever found his favourite hammer… but I hope you enjoyed the blog post he inspired. Now, time for a coffee!