Resources » 11 Must-Have Graphic Design Tools (2021)

11 Must-Have Graphic Design Tools (2021)

I’ve been running Mane Design Ja as a freelance graphic designer and web designer for about four years and a common question I hear is “what graphic design tools do you use?”

Now, I don’t have a problem answering that question. I welcome it. I don’t know why a lot of graphic designers try to hide their tools like it’s a big secret. Are they afraid that someone will take their jobs? If so, then that says a lot about their value as a graphic designer.

The graphic design tools mentioned below are those that I use daily in my business and that I trust to get the job done. Some of the links in this article contain affiliate links and I might make a commission when you purchase something using my link. You pay nothing extra but I wanted to be transparent with my readers.

Computer

laptop is an essential graphic design tool
Lenovo Legion Y530- My personal graphic design PC

Okay, let’s start with an essential graphic design tool, a powerful laptop or desktop PC. I use a laptop for my freelance design business because I like to use my computer around my home. I’m using a Legion Y530 with an 8th gen I7, GTX 1050 ti, 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD for storing files and a 512GB m.2 as my boot drive.

The laptop had a slow, clunky 1tb Seagate hard drive and an OEM m.2 drive but I swapped them for new parts. Keep the Seagate drive in mind. It will show up later.

Get a Mac right?

Macbook pros are rich graphic design tools
Apple’s MacBook Pro is a great graphic design PC but it can be waaayyy too expensive

Jamaican graphic designers make the mistake of thinking they need a $3000 laptop to be good. A graphic designer is someone who can create quality designs that are beautiful, functional and solves a problem. You can do that with a $200 HP laptop and a cheap Logitech mouse or a ten-thousand-dollar Apple cheese grater. Sure, it would be great to have a powerful PC to design on but don’t feel discouraged because your laptop isn’t the best.

Trying to build a PC?

If your goal is to build a PC in Jamaica, it might be difficult to import the parts you need due to expensive shipping. Instead, I would suggest giving Budget PC Ja a try. Budget PC Ja is a local custom PC business operated by a Jamaican gamer who offers builds at budget prices. Delivery to Kingston and St. Andrew is free and $1500 for islandwide deliveries. Check them out on Instagram at @budgetpcja.

External Storage

I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that as a graphic designer or web designer, having backups are necessary. I have three different external drives, two from Western Digital and a Seagate HDD in an enclosure (I told you that Seagate drive would return). Owning external drives provides you with an extra layer of security for your files if your PC crashes and results in lost data.

What brands do I recommend?

You can’t go wrong with any of the popular choices on Amazon. Western Digital makes serviceable drives, and Seagate is an excellent option if you want to save a few bucks. I would avoid the WD my elements drives at all costs if you can. I had one, and the hard drive only lasted a few months before dying on me. Luckily I had the files backed up on another drive.

Google drive is a graphic design tools
Google Drive

Cloud Storage

Adding on to my previous point about external drives, I would recommend buying cloud storage. Cloud storage provides another layer of file security and peace of mind. There are a lot of free services available to choose from, including Mega, Google Drive, Dropbox and OneDrive. I use a 1TB OneDrive storage that came with my student ID (read my comparison on the best graphic design schools within Jamaica). Still, I am planning to invest in a Google One subscription at $1.99 per month or $19.99 yearly once Flow upgrades its internet service.

Cloud services I recommend

For cloud services that I recommend, it’s a mix between Google Drive and Backblaze. Backblaze is a paid cloud storage subscription at $6 per month and offers unlimited cloud backup for your files. Backblaze’s features include file versions, external drive backups and the ability to access your data using their app. Backblaze also provides the option to have them ship a 256GB flash drive or 8tb external hard drive if you want all your files on physical storage. But if you want that Google integration, go with Google Drive.

backblaze is a graphic design tool
Backblaze

Graphic Tablet

huion graphic design tools
Wacom’s budget tablet

A graphic tablet is another must-have graphic design tool. I use a graphic design tablet for illustrations and wireframing websites. I’m not rich by any stretch of the imagination, so I avoid Wacom like the plague. I know Wacom has a cheap little tablet on Amazon for around JMD 11756.58 but look at it! It’s so tiny! Like I’m drawing on a napkin with that thing. I need space when I am drawing, and I won’t compromise by going with a tablet that confines me into a small box.

I went with a HUION 1060 plus. It has a pen pressure of 8192, 12 Express Keys, and they even give you an 8GB MicroSD Card. The best part? This thing is massive! Coming in at 10” x 6.25, this big boy gives you all the space you need. You can grab the tablet on Amazon right now for around JMD 10722.83

graphic design tools
HUION “The Big Boy” 1060 Plus

Trackball Mouse

This one isn’t for everyone. I work in Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign, so I do a lot of scrolling, and that hurts my wrist. A trackball mouse, like the ones from Logitech, is great for people who use a mouse for long periods of time. Trackball mice reduce the strain on your wrists due to only needing to use your thumb to move the cursor. I bought mine a year ago, and at first, it was hard to use, but I’ve grown to love this mouse so much that I can’t see myself going back to a regular mouse anytime soon. 

Which mouse would you recommend?

I recommend the Logitech M570 Wireless Trackball Mouse as that is the mouse I use currently. WARNING: This mouse is not easy to get used to. It will take time if you’ve been using a standard mouse for years. It won’t make you a better graphic designer, but if you have the same issues I was facing, then this might be a good buy for you

graphic design tools
Logitech Trackball

Adobe Creative Cloud / Free alternatives

We all know that Adobe is a juggernaut in the creative industry. Their creative cloud subscription includes industry essentials such as Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign. If you are planning to get into graphic design or already a graphic designer, you should already have these graphic design tools. Here at Mane Design Ja, I specialize in visual identity, web design and marketing, and I rely on Adobe’s tools to produce designs for my clients. The three tools I use daily are Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign.

Adobe Photoshop

graphic design tools
Adobe Photoshop

Photoshop is a raster-based image editor, used in photo editing, digital art and graphic design. Photoshop allows graphic designers to arrange images, text and shapes to form unique creations that aim to solve a problem for a client. Photoshop is the industry standard for graphic design and you will be hard-pressed to find a graphic designer who has never used it.

Free Alternative: GIMP

graphic design tools
GIMP

GIMP is a free cross-platform image editor for GNU/Linux, OS X, Windows and other operating systems. It isn’t as refined as adobe photoshop, but it’s just as capable of producing quality designs.

If you want a Photoshop-like experience, check out GIMPshop which is GIIMP with Photoshops keyboard shortcuts and a new user interface.

Photoshop Alternative: Photopea

graphic design tools
Photopea splash screen

Photopea is my favourite photoshop alternative since it’s wholly online-based and I can use it while I’m out. The tool is a web-based raster and vector image editor used for image editing, illustrations and web design. This tool is a fantastic combination of Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketch, Adobe XD and GIMP in one program. I have no idea how they pulled it off, but I am happy they did. Photopea has photoshop features such as layers, selections, smart objects and vector shapes. Photopea is ad-supported software, but the program itself is quality. I highly recommend it.

Adobe Illustrator

graphic design tools
Adobe Illustrator

Illustrator, unlike photoshop, works with vector images to create designs. Illustrator is a vector graphics tool used by designers to create logos, illustrations and billboards. The best part of working in Illustrator is that you can scale vectors infinitely without losing quality as they aren’t raster images.

Free Alternative: InkScape

Inkscape is a free and open-source vector graphics editor. Graphic designers use Inkscape to create vector images, but the program supports other file types as well. Like Illustrator, Inkscape allows you to create shapes, gradients and tracing among other features. The interface is admittedly dated, but it is still an excellent free alternative to Adobe Illustrator.

By InkscapeSee AUTHORS file in Inkscape 0.48.1 source code.ScreenshotRamón RetamarCar graphicKonstantin Rotkevich - InkscapeInkscape 0.48.1ScreenshotOwn workCar graphicDistributed with Inkscape source code., GPL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24373255
Inkscape interface

Adobe InDesign

graphic design tools

Adobe InDesign is the last tool in the holy trinity of digital design. InDesign is a desktop publishing software used to layout and publish newspapers, magazines, books and more. I use InDesign to create layouts for magazines, brand style guides and monthly reports. 

One of the things that I appreciate about the tool is that it works well with Adobe Illustrator since it supports vector images. I can embed photoshop images directly in InDesign without having to export an image every time I want to make a change. InDesign isn’t the same as Photoshop and Illustrator, but if you are familiar with both tools, you should get the hang of it quickly.

Free Alternative: Scribus

Scribus is a free alternative page layout program for Linux, Windows, OS X, and other operating systems. It is not as refined as InDesign, but if you like and support Open Source software, this could be a great option. I have not used Scribus personally so I cannot vouch for it.

Mind Mapping: Coggle

Coggle | My Graphic Design Toolkit
Coggle mind map

Coggle is another graphic design tool when I need to mind map for a new project. A mind map is a visual method of presenting your ideas and understanding their relationships through links. A mind map can consist of imagery, colour and keywords and are great for planning by yourself or with your team. You can make a mind map using paper and pencil, but Coggle has made it easier to create digital mind maps for free.

Coggle works within your browser and you can connect to the service using your Google account. The free version of Coggle has enough features if you’re working alone as a freelancer. Still, you upgrade to their Awesome and Organization plans if the bonuses are to your liking.

Mood Boards: Pinterest

Pinterest

I think this one should not be a surprise, especially if you are a big fan of using mood boards. Pinterest is an American image sharing and social media services designed for saving or “pinning” ideas in the form of images, videos and gifs. I use Pinterest as a graphic design tool to create mood boards and find inspiration for projects that I work on.

Pinterest allows you to follow other designers, marketers, bloggers and find inspiration in their pins. You can “try” a pin which will enable you to showcase your work using the pin as an inspiration. I have over 200 boards covering everything from social media to website layouts.

Using Pinterest and Coggle together makes a formidable duo to plan and execute your next design. You can follow me on Pinterest if you’d like :).

Word Processing: Google Docs

Google Docs is an integral part of my graphic design business as their tools allow me to write, edit and collaborate across several platforms. 

If you’re not a fan of Google and don’t want them snooping around, you can use LibreOffice. LibreOffice is a free alternative to Google docs but you’ll have to download the software to use it on your PC.

Docs

Google Docs

I primarily use Google Docs for writing design contracts for clients and blog posts. Google Docs allows me to talk to clients with its comments feature and enables real-time collaboration with teammates

Slides

Google Slides

I don’t use Google Slides as often as docs, but whenever I am working on pitches or presentations, slides make it easier to edit on the go. Google Slides shares many of the features of Powerpoint but with a yellow coat of paint. Not that I’m complaining.

Forms

Google Forms

Google Forms has a lot of uses as a graphic designer. I use Google forms to get customer feedback or to send customers a questionnaire to understand their ideas better. You can also use Google Forms as a job application, email newsletter signup and survey tool.

Tasks: Microsoft To-Do

Microsoft To-do

If you are big on productivity and organizing your tasks, then Microsoft To-Do is something I recommend. I use To-Do (formerly Wunderlust) to manage and organize my tasks for the day and check them off once I’ve completed them. A to-do application is excellent for visualizing your progress on a project and helps keep you on track during the workday.

Time Tracking: Clockify

Clockify

Clockify is my preferred time tracking tool. I use Clockify when working on projects that I bill hourly. Clockify allows me to track whatever project I am working in real-time or manually adding the hours afterwards. Clockify also comes with a free Google Chrome extension that will enable you to activate the tracker from any page on the web. The tool also supports a reports function, the ability to manage projects and team collaboration.

Accounting: Wave Apps

Wave Apps

Wave Apps is a fantastic web-based accounting tool I use in my graphic design business to manage my finances. The interface is clean, straightforward and anybody can pick this tool up and understand it. Wave allows me to create estimates, invoices and send invoices to clients. I can also set notifications for customers to remind them when an invoice is due and if they have overdue payments.

Wave is completely free and has an android app for managing invoices on the go. I highly recommend Wave as an invoicing tool, but you can try GNUcash if you want an offline solution.

Summary

I hope that you will find something awesome from my graphic design toolkit that will help you out in your graphic design journey. I use these tools regularly, and that is why I recommend them. If you have any questions about the tools I use, feel free to comment down below.

Disclaimer

The product listings on my blog may contain affiliate links. You don’t pay anything extra for these products, but I may receive a commission from the sale of these products from Amazon when you buy something using my links.

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