Quick links: top tools
Whether you're taking your first steps in graphic design, or you're a seasoned pro looking to upgrade and expand your existing creative kit, this buying guide brings you the essential tools you need to work smarter and more creatively.
Remember, being a good designer isn't about having the latest hardware or software: ideas and execution are far more important than shiny new equipment. But it's worth investing in the best kit you can afford. Here are 12 must-have tools to get you started…
Microsoft Surface Book 2
The ultra-powerful laptop/tablet hybrid has a stunning screen
The original Surface Book remains an amazingly high-quality 2-in-1 laptop. Sleek, stylish and powerful, it boasts a thin, bright and responsive touchscreen display and an accordion-like hinge that's a masterpiece of industrial design. It's still an excellent choice for designers – and even more so now that it's cheaper, thanks to the release of the Surface Book 2.
However, if you have a bigger budget for a laptop, the new Surface Book 2 is even better. As well as a 13-inch option, there’s now a more designer-friendly 15-inch screen – both of which (like their predecessor) detach to become a slick Windows 10 tablet. This gives designers a uniquely flexible experience: Dell and HP counterparts don't yet offer fully detachable screens.
Microsoft also wins on the screen, too. Apple's Retina screens are crisp and stunning, but while you get 2560x1600 at 232ppi with a MacBook Pro, the Surface Book 2's PixelSense display gives 3240x2160 at 260ppi.
Importantly, apps like Illustrator can be used in Tablet Mode, making the Surface Book 2 the ultimate on-the-fly sketchbook – but it also handles demanding tasks, such as video editing and 3D, with ease. For $3,299/£2,500 you get a 1TB SSD, quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU running at up to 4.2GHz with Turbo Boost, 16GB of RAM and Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 graphics card with 6GB of VRAM.
iMac 21.5-inch Retina (2017)
The 21.5-inch Apple iMac is a superb mid-range all-in-one
Processor: 3.0GHz quad‑core Intel Core i5 | Display: 21.5-inch Retina 4K | Memory: 8GB of 2400MHz DDR4 onboard memory | Storage: 1TB (5400-rpm) hard drive | Graphics: Radeon Pro 555 with 2GB of VRAM | Ports: x4 USB 3 ports, x2 Thunderbolt 3 (USB‑C) ports
Macs might not be the de-facto choice for graphic designers anymore, but this 2017 refresh of Apple’s iconic all-in-one – with its updated CPU, Thunderbolt 3 connectivity and brighter display – is a powerful, fast and brilliant value midrange machine.
The 21.5-inch iMac comes in three versions. The basic option has a 2.3GHz processor; mid-range upgrades to a Retina 4K Display and 3.0GHz processor; while the highest tier cranks that up to 3.4GHz.
The screen is 43 per cent brighter than before, according to Apple, with wonderfully deep blacks. And if you want more screen real estate, two new Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports can drive an external 5K display at 60Hz with support for 1 billion colours, or two external 4K UHD displays at 60Hz with the same colour support.
The mid-priced 4K iMac comes with a Radeon Pro graphics card, great for tasks like video editing and 3D graphics. For 360 video editing or VR, you’ll need the 27-inch 5K iMac.
Or if you're feeling particularly flush (and flash), there's also the phenomenal new iMac Pro, which currently reins as Apple’s fastest and most powerful product ever. Given the price tag, though, it isn't an essential purchase for the average designer.
03. The right software for you (and your budget)
Adobe’s Creative Cloud is the industry standard for design professionals – the range and depth in its suite of tools is 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 regularly share a workflow with other designers, go for it. But if your work revolves purely around vector design and photo-editing/manipulation, it's not the only choice.
Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo are both excellent tools from Serif – even topping Photoshop and Illustrator in some areas – and cost around £50 each, outright, with free updates. Superb file compatibility means you can collaborate with Photoshop and Illustrator users too.
Corel Painter 2018 (£359.99) is also a worthy investment for artists looking to give their artwork a more authentic, painterly feel.
04. Reliable hard drive
Western Digital My Passport 4TB hard drive
Fast, portable and reliable backup storage for creatives
Capacity: 4TB | Interface: USB 3.0
Ever lost your project files because your computer failed or a creaking hard drive let you down? If so, you'll know how soul-destroying this can be. Our advice is to get a reliable, fast hard drive that you can quickly back up to – either manually, or using automated systems such as Mac OS's Time Machine.
There are plenty of great external hard drives and solid-state drives to choose from. Western Digital's My Passport series is packed with brilliant all-rounders, balancing transfer speed with storage capacity, and ranging from 1TB-4TB. Cloud storage comes as standard, along with WD's own backup software.
Solid state drives (SSDs) are still fairly expensive, but there are no moving parts so they’re less likely to fail. If you have the money, Samsung's T3 SSD is a super-fast option, offering read speeds of up to 450Mbps over USB Type-C.
05. Graphics tablet and stylus
iPad Pro and Apple Pencil
The Apple Pencil turns the iPad Pro into a top-notch drawing tablet
Wacom once held the monopoly on industry-standard graphics tablets, but the iPad Pro and excellent Apple Pencil are becoming an increasingly attractive combo for designers who can't justify splashing out on a dedicated drawing tool. Not only is the sketching experience first-class, the iPad Pro handles plenty of other tasks too.
This does depend on your practice, of course. And if a dedicated, high-end graphics tablet features on your personal list of 'essentials', then a Wacom Intuos, or higher-specced Wacom Mobile Studio Pro and Pro Pen 2 are an incredibly powerful duo, albeit incredibly expensive to match.
Compared to its predecessor, the Pro Pen 2 is four times more pressure-sensitive (8,192 levels of sensitivity, no less) and pin-point accurate, with natural tilt support. And with up to 16GB of RAM, NVIDIA Quadro graphics and up to 512GB of fast storage, the Mobile Studio Pro can handle even the most demanding 2D, 3D or CAD application.
If that kind of power is wasted on you, but you still want a dedicated graphics tablet, consider a far more affordable entry-level model like the Huion 1060Plus, which will set you back less than £100.
Also read: The best drawing and graphics tablets 2018
06. Quality sketchbook or notebook
Moleskine Ruled Cahier notebook
This three-pack comes in black, lined, squared and ruled options
Sometimes there's no substitute for putting pen to paper in your favourite sketchbook or notebooks. It's the staple of every designer – whether it’s for creating quick wireframes, doodles, or simply jotting down notes.
Designer-favourite Moleskine boasts a beautiful range of task-specific products, geared up for everything from sketching to storyboarding to planning and note-taking. Or invest in one of Field Notes' equally stylish range of checklists and memo books to stay on top of your to-do list in an refreshingly analogue way.
If you prefer to push the boat out, Wacom's range of smartpads bridge the gap between analogue and digital. The Wacom Bamboo, for instance, comes in A4 or A5 sizes and enables you to translate handwritten notes into Photoshop or Illustrator-compatible files.
07. Monitor calibrator
Datacolor Spyder5ELITE monitor calibrator
The best monitor calibrator for creative professionals
Settings: Unlimited | Laptop and desktop: Yes, plus front projector displays | Connector: USB
As a professional designer, it’s absolutely vital to ensure your colour workflow is as accurate as possible. The last thing you want is for your hard work to look completely different at output than it did during the design process. Calibrating your monitor isn’t hard, but it does require a specialist tool.
Our pick of the best monitor calibrators for professional use is the Datacolor Spyder5ELITE. After a simple five-minute initial setup process, it'll help ensure that your laptop and desktop screens are spot-on. Features include grey-balancing and room light monitoring to determine optimal monitor brightness, as well as a 'before and after' tool to see the results.
Calibrating your monitor is the only way to guarantee complete accuracy when moving from print to screen. If the £200 price tag for the Spyder5ELITE is too steep, for entry-level use the Datacolor Spyder5EXPRESS provides significantly pared-back functionality for less than half the price.
08. Pantone swatch book
Pantone Plus ColorBridge: Coated and Uncoated
The most cost-effective swatch book for nailing spot colours
If you’re doing a lot of print work, you’re likely to encounter spot-colours. The only way to get a truly accurate idea of how they're going to print is to invest in your own Pantone swatch books – but they don't come cheap.
There are almost 2,000 spot colours in the Pantone Plus range, so consider what you need them for before splashing out. The hardest colours to simulate on screen are neons and metallics. You can buy dedicated swatch books for these, or a five-part Pantone Plus Solid Guide Set that will cost you £288/$329.
For more versatile day-to-day use, the Pantone Plus Color Bridge Set presents the spectrum of spot-colours alongside their closest CMYK match – ideal where your client’s budget doesn’t stretch to a fifth colour for a certain job. Books of Pantone 'chips' are also available, which are great to pin to printers' proofs to ensure everyone's on the same page, colour-wise.
If you specialise in quality print and packaging work, and spot-colours are a significant part of your daily workflow, it may be worth investing in the full-blown Pantone Reference Library for your studio to have the entire range at your fingertips, complete with fetching display stand. But you'll be paying £1,179/$1,620 for the privilege, so make sure you really need it.
Next page: 4 more essential tools for designers