Tools and software I use to run my design business

If you’re thinking about starting up alone as a freelancer or offering your services part-time, you may be wondering exactly what programs and tools you need to buy to get started.

Surprisingly, not many. There are a lot of great free or low-cost programmes out there that do their job just as well as any of the more expensive packages.

Here’s a quick look at some of the programmes and tools I use daily as a self-employed graphic designer. Feel free leave a list of your own in the comments below.

General equipment

Pencil, pens, paper (costs vary)

Pens, a pad of layout paper and a sketchbook arranged neatly on a desk

Before I start using software, I always work on paper, even if I already have an idea of what I’m going to produce in my head. Getting something down on paper allows you to critically look at your idea before you spend a great deal of time creating it digitally. Even a small thumbnail sketch is helpful in getting an idea out of your head and into something you can discuss.

Apple iMac (£999)

An Apple iMac on a desk

At the risk of starting a Mac/Windows debate, I’ll state that I prefer using MacOS much more than any Windows platform. I did use a Windows PC for a long time, but once I started using a Mac at college, I knew it was the platform for me.

Everybody has their preferred operating system though. Using a Mac obviously doesn’t make final designs any better (or worse).

Digital SLR camera (prices vary)

Canon 500D SLR camera

Having my own DSLR is incredibly useful for shooting my own stock images and photographing work for my portfolio. Whenever possible I’ll try and utilise a photography student to shoot for me, but having my own camera (a Canon 500D if you’re interested) has certainly come in handy on many occasions, particularly when I travel.

Design software

Adobe CS Design Standard (£237.60 – Student / £1,238.40 – Professional)

Probably the bread and butter of any graphic design business, Adobe CS Design Standard contains InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop, plus a few useful extras. This package is probably the only things in this list that I couldn’t do without.

Students are able to buy the full software at a massive discount and continue using it legally, even after they’ve graduated. Take advantage whilst you can.

Invoicing and project management

Billings (£23.99)

A project management, time-tracking and client invoicing app for Mac OS. Andrew Kelsall has a great little guide to invoicing clients using Billings. A definite recommendation, especially with the low price.

Thunderbird (free)

A free and very reliable email client for Mac, Windows and Linux, with a multitude of plugins available. I use the Lightning calendar add-on to manage my schedule.

Dropbox (free)

Share files quickly and easily with clients or collaborators. Sign up here and you get 2GB of space, whilst I get a boost to my total space. Everyone’s a winner!

Skype (free)

Free Skype-to-Skype calls and instant messaging are great for keeping in touch with fellow designers or discussing project details with clients.

Showing them concepts using a web cam is particularly useful, especially if the client isn’t local.

Web-related resources

WordPress (free*)

The content management system (CMS) I use for my portfolio and blog, with a custom child theme using the great Thematic framework for the layout and functionality of my site. There are many great portfolio themes for WordPress sites available for free, as well as many premium ones that are even better.

*Wordpress requires a MySQL database to function, which free or basic level web hosting packages don’t often come with one. I use Bluehost‘s unlimited hosting package, which also has a one-click-install option for WordPress. 

MAMP (free)

A nifty little program that allows to me create an exact copy of my site (complete with blog posts) locally on my computer system. Here I’m able to experiment with changes to the code and develop new layouts without editing the files on my web server. When I’m happy I simply upload the new files to my server, apply the changes and I’m done.

MAMP is for MacOS only. Windows users might like XAMPP. I originally used XAMPP for Mac but found I got permission errors with some files and so switched to MAMP.

Komodo Edit (free)

An open source web file editor I use to edit PHP, HTML and CSS files. You can use any text editor, but Komodo has syntax highlighting and many other useful features that make the experience easier and more enjoyable.

Cyberduck (free)

A simple FTP program I use to upload files directly to my web hosing account.

Keeping costs down

Running a successful business is a case of bringing in more money than you spend. For that reason I try and utilise free or inexpensive software and tools wherever I can.

When it comes to the Adobe packages though, because they’re the industry standard design tools, I can’t afford NOT to use them (although there are free alternatives to Adobe CS software).

What software and tools do you use from day-to-day that you would say are essential to the running of your own business? Leave a comment letting me know.

5 Replies

  • Good idea for a post Paul. There’s a few on there that I use too. WordPress, Mamp, the Adobe Suite etc are all obvious mentions for me.

    Any reason that you use Thunderbird over Mail? I’ve never ran into any problems with Apple’s Mail and I’ve never heard of Thunderbird. But then again, who doesn’t want to send their emails with a programme called Thunderbird? Do you sing “Thunderbirds are go” as you send it?

    I also use TextEdit every single day. No matter what I’m doing or where I am, there’s always a TextEdit document open in the background where I’m typing things down, taking notes, or saving web addresses for reference later.

  • Hi Tony,

    Someone else asked why I use Thunderbird over Mail and honestly, I don’t know. I’ve just always used Thunderbird, even when I was using a Windows PC, so I think it’s just force of habit. Maybe it’s the name as you mentioned. It reminds me of my childhood perhaps?

    Quite often I use a program called Bean, which is basically a rich text editor, for writing blog posts locally before I publish them. It has a fullscreen mode to prevent distractions which is nice. It runs super fast too.

  • Pingback: Going it alone

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *