Recently I kicked off a series of posts about what is needed to set up a freelance or small design studio – talking about admin tools. Today, I’ll continue with the series and talk about the actual tools that I use (and recommend) for doing the work of design.

Start the old-school way

There are few things simpler than a notebook and a pencil; and that’s where most design projects tend to start. Most designers are different but my choice is either a plain paper notebook or a dot grid, accompanied by a simple HB pencil (I prefer pencil to pen). I use my notepad to doodle, take notes, sketch wireframes and to generally get the initial parts of a project rolling before taking it digital.

There will be no surprises here, but my first choice notebook would be a Moleskine – soft pocket version. My other favourite is the Behance Action Book (which sadly costs more to ship to New Zealand than the actual book is worth).

Taking things digital

Once the note-taking, doodling, sketching and so-on has happened I fire up my Apple 27-inch iMac and then open Adobe’s Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Acrobat Pro, along with Microsoft Word (yes, Word). The internet is awash with articles about all of these products, so I’ll simply summarise what I use each one for, and then I’ll add some complimentary apps that I use.

I use Adobe’s Creative Cloud (CC) subscription – which has a number of benefits, including:

  • it means that I’m always working in the most up-to-date version of the software
  • it’s a simple monthly fee rather than having to fork out hundreds (sometimes thousands) on upgrades every two years or so
  • I can sync CC between my iMac and laptop (a 15-inch MacBook Pro) for when I need to work remotely


Let’s start with the big bad boy: Photoshop (Ps). I’ve used Photoshop since 1994 – before it had most of the features that creatives now consider standard. I’m the first to admit that I barely scratch the surface of what PS is capable of. I use it for two main purposes: preparing images for print and designing website interfaces.


I originally learned to work in Freehand, but when I worked in London around 2000-2002, I switched to Illustrator (Ai). This is my main tool for identity design work, particularly logo and icon design. I also use Illustrator for designing wireframes, which I then drop in to InVision (more on that later).


When it comes to print layout, I started with PageMaker, then switched to QuarkXpress which was the mainstay of print designers everywhere (and it’s apparently still used…?). In 2002 Adobe re-released InDesign (Id) and it became my major tool of choice for a long time. Over the past few years, I’ve also used InDesign to produce eBooks and interactive PDF documents.

After Effects

Designers are increasingly being asked to create motion graphics, and that’s where Adobe’s After Effects (Ae) steps in. Whilst it’s not an area of expertise for me, it is increasingly becoming a critical part of a modern designer’s arsenal of tools, so I’d say it’s well worth investing time learning.

There are alternatives to each of these apps, but in truth they are the industry standards so I haven’t ever really given much time to anything else; apart from one exception…

Busting out of Adobe’s grip

The rise of user-interface (UI) design – which should not be confused with user-experience (UX) – has brought with it a new player: namely Sketch. Developed by Bohemian Coding, Sketch is making big in-roads into areas that were traditionally handled in Photoshop and Illustrator. I’m pretty new to Sketch, but from what I’ve seen of it thus far, I’d say that for many designers it will become their primary tool – especially those are are UI specialists. Sketch’s major limitation is that it is Mac only.

Back to Old-School

Throughout the design process there’s another old-school tool that is well worth using: a pin board or blank wall. What for? It is really good to be able to pull away from the screen and see what you’re working on as print-outs laid up on a pin-board/whiteboard (especially branding, print design or wireframes). This gives you and others in your team (if you have one) a chance to step back, look, discuss, scribble and fine-tune ideas.

A few other helpful tools

As I mentioned in the previous post, Evernote is brilliant for keeping emails that have content, client amends, and so-on.

I’m also a big fan of InVision – it’s a great tool for taking wireframes and UI designs into prototyping mode (i.e. seeing whether they actually work in ‘real life’).

One design tool that is frequently used but hardly mentioned is stock imagery – my go-to sites for this are iStock and Shutterstock for cost effective, paid images. I’ve also used a great app called Zoommy, which aggregates the best of the free stock sites into one place.

A piece of hardware that I find indispensable is my Wacom pen and tablet. I use a Bamboo Touch model, which has been replaced with the Intuos model. After using a tablet for years, I find using a mouse pretty uncomfortable and slow.

And finally, I use a neat little app called Little Ipsum to generate latin text where I don’t have actual content.

One last thing

Design as a profession is, to some degrees, changing. Especially as the field of product design opens and expands. Some of the tools that I’ve mentioned above could potentially be at their zenith, and there are prototyping tools that product designers are using that I truthfully know nothing about.

I’d love to hear what other designers use that is different to what I do.

Next post: Communication Tools


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