The graphic designer's essential toolkit

If you're a graphic designer, you need these hardware and software tools in your arsenal.
9 minute read
Adam Smith @HomebrandAdam
Technical Co-pilot
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The indispensable tools you need to succeed in graphic design.

You can be the most naturally-gifted artist in the world, but at some point in your career you'll fall behind (or hit a wall completely) if you lack the tools to facilitate the talent.

If you've got intuitive, feature-rich software and a screen that can do your creations justice, there's no limit to the amazing things you can produce.

Let's take a look now at some of the best solutions out there for both budding and veteran graphics designers.

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THE HARDWARE

The best laid foundation for all good graphic design work is decent hardware.

You're going to want a monitor that's a cut above the usual standard, a powerful desktop machine and (admittedly, this one is optional) a tablet for finer input.

Monitor

Eizo ColorEdge CG318-4K ($2,999 USD, Amazon)

ezio cg318-4k

Source: Ezio.com

Standing out from the crowd with its distinctive light-shielding hood, Ezio's CG318-4K is a professional grade 21.4” IPS LED monitor.

Creatives like yourself will appreciate its wide color gamut, which reproduces almost the entirety of Adobe's RGB color space, and the super accuracy continues with Ezio's patented digital uniformity equaliser (DUE).

It essentially ensures there is zero fluctuation chromaticity and brightness from one corner of this gorgeous screen to the other.

Couple all that with a carry handle, slim bezels and a whopping 178 degree viewing angle and you have a powerhouse that's perfect for creation and client presentation both.

Dell UltraSharp UP3216Q ($1,465.99 USD, Best Buy)

Dell UltraSharp UP3216Q

Source: sg.carousell.com

If you're an artistic type who is a stickler for OCD-levels of detail, be it in graphic design, animation, video editing or professional photography, the luscious 4K visuals of the Dell UltraSharp UP3216Q will become your Graceland.

Boasting a color depth of 1.07 billion colors with perfect calibration to Adobe RGB (using Datacolor Spyder Elite+), magnificent clarity and color uniformity across its high pixel density and an almost overwhelming abundance of connectivity options, the Dell UltraSharp range delivers to any power user with a discerning palette window.

32" ASUS ProArt PA329Q 4K ($1,281.99 USD, Best Buy)

32" ASUS ProArt PA329Q 4K

Source: bhphotovideo.com

When it comes to vibrant and immersive UHD visuals there are wide color gamuts and then there's the ASUS ProArt range.

The entire chroma spectrum shall be yours to play with on this 60Hz IPS thanks to the Quantum Dot Enhancement Film (QDEF) tech that supports 100% Rec. 709, 100% sRGB, 99.5% Adobe RGB, 90% DCI-P3, and Rec. 2020 color spaces.

That's true “blind man who can now see” stuff if you're making the move up from mid-range monitor fare. The price is steep, but the performance justifies it.  

Machine

Apple iMac with 27-inch 5K Retina display ($2,299 USD, apple.com)

Apple iMac with 27-inch 5K Retina display

Source: apple.com

Let's start at the deep end of the design beasts, shall we? Any creative worth their salt would be beside themselves if you sat them in front of this 3.7GHz 6-Core 3.7GHz Apple iMac.

Your work will look positively resplendent on the 5120x2880 resolution screen that support for 1 billion colors and 500 nits brightness.

That, and any discipline that requires some serious grunt to render video or throw polygons around will get the horsepower benefits of a Radeon Pro 580X with 8GB of GDDR5 memory.

HP Envy 34-inch Curved All-in-One 34-b011a ($2,129.99 USD, Best Buy)

HP Envy 34-inch Curved All-in-One 34-b011a

Source: wired.com

As far as names go, we've not seen a product big up itself like this since the Subaru Imprezza (or possibly the Honda Life Dunk).

That said, the Envy will elicit the desired emotion. How could it not with an impressive Ultra WQHD 34-inch diagonal display that wraps around your head as you craft beautiful things, not to mention the considerable grunt of a 4 core 2.9 GHz i7-7700T Processor and a Radeon RX 460 (4 GB GDDR5)?

Couple that with ultra-modern outward aesthetics and this is indeed a drool-worthy desktop.

Microsoft Surface Studio 2 ($4,799.99 USD, Best Buy)

Microsoft Surface Studio 2

Source: wired.com

Yes, the price tag is daunting, but you'll be getting fast processors, brilliant color representation and blazing graphics to fuel your creativity.

The Surface Studio 2 brings all of this to the table, plus the intuitive experience that is working at the angle you want with a fully adjustable 28” PixelSense touchscreen that supports the improved Surface Pen.

Not into freehand? The benefits are also here to enjoy smooth workflow with complex video and 3D projects, too, thanks to a i7-7820HQ processor and a GeForce GTX 1060 6GB GDDR5 under the hood.

Tablet

Huion Inspiroy Q11K Wireless Graphic Drawing Tablet ($99.99 USD, Amazon)

Huion Inspiroy Q11K Wireless Graphic Drawing Tablet

Source: creativebloq.com

Whether you're aiming to lay down wispy hairlines or beamy strokes, the Q11K and its rechargeable PF150 pen will offer the precision and 8,192 levels of pressure you'll need.

Even better, the average charge lasts 40 hours (and wired mode is an option).

Plus, the unit boasts a lightweight, ergonomic design and a whopping 11 inch working space that has a paper-like finish.

Also, extra bonus points for the efficiency and convenience provided by the inclusion of 8-shortcut keys.

Wacom Intuos Pro Digital Graphic Drawing Tablet ($329 USD, Amazon)

Wacom Intuos Pro Digital Graphic Drawing Tablet

Source: Wacom.com

With its outstanding pressure sensitivity, natural tilt support and virtually no lag, the Wacom Intuos Pro  will become a natural extension of your hand in no time at all.

If that isn't impressive enough, Wacom offers a range of additional pens to suit the finicky needs of just about every graphic artist, with a finetip pen with a 0.4 mm nib, a 1.0mm nib ballpoint and the groovy experimental option that is a fully navigational 3D pen.

XP-Pen Artist16 Pro 15.6 Drawing Tablet ($359.99 USD, Amazon)

XP-Pen Artist16 Pro 15.6 Drawing Tablet

Source: tabletsdrawing.uniterre.com

The XP-Pen is all about control and fluidity with its PO2S stylus that offers 8,192 levels of pressure and 266 RPS.

Couple that with a generous 15.6” 1080p display and the ability to attach said screen onto a vesa standard desk mount, and you've got a sleek tablet monitor that eliminates the barriers getting between your creative ideas and the page.

The only thing working against this is an overly glossy screen that can be problematic if you work in a high-light environment.

THE SOFTWARE

Got the gear already? Great. Now you'll need the programs that suit your discipline. That could mean photo editing tools, drawing tools, motion graphics tools and/or layout tools.

In this section we've tried to provide you with the (usually very expensive) industry standard software, cheaper alternatives and at least one freebie.

Photo editing tools

Adobe Photoshop (www.adobe.com $20 USD/mo)

adobe photoshop

Source: cmag.com

Ah yes, the graphics program that's so ubiquitous it has entered the mainstream vernacular as a verb (like Google).

Though we hate that it's gone from a standalone product to being a part of a pricey paid subscription suite called Creative Cloud, Photoshop is still the undisputed king of photo manipulation.

That said, it would be a mistake to assume that's all it's good for.

Over the course of 20 years, Photoshop has evolved to become an incredibly deep, all-encompassing wrangler of pixels that can support a number of artistic disciplines.

Buying and learning this is more or less essential in many fields.

GIMP (www.gimp.org Free)

gimp design

Source: linuxuprising.com

Imagine a free version of Photoshop that comes with less all-encompassing features and a name you'll probably not want to say too loud across your office.

That's GIMP,  a program much more specialized in digital photo manipulation and therefore less powerful in terms of text layer overlaying, working natively in CMYK and a few other areas that'll irritate print designers.

That said, most missing features usually get implemented by a passionate plug-in community who are constantly evolving this product into staying the best darn freebie version of Photoshop out there.

Affinity Photo  (www.affinity.serif.com $49.99 USD)

affinity photo

Source: macstories.net

A cheaper option for anybody looking to avoid Adobe's monthly rent scheme, Affinity Photo offers a surprisingly comparable image editing experience.

It offers convenience in the form of RAW/PSD editing, HDR merging, multi-layer composing, image retouching, batch processing, panorama stitching and just about all the par-for-the-course features one would expect from Photoshop.

Basically, make a budget purchase of Affinity Photo and it can easily facilitate the creation of incredibly complex and breathtaking compositions (providing you bring the requisite talent to the table, of course).

Drawing tools

Adobe Illustrator ( www.adobe.com $20 USD/mo )

adobe illustrator

Source: digitalartsonline.co.uk

Just as Adobe Photoshop is the grand wizard of raster graphics, its sister product, Illustrator, is the undisputed grand viscount of vector graphics.

If your work involves anything from logo creation, drawing, icons, typography and illustrations for web, print, video or mobile, then you really ought to be fluent in this incredibly powerful industry-standard program.

Sadly, to do that you'll need to cough up a pretty exorbitant monthly fee as this is a part of Adobe's Creative Cloud.

Inkscape ( www.inkscape.org Free )

inkscape

Source: rollapp.com

Folks who cannot connect the dots between Illustrator's features and its monthly fee typically draw a straight line to the free, open source alternative that is Inkscape.

As far as illustrative tools go, this is about as parallel as one can get to Adobe's features-laden behemoth, thanks to flexible drawing tools for object creation and manipulation, powerful typography systems and broad file format compatibility.

Admittedly, the processing times can be longer and the odd bug or two can persist, but neither are too much of a blot on

Inkscape's reputation as a phenomenal free alternative.

Affinity Designer ( www.affinity.serif.com $49.99 USD )

affinity designer

Source: macstories.net

While Affinity Designer doesn't select the proverbial circle tool and run rings around Adobe Illustrator, its features set will sate most needs of any respectable designer.

We're talking a decent array of tools, intelligent and powerful workspace features and an import/export file capability that ensures broad compatibility with industry-standard apps.

Recipient of a number of “Best Of” awards and constantly improved upon, Affinity Designer is well worth the modest asking price.

Motion graphics tools

Adobe After Effects (www.adobe.com $20 USD/mo )

adobe after effects

Source: toolfarm.com

If you need to key, track, composite, or animate in some elements, then Adobe After Effects needs to be your first stop.

An intermediate After Effects user will be able to easily remove objects like wires, booms or people who decided to become unwanted extras in their scenes.

Animation-wise, there are hundreds of in-built effects to blend in anything your heart desires, be it weather effects, depth matte landscapes, three-dimensional fog or eerily lifelike mesh sculpted puppets.

Adobe Premiere (www.adobe.com $20 USD/mo )

adobe premier

Source: pcmag.com

Primarily known as video editing software, Premiere Pro still has a great many practical application for Motion Designers (for example, it's a great program for marrying videos together with sound effects and music).

As a non-linear editing application, Adobe Premiere also excels at the quick creation of light motion graphics (like end credits scrolls, titling and lower thirds) and the program comes with a decent selection of built-in motion graphics templates.

Basically, going from set shoot to showtime will be easier than ever with Premiere.

Cinema4D Studio (www.maxonshop.com $3,695 USD)

Cinema4D Studio

Source: sharbor.com

Though it doesn't allow you to manipulate spacetime (as its moniker may suggest), motion designers can still use Cinema4D in a variety of cool ways.

Once new users get the basic gist of spline modelling, materials and textures, C4D opens up a whole new world of opportunities in terms of keyframe animation, lighting, mograph module tools and dynamics.

Better yet, it plays incredibly well with the Adobe suite of programs by allowing you to composite multipass renders with After Effects or integrate assets from Illustrator, among other handy functions.

Layout tools

Adobe InDesign (www.adobe.com $20 USD/mo )

adobe indesign

Source: malavida.com

If you're all about producing art mixed with some good old fashioned tree murder (read: magazines, books, newspapers, flyers, brochures, presentations, etc) few pieces of typesetting software can offer you more power to create than Adobe InDesign.

We're doing InDesign a slight disservice there, however, as it has evolved with the times. Its ability to assemble, design, lay out and preflight complex multi-page layouts can be easily leveraged if your plan is to get content onto digital publishing platforms instead.

Scribus (www.scribus.net Free)

scribus

Source: wikipedia.org

Don't let the open-source nature of Scribus fool you into low expectations. Boasting a simple and accessible graphical user interface, Scribus punches well above it weight to deliver professional publishing features.

All the things you'd expect from InDesign have made the cut, including excellent color management options, professional-grade tools and versatile PDF creation.

The only major downside working against Scribus is that it doesn't play very well with some proprietary DTP file types, most notably Adobe's projects.

Lucidpress (www.lucidpress.com Free)

lucidpress

Source: lucidpress.com

And now we come to the lightweight option for the less-than-artistically-inclined folks who wish to smash out something quick, or work collaboratively in the cloud with others.

Pitching itself as “the design platform anyone can master,” Lucidpress is big on its 350+ professionally designed drag-and-drop templates that allow you to easily resize, compose and style to your heart's content.

Though more experienced users will be irked by the elimination of “frustrating” traditional layout tools, it can't be denied that Lucidpress is a free and easy-to-use means for newcomers to wrangle disparate bits of their content together in a stylish, exportable manner.

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