11 tools every graphic designer should have in 2017

If you're just getting into graphic design, or think you want to be a graphic designer, here's what you need to invest in. You may not need the latest hardware or software – ideas and execution are far more important than the latest equipment – but it's worth investing in the best kit you can afford!

Here are 11 must-have tools to get you started...

01.  iMac/MacBook or Surface Studio/Book 

Whilst Macs have traditionally been the choice of graphic designers, Microsoft's Surface looks to be a true artists’ tool

Of course you’ll need a decent computer that’s capable of running your software at the same pace as your brain. Whilst Macs have traditionally been the choice of graphic designers, the landscape is changing at a pace.

Sure, the new MacBook Pro Touch Bar with a 4K screen from say, LG, is a fantastic set up, but put it against Microsoft’s revolutionary Surface Studio and you have a few questions to ask yourself. Why? Because the Surface Studio looks to be a true artists’ tool – it can be used in regular desktop mode or laid flat so you can design directly on the touchscreen. It’s not available quite yet, but when it is the 28-inch touchscreen desktop could be well worth a look – even if it’s likely to cost over £2,500.

And then there’s the Surface Book; an ultra-powerful laptop/tablet hybrid more than capable of running Creative Cloud apps. Microsoft has really upped its game in the creative space whilst Apple has arguably focused on the consumer a lot more. It could be an exciting time of transition – and maybe you should be at the forefront of it?

02. The right software for you (and your budget) 

Adobe’s Creative Cloud is the industry standard for design professionals

Adobe’s Creative Cloud is the industry standard for design professionals, the range and depth in its suite of tools unrivalled by any other company. But it comes at a cost. As an individual designer, prices for the entire suite start at £50 per month if paid annually or nearly £80 per month if paid on a monthly basis. It’s a lot of cash. Still, you get Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, After Effects and loads more. If you’re looking to be truly multi-disciplined and are confident of the work rolling in then it’s the way to go. 

But if your work revolves purely around vector design (illustration, logos and so on) and photo-editing/manipulation, there’s another option you could plump for. Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo are both excellent tools from Serif – believe us, they even top Photoshop and Illustrator in some areas – and they only cost around £50 each. No monthly subscription and free updates. What’s more, superb file compatibility means you can work with others using Photoshop or Illustrator with very few problems.

03. Wacom tablet/interactive pen display 

A Wacom tablet is critical for design and illustration work

Using a mouse is just not natural – when you learn to write and draw at school you don’t just move a pencil around with your wrist, do you? A Wacom tablet (Intuos) or more expensive Interactive Pen Display (Cintiq) is therefore critical for design and illustration work. 

You’ll get pressure-sensitivity in Photoshop, Illustrator and the like, but more importantly you’ll be creating in a more intuitive, natural way. Plus there’s health benefits – using a stylus rather than a mouse is proven to reduce RSI. 

04. Pantone Reference Library 

The only way you can really get an accurate idea of how your special colour will print is to invest in a Pantone Reference Library

If you’re doing a lot of print work, you’re likely to be asked to use (or want to use) a fifth colour at some point. The only way you can really get an accurate idea of how your special colour will print is to invest in a Pantone Reference Library – a series of swatch books and folders containing chips that show you a printed representation of each colour. So not only will it show you how the colour you select in say, Illustrator or InDesign, will print, but it will also enable you to tear a swatch out and pin it to your proof for the printers – so everyone’s clear on what colour you need.  

There are also swatch books that enable you to match a fifth colour to a CMYK value – perfect for situations where your client’s budget doesn’t stretch to a fifth colour for a certain job.

The Pantone Reference Library isn’t cheap, however: It’ll cost you over $1,400. That's for all 14 books plus a storage and display stand, though – you can buy books individually if you just need, for example, a metallic colour guide. And you can always add the individual cost of a book to a particular job if needed.

05. Top-end smartphone 

The iPhone has long been the choice for designers

OK, so you may not need a top-end smartphone for your daily design work, but when dealing with clients, replying to emails and viewing images and soft proofs on the go, you want a smartphone that’s easy to use, sports a vibrant, large screen and has the power to do everything you need it to do at once. 

Of course, the iPhone has long been the choice for designers – mainly thanks to its integration with Mac OS. And whilst the 7 Plus is a cracking phone, there are other options. The Google Pixel XL is lightning fast and offers a completely native Android experience – with no ugly add-ons or skin. And Samsung’s S7 Edge is a beautiful piece of design (soon to be superseded by the S8, so look out for that). 

All of these are stellar devices, and you can even run cut-down versions of Photoshop and Lightroom on them. Oh, and of course all have great cameras for shooting on-the-fly reference material. 

Next page: six more essential graphic design tools...