12 tools every graphic designer should have in 2017
Whether you're just getting into graphic design or you're a seasoned pro looking to expand your existing creative kit, here are the essential tools you need to work smarter and more creatively.
Remember, being a good designer isn't about having the latest hardware or software: ideas and execution are far more important than shiny new equipment. But it's worth investing in the best kit you can afford.
Here are 12 must-have tools to get you started…
Gone are the days when Macs were the only choice for graphic designers (just see our second pick below for proof). Nevertheless, this 2017 refresh of Apple’s iconic all-in-one – with its updated CPU, Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and brighter display – is a powerful, fast and brilliant-value midrange machine for designers.
The 21.5-inch iMac comes in three versions. The basic option has a 2.3GHz processor; mid-range comes with a Retina 4K Display and 3.0GHz processor; and the highest tier bumps up to a 3.4GHz processor with a Retina 4K Display.
So what's so good about it? Well, for a start, the screen is fantastic: it's bright (43 per cent brighter than before, says Apple) with deep blacks. And if you want more screen real estate, two new Thunderbolt 3/USB C ports can drive an external 5K display at 60Hz with support for 1 billion colours, or two external 4K UHD displays at 60Hz with the same colour support.
The mid-priced 4K iMac comes with a Radeon Pro graphics card, which makes tasks like video editing and 3D graphics faster than previously. (If you’re likely to be working in 360 video editing or VR, though, you’ll need the 27-inch 5K iMac.)
Also, the iMac’s peripherals are excellent. It ships with a wireless Magic Keyboard and Magic Mouse 2, and a Lightning cable is included in the box.
Overall, the 21.5-inch iMac – and indeed its more expensive 27-inch counterpart – is a fantastic desktop option for any graphic designer.
The Surface Book is, from first pickup, an amazingly high-quality laptop. Build is stellar; the flexible, accordion-like hinge is a masterpiece of industrial design; and the screen – well, the screen! It’s absolutely stunning. Microsoft’s PixelSense tech means that it's thin, bright and hugely responsive to touch and stylus control.
The term 'Retina display' is bandied around a lot due to Apple’s excellent marketing, but for its 13.5-inch size the Surface Book packs in an incredible 3000×2000 pixels at 267ppi (Apple’s MacBook Pro is 2560×1600 at 232ppi).
The Surface Book is a hybrid, which means you can detach the screen and use it in Windows 10 Tablet Mode. Apps such as Illustrator can be used in Tablet Mode as well, so the Surface Book is not only a super-powerful machine for video editing and 3D, it's also the ultimate sketchbook.
As someone pushing say, Adobe CC, to its limits, you’re gonna need top specs in your laptop. And again, the Surface Book delivers. Big style. We tested a mid-range model and whilst it cost a meaty £2,699 you get a 512GB SSD, an Intel Core i7 CPU running at 2.6GHz, 16GB of RAM and a discrete GPU (with 2GB RAM). Fork out £3,149 and you’ll get a 1TB SSD.
Read more: Surface Book review
03. 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.
When it comes to drawing, using a mouse isn't natural. After all, when you learn to write and draw at school you don’t just move a pencil around with your wrist.
That's where a graphics tablet comes in. We've covered the seven best drawing tablets for designers and creatives in our best graphics tablet buying guide, but our top pick here is the Wacom Cintiq 13HD .
Balancing cost and quality, this is a serious piece of kit. As well as a responsive, pin-sharp and highly accurate screen, the Wacom Cintiq 13HD is very comfortable to use. And despite the 13HD Touch's party trick of being finger-operable, the star of the show is Wacom's bundled Pro Pen, which comes with six nibs and offers 2048 levels of pressure sensitivity and tilt recognition.
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.
Read more: Wacom Cintiq 13HD review
05. 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.
06. Top-end smartphone
Galaxy let loose two powerful Android smartphones this summer: the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus and the Samsung Galaxy Note 8 – both cracking choices for creatives thanks to their generous screen real estate and excellent cameras.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 8 sports a 6.3-inch 1,440×2,960 Super AMOLED screen, while the Super AMOLED screen on the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus comes in at 6.2-inches (same resolution).
The most impressive camera comes with the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, which boasts a 12 MP dual-lens that opens up a whole range of fantastic features – including a bokeh effect and the ability to take two pictures at once (a close-up and wide-angle shot, for example).
By comparison, the Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus has just one rear-facing 12MP f/1.7 camera with optical image stabilisation – but it takes fantastic photos. (And it has a larger battery too.)
And of course, Apple introduced three new iPhones in September: the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and the astronomically priced iPhone X. The most affordable is the iPhone 8, which offers a small update on the iPhone 7 with an improved, sharper Retina display, some internal upgrades and improved external hardware.
Battery life is boosted, thanks to the new A11 Bionic chip, and the iPhone 8 boasts convenient wireless charging too. Unfortunately the 12MP camera has only received a minor upgrade, but photos are still superb. Certainly if you’re coming from the iPhone 6 or 6S, then the iPhone 8 makes is a decent, more financially accessible option.
For a little more cash, the iPhone 8 Plus is also worth a look. It offers more screen real estate than the iPhone 8 due to the larger body, improved battery life again, and an upgraded 12 MP camera with two sensors, a telephoto lens and Portrait Lighting mode.
Next page: six more essential graphic design tools…
07. 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.
08. 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?
09. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
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