25 of the Best Free and Paid Graphic Design Tools in 2021
No designer gets far without a slew of graphic design tools at their side. Whether those are tech tools (like a laptop or a Wacom Cintiq tablet) or project management tools (like external hard drives and font libraries), every designer has a list of preferred design tools and assets. No matter what your preferences are or how you set up your workflow, you need to surround yourself with things that not only inspire your creativity but also help boost your productivity and keep your skills fresh. Whether you are just starting your graphic design career or are a seasoned design expert, the following top graphic design tools for 2021 are sure to spark your interest and help support your workflow.
Last Updated November 2020
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Graphic design tech tools
You can’t design without a computer, and a laptop is undoubtedly the creative designer’s tool of choice. Its portable functionality allows for maximum creative flexibility and freedom, so you can design whenever and wherever your inspirational muse takes hold of you. The graphic design community leans heavily toward the all-powerful Macbook Pro, although PC laptops offer excellent functionality at a lower price point. No matter what you select, make sure the processing speed and internal drive space can handle robust graphic design programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.
For those who prefer standard desktop computers, the Mac vs. PC debate is still a hot topic, just as with laptops. Often, you can equip desktop computers with incredibly robust processing power. But if you are a designer who works with large files or video regularly, you may want to choose a desktop computer for the raw power and workflow versatility it provides.
iPads offer even more flexibility than a laptop but in a more travel-friendly size. High-end iPads, such as the iPad Pro, can run any programs in the Adobe Creative Cloud with ease. An iPad is a common design tool for those who like to design on the go with editing tools like the Apple Pencil, which is popular for its pressure sensitivity. Investing in an iPad is a great way to get your creative juices flowing and your designs onto the screen in living color quickly and easily.
4. Wacom products
Much like the iPads in terms of size and functionality, the Wacom family of graphic tablets are also popular in the design community. The Wacom Cintiq, Wacom One, and Wacom Intuos all offer excellent editing tools for graphic designers who like to sketch by hand. Wacom tablets allow designers to draw directly onto a screen and then take those designs and sketches and translate them effortlessly into polished digital images for clients.
If you want to see your designs come to life on something larger than a built-in laptop screen, you need to invest in a high-quality monitor. A large screen can help reduce eye fatigue when you are working on pixel-perfect projects. A large monitor also makes it easier to keep multiple programs or tabs open at once, without having to toggle back and forth between minimized windows and programs like you need to do with a smaller screen.
Many graphic designers are also photographers. A high-quality camera allows you to take original images that you can use to create stunning visuals and graphics for both print and web-based projects. Leading brands for digital cameras include Nikon, Canon, and Sony, most of which come with photo editing software. You can also invest in third-party photo editing tools such as Adobe Lightroom if you prefer.
A high-quality smartphone is a must-have for the modern graphic designer. It serves not only as a point of contact for clients but also as a mini camera in your pocket. Most smartphones now include photo editing tools so that you can adjust the brightness, color, and other features of your photos on the go. And in a pinch, a smartphone gives you a tiny screen for jotting down ideas or even sketching out designs when inspiration strikes while you are away from your computer.
8. Hard drive
For most graphic designers, the built-in hard drive space on either a laptop or desktop computer will not cut it for storing large design files. An external hard drive is an essential tool for graphic design. It provides a way to keep all project files organized while leaving space on your computer’s internal drive for whatever project you are currently working on. If you want to take your hard drive space to the next level, you can also consider a Drobo or a Synology DiskStation.
Graphic design software and programs
9. Design software
The Adobe Creative Cloud suite contains the most popular graphic design programs on the planet, including Photoshop (for photo editing), InDesign (for creating print layouts), and Illustrator (for digital drawing). While you can design with other programs like Canva, most designers will at some point need to work within the Adobe Creative Cloud.
10. Cloud storage
Cloud storage is a great way to share and store project files with your team or your clients. Using cloud storage also allows you to access your files, projects, and saved digital assets from any device with internet access. Dropbox is, without a doubt, one of the best options out there, although many designers like to use Google Drive or Basecamp as well. These are all paid services, so you will need to budget a small amount each month to pay for cloud storage services.
11. Font library
Typography is a hot graphic design topic for good reason, as the fonts you use set the mood for an entire project. A font library is a core tool for graphic designers, allowing you to save, store, and organize the many fonts you’ll rely on for projects. There are a number of excellent font library options out there, including FontAwesome and DaFont.
Graphic design in-hand materials and tools
12. Notebook or sketchbook
Brainstorming, sketching, and doodling are at the center of a designer’s creative process. Having a notebook or dedicated sketchbook handy is incredibly important because you never know when you’ll feel inspired. Pen and paper are still the best resources for being able to capture a glimmer of inspiration at a moment’s notice — sometimes even more so than with digital devices like iPads or Wacom graphic tablets.
Many designers have a whimsical and creative personality, which is great for coming up with clever, unique ideas. But this is also a personality type who often struggles with productivity and structure. A planner is a great way to keep important dates in one handy spot. Many planners also come with blank pages that you can use however you see fit. While you can certainly keep track of your schedule using a digital calendar app, there is something special, grounding, and routine-building about a physical planner that you can draw in and carry around. The Franklin Covey planners are structured options, while Passion Planners are perfect for those who prefer a more flexible planning style.
14. Pantone book or color palette website
Color theory and selection are the foundation for every project. It is important to have the Pantone color library at your fingertips for easy access whenever you need it. You can purchase a physical Pantone book to keep in your office, and you can bookmark their website on your desktop computers, laptops, and graphic tablets to easily refer to it on your devices.
Graphic design training and ongoing education tools
With literally thousands of courses to choose from, Udemy is an incredible place to grow your existing graphic design skills and develop new skills that will help you market your services to clients.
Books are tools for graphic designers, too. Reading is a great way to expand your knowledge base and even find design inspiration. You can borrow books and magazines from a public library or purchase them from a bookstore – either way, the important thing is to read and learn often. This list presents some of the best books for graphic designers.
Every designer is different and has unique interests and areas of expertise. Choosing to subscribe to both free and paid material is a great way to continue learning things that positively impact you personally and professionally. Some excellent subscription options include For The Makers, SketchBox, and Smile Create Repeat.
As with subscriptions and books, podcasts are a wonderful way to stoke your creativity, add to your knowledge base, and cultivate depth and breadth in your personal life. There are thousands of podcasts out there covering any topic imaginable.
Miscellaneous graphic design tools
19. Standing desk
A high-quality standing desk is a great way to eliminate the fatigue and pain that can come from spending long hours sitting down hunched over a keyboard. This can greatly improve your overall health as well as your day-to-day productivity. The Uplift standing desk, for example, has programmable heights to accommodate your unique workflow so you can effortlessly go from sitting to standing to working (while walking on a treadmill, even) in seconds.
20. Office chair
When you spend dozens of hours every week sitting, you want to make sure you are in the most ergonomic, posture-friendly seat possible. A high-quality office chair can easily run into a price point of hundreds or even thousands of dollars, though it’s possible to find one that is easier on your wallet while still giving you the posture and support you need.
Headed from home to the office or out to a client meeting? You need something stylish and functional that can fit your laptop, camera, paperwork, phone, and other graphic design tools. Choosing a bag is as much about personal style preference as it is about the overall functionality of the bag itself. Be sure to consider the items you use daily, especially if you hope to fit everything into one grab-and-go solution.
22. Studio light and photography setup
As mentioned earlier, many graphic designers are also photographers. Therefore, they need a workspace that is conducive to taking photos quickly, easily, and beautifully. Depending on your office space and layout options, you may want to invest in high-quality studio lights. There are many smaller options (such as desktop ring lights) that can get the job done, as well.
23. Website and/or digital portfolio
While technically not a “tool for graphic design,” every designer needs a space to showcase recent work. A personal website is a great option. You can also choose to utilize a free portfolio-builder platform like Behance. The important thing is to share your best work, as it will help attract clients and grow your confidence and sense of accomplishment in your work. A portfolio serves as a growing library of the projects you have completed and the skill set you bring to the table.
24. Email management system
From Outlook to Gmail and everything in between, managing your communication is a must. All email management systems allow you to customize your email dashboard with folders, tags, and more. It is well worth taking the time to set up these systems and organizational filters from the beginning. You don’t want to end up struggling through the process when you find yourself several thousand emails deep with no end in sight.
25. Sources of inspiration
Being a creative professional means digging deep every single day to find fresh perspectives and unique outlooks that you can translate into beautiful, finished designs. Surrounding yourself with things that bring out the best in your creativity is one of the best “tools” you can add to your workflow. That might mean hanging artwork that delights you, filling your desk with meaningful figurines and photos, or even purchasing color-changing LED lights so that you can set your office mood with color each day. The options for inspiration are endless, capped only by your sense of adventure and curiosity.
There are hundreds if not thousands of high-quality graphic design tools out there, spanning technology, software, books, furniture, and even décor. This list serves as a creative launchpad for you to begin figuring out what tools you need to take your design work and creativity to the next level.
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