15 awesome tools no graphic design pro can live without


Da Vinci had his paintbrushes, Beethoven had his piano and Charles Dickens had his pen and paper.

While it was not the tools that made these creatives great, a well-stocked artillery of skills and items certainly helped each of them produce the legendary work that they did.

Graphic designers aren’t any different. While skill and creative thinking are the fundamentals of a successful designer, there are many other elements that you can use to build upon these fundamentals to take you from a good designer to a great one. So what are these extra elements? Well, we have explored 15 different things that designers find to be essential in their creative careers.

For this list, we recruited the help and input of a few designers. Daniel Patrick Simmons, a branding-whizz with a flair for all things typographic; Alex Solomon, a jack of many graphic design trades; Preston D Lee, entrepreneurial web designer and founder of the Graphic Design Blender blog; Dan Nisbet and Jessica Rosengard, the brilliant design duo behind The Graphic Designer Podcast; and Mike Dekker, a travelling UI/UX specialist.

01. A Computer


The tool that puts the “graphic” into “graphic design”. Photo by Alejandro Escamilla.

Now while this first point may seem a bit obvious, nobody can deny that a computer is a crucial tool in just about all creative industries.

Within the design sphere there’s often a pretty avid argument about computers – the longstanding and exhausting debate of Mac vs. PC. Truth be told, despite what many people would like to believe, there is actually no right or wrong answer to this argument. While Mac has become the typical go-to choice for designers (step into any design classroom and you’ll be met with a sea of glowing Apple logos), this definitely does not mean it is the be-all and end-all choice. Figure out what you need and what you like in a computer before you make a decision. Nobody has the same creative process as you, only you know what software, tools and resources you need in a computer.

Whatever your choice may be, a computer is definitely one of the biggest tools a graphic designer needs under their belt, not only for work purposes but also for research, education and networking – a computer’s uses for modern day designers are endless. And yet, interestingly, of all the designers we have spoken to, when asked what things they see as crucial to their design process, all of them listed their computer towards the end of the list – further proof that it doesn’t matter what specific tools you have, what matters is what you do with them.

02. A Smartphone


Carrying a smartphone makes for speedy inspiration hunting. Photo by Ryan Mcguire.

Where would many of us be without a smartphone? Up a creek with no paddle, most likely.

Not only is a smartphone a great tool for keeping in contact with clients and colleagues, it has also evolved into a means of on-the-go research, organisation and inspiration hunting.

One of the more important features smartphones have that all designers should make use of is the camera. The ability to visually document anything you find inspiring at a moment’s notice can be crucial to the design process.

As Alex Solomon explains, “I find inspiration randomly throughout the day. If I see a design, color scheme, font, etc. that I like, I always snap a picture of it.

I’ve also seen trees with amazing branches or root structures, flowers, and other things like that I take pictures of throughout my day.” A well-curated and diverse collection of snapshots can act as your own personal library of inspiration. So don’t be afraid of getting a little snap-happy.

03. Books


A well-compiled library can have endless uses. Photo by Jay Mantri.

There’s definitely no shortage of books written for, by or about creative people, so why should your reading list be short?

Designer Daniel Patrick Simmons counts reading as an essential part of his creative process. ”The quintessential book I attribute a lot of my success to is Twyla Tharp’s “The Creative Habit”, it taught me to value rest, breaks, and making habits out of my creative work.” Other books he lists as motivational reads are Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” and “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.”

If you don’t feel as though you have the time to sit down and read, Simmons also notes the value of listening to audiobooks while you work. Sites like Audible, Booktopia and the iTunes Audiobook Library can help hook you up with the very best pieces of spoken word inspiration.

For more book titles to add to your reading list, be sure to check out this list of 40 Books To Unlock Your Creativity. Whatever medium you choose to do it, be sure to make some time to unleash your inner bookworm.

04. Education


Education doesn’t stop when you leave school, keep on learning as much and as often as you can. Photo by Kaboompics.

Learning is such an important asset in any creative work, and even more so in the world of graphic design. When software is emerging and evolving, trends are coming and going and the digital world is constantly expanding and changing, keeping on top of it all can feel like a job in itself. For designers, ‘education’ doesn’t just mean the formal or structured learning you get in a classroom setting, but rather the everyday education.

Expanding on the last point about books, Daniel Patrick Simmons brings up an interesting point about the relationship between reading and education. He explains that some of the books he reads are “less about technique and more about the reasoning behind process, choice, and how people work and think. There’s so much psychology that goes into design of any kind, I think as a designer you need to be aware of what makes people the way they are.”

For designers, there are lots of facets to education, from learning technical skills to more intuitive ones, staying sharp and in-the-know is a key element to becoming a successful designer.

05. Paper


Paper and pencil are the best starting points to any creative pursuit. Photo by Brett Stenson.

Now, while the profession is called “graphic designer”, it’s important to not get caught up too much in the ‘graphic’ part. Alex Solomon finds that the ability to put down both written and visual ideas onto paper instantly is an invaluable part of his creative process: “From thumbnails and sketches to fully detailed concepts and even taking notes, to be able to draw or write down an idea at that exact moment is huge. Jumping right into the computer can be extremely limiting. There’s just something about the freedom your hand has to move across a blank sheet of paper that really gets ideas flowing.”

This immediacy of pen and paper is a big part of why it’s so valuable to the design process. A study has determined that since sketches are often quick, non-permanent things, they act as “intuitional drawings.” Author of the study, Muna Silav notes that “as hand moves on paper, the image gets clear, the problems are searched and the solutions are reached. The sketches are made fast in series and the thoughts are transmitted on paper.” In this way, by breaking out the pencil and paper before you even think about turning on the computer, you are able to visually access and record your thoughts right as they are happening.

06. Peers


Let yourself be inspired and motivated by like-minded peers. Photo by Startup Stock.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt who said “Nobody really does anything alone. For almost every achievement in life, it is essential to deal with other people.” And this is especially true for design, an industry that revolves around communication and cooperation. In such a creative industry, it is pretty easy to view your peers as competitors, but, as Daniel Patrick Simmons notes, working with dedicated and driven people should instead inspire you.

“I’m constantly motivated by hard working and focused people,” Simmons says. “Before I returned to full time freelance, I worked for Apple Inc., from retail to corporate those are some of the most determined, focused, and passionate people I have ever met. They taught me to look at life differently and think about the details.”

07. Music


Music is proven to enhance productivity and your overall mood. Photo by SplitShire.

Have you ever found that you work that little bit better when you have music playing? Well it’s not just a coincidence. Studies have actually proven that “those who listened to music completed their tasks more quickly and came up with better ideas than those who didn’t, because the music improved their mood.”

So, the question is: what kind of music should you listen to? Well, that’s your call. A study by MindLab has determined that it is best to listen to “Classical music: if your work involves numbers or attention to detail… Pop music: if your work involves data entry or working to deadlines… Ambient music: if your work involves solving equations (and) dance music: if your work involves proof-reading and problem solving.” This is great, except for the fact that a designer’s job often alternates between just about all of those disciplines, which means that the choice is ultimately and inevitably up to you.

If you’re unsure about where to start looking, check out the free music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora that have premade ‘stations’ to fit just about any preference, mood and situation. Take note of what situations you work best in and what genre of music works for you.

08. Inspiration


Seek inspiration everywhere. Photo by Ryan Mcguire.

Inspiration is such a key part of any creative process, but as we all likely know, it’s a fickle thing that can strike at random times. Bouts of inspiration can come from just about anywhere which is what makes it both elusive and plentiful.

For Daniel Patrick Simmons, his inspiration comes from people he has worked with as well as strangers who are dedicated to their craft. “I watched the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” recently—what an incredible story. An 80-something year old man that makes Michelin Star-worthy sushi out of a shoebox size restaurant in the Tokyo underground. There’s a line in that movie about falling more in love with your work everyday, not because it’s easy, but because you’ve dedicated yourself to it.”

For other designers, inspiration strikes once they have stepped away from the digital world. Designer and self-dubbed “digital nomad” Mike Dekker notes, “I do find inspiration online, but you have to get out there and explore to make progress, don’t just sit behind the screen all day!” Alex Solomon also notes that he finds inspiration in the great outdoors, but also from perusing others’ work. “A few of my favorite websites to visit are Dribbble, Behance, The Dieline, and Abduzeedo,” he says.

09. A Well-Curated Social Network

Social Network

From Facebook and Twitter, to Dribbble and Behance, social media is a must for all creatives. Photo by Kaboompics.

It’s probably safe to say now that social media is not just a passing fad, but rather a tool that has an infinite potential for networking, marketing and communicating. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have evolved into specialised creative platforms like Dribbble and Behance, all of which are keeping people more connected and in-tune with each other than ever before. Alex Solomon calls social media’s role in boosting and maintaining a designer’s career “huge.”

“One aspect of it that I’ve seen play a big role is in educating others about what exactly designers do,” Solomon says.

“Even as the design field gains popularity, many people don’t actually know what designers do. If someones finishes designing a website or a logo and posts it to social media, you might have a person say something along the lines of ‘I didn’t know you designed websites or logos, i’ll definitely keep that in mind.’”

So, social media, (when used correctly and strategically) can be a powerful tool, which ultimately means that you can probably feel a little less guilty about your time spent on it.

10. Feedback


Giving and recieving feedback is an essential part of creativity. Photo by Startup Stock.

Creativity is such a subjective thing, so when it comes to feedback, there can often be opinions being thrown left, right and center. Truth be told, sometimes it can get a little hard to take, but there is no limit to the value of well-intended and timed feedback.

On the topic of feedback within the social media community, Mike Dekker notes that “…learning from and inspiring others is the key to success to become an amazing designer, no matter what sort of designer you are.” Providing feedback on others’ work often makes you question why it is or isn’t effective, which can help you figure out what questions you should be asking yourself about your own work. So, not only is it important to seek feedback for your own work, but as Dekker highlights, providing feedback and engaging with others’ work can be an essential part of creative growth.

11. A Portfolio


Designer Emre Ozbek’s has opted to present his portfolio in hard copy.

All designers know the benefits of having a well-rounded portfolio of work – a lot of the time it is the defining factor that helps you land a new job or client.

Assembling a portfolio can be a helpful exercise to complete as a lot of the time it can becomes quite introspective. When all your work is in front of you, it’s easier to identify gaps in your body of work, if you have a distinctive style, what situations and projects you produced the best work under etc. A well-assembled portfolio can work as both an employment tool, as well as an act of self-analysis.

There are many mediums to which you can display your portfolio, such as web, print, via social media platforms and more. There is no right or wrong platform to display your work on, instead, as designer Preston D Lee notes, the platform is all dependent on your content.

“For me, it depends entirely on two things: your audience and the work itself,” Lee says. “Obviously, if I’m a web designer, I won’t be printing my work to show a client. I’ll bring an iPad to a pitch meeting. Likewise, if I’m pitching to someone who wants me to build a wordpress site, I won’t be showing off my projects in SquareSpace.”

Tailoring your choice of platform to the work you are displaying is one crucial aspect of a good portfolio. Another important aspect, as Jessica Rosengard and Dan Nisbet both note, is originality and customizability. Rosengard and Nisbet discuss their preference for custom website portfolios.

“I’ve tested out a variety of platforms over the years, but I always go back to my own website, where I can have complete creative control over how it looks,” Nisbet says. “For new designers, I actually prefer to see them go this route versus a portfolio service. It shows me that, even if they aren’t a programming whiz, they still understand the technology enough to use it. And I think that helps as a designer.”

“You could use other platforms that offer free portfolio sections but you will have less options to customize to really make it your own or let your own personality show,” Rosengard notes. “As a designer, I think personality is the most important part of your brand. If your portfolio looks like everyone else’s then there’s not as much that will really set you apart.”

12. A Comfortable Work Environment

Comfortable Work Environment

A touch of greenery, plenty of light and a little clutter can improve your productivity a surprising amount. Photo by Death To Stock Photos.

At the end of the day, design is work, and having a workspace that you feel comfortable and motivated in is a vital element to productivity and success.

So, what do we mean by a comfortable work environment? First of all, the physical environment is a huge factor in how you work. Dr Christian Jarrett outlines the main components for a positive physical environment to be: rooms with plenty of colour, light and space; a presence of windows and plants; and (somewhat surprisingly) a messy desk. Yes, you read right, for some unknown reason, when working amongst a bit of clutter, people tend to be more creative and productive. Dr Jarrett also explains that studies show that workers who decorate their workspaces and find their work area to be aesthetically pleasing work approximately 32% better than workers who don’t. So, be sure to break out the family photos!

13. Routine


However you start your day, make it consistent. Photo by Justin Leibow.

Creative work can sometimes be inconsistent, which can make it pretty hard to schedule, but developing a routine for your work is a crucial step to maintain productivity and motivation. Developing a rigorous work routine makes sure that your brain knows it’s time to knuckle down at a certain time each day. Daniel Patrick Simmons credits a well-rounded routine to his creative success.

“I’ve read a lot about the hard work people put into their process in the moment, but I feel like there’s little to no discussion about what leads up to it,” Simmons says. “For me that’s the most important aspect—the work you do before the project hits your desk. I find that setting schedules, practice time, and forming creative habits is incredibly important to my daily success.”

Still not sold on the idea of creative routine? Have a look at this interactive infographic that breaks down some famous creative minds’ practised routines.

14. Breaks


Walking away from a project can sometimes be the best solution. Photo by Ilham Rahmansyah.

We all like the prospect of taking breaks, but the reality of the situation a lot of the time is that we don’t always allow ourselves to unplug or walk away.

In an interview conducted by The New York Times, Tony Schwartz, head of productivity consulting firm ‘The Energy Project’, noted that we often tend to push ourselves harder when what we really need to do is step away. “When demand in our lives intensifies, we tend to hunker down and push harder,” Schwartz says. “The trouble is that, without any downtime to refresh and recharge, we’re less efficient, make more mistakes, and get less engaged with what we’re doing.”

But what evidence is there that taking regular breaks works? Well, Daniel Patrick Simmons swears by unplugging. “I take walks, naps, practice sketching, and take breaks—real breaks as often as I can,” Simmons notes. “There’s something magical about physically and emotionally leaving your work behind you so that you’re refreshed when you come back to it.”

Check out this article that discusses how regular walks have worked for many high profile creative thinkers such as Steve Jobs, Beethoven and Charles Dickens. So, when you’re feeling stuck, just take a step (or a few) away.

15. Goals & Objectives

Goals & Objectives

Starting each day with a specific goal is a direct path to productivity. Photo By Startup Stock.

Being a designer often means that you have a lot on your plate at once, so setting (and more importantly sticking to) goals is a necessity. Whether you work freelance and set your own hours, or if you are a part of an organization and have set hours, consistent, logical, and reasonable goals are a must to maintain productivity and motivation.

So, where do we begin when it comes to goal-setting? Well, as studies have determined, being as specific as you can about your goals pays off in the long run. In the study, a group of students were given a set of mathematical problems to solve, a handful of the students were given a goal to “work productively” and the other half were given a goal that specified a number of problems to solve. In the end, the students that were given the specific goal “showed higher self-­efficacy and mathematical achievement.” So, when you’re setting up a goal for yourself, try to avoid blanket statements like “I want to get lots done today” and instead go for a specific goal with a set destination, for example: “I want to draw 30 thumbnail sketches before 3:00.”

Don’t be afraid to get ambitious with your goals, but don’t overdo them either. Be realistic, be rational and don’t be afraid of being a bit of a goal digger.

Nailing down the necessities of a designer is a tough thing to do, as no two designers in the world are the exact same. From the small pool of designers we interviewed, their specialties range from UI/UX design to branding to web and game design, the range of skills and disciplines within the field of design are truly endless.

Whatever your discipline may be, pulling together all of the necessities as a designer can take time, so whether you’re a new designer or have been in the game for a while, in the wise words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”

Inspired? You might also be interested in these awesome articles:

Related articles

See all

Bring your ideas to life in minutes.

Express yourself with the world's easiest design program.