Are there one or two productivity tools that can help you get the routine and boring parts of your job done more quickly, and allow you more time to spend on the creative, imaginative and fun sides? At the dawn of a new year, it's an important question to ask, and if you're honest with yourself, the answer will very probably be yes.
Of course, we know it’s a tough ask to spend your hard-earned money on paid-for tools, especially when there are free alternatives available on the web. But think about that phrase "hard-earned". If the best productivity tools make your money easier to earn, aren't they worth the investment... and then some?
We recently found some of the best web design tools to help you work smarter in 2020. In this post we round up some of the best productivity tools for creatives, and explain what they do, who they're aimed at, and how they can help you in your creative work.
Collaboration tool for creative projects
If you’re seeking productivity tools for a creative collaboration, then your first stop should be Trello. Available across web, iOS and Android, it’s a great tool for keeping everything on track, in a delightfully visual and frictionless way.
Trello is basically a to-do list that you share with others and update in real time, so everyone on your team knows what’s going on at any given moment. Based on a system of cards, which are essentially like virtual Post-it notes, the system is very flexible and easy to adapt to however your project is structured. It lacks some of the advanced features of a fully featured project management tool, such as time management and reporting. But that said, its beauty lies in its simplicity and we’re not sure we’d want its interface to become too overcomplicated.
Trello has been widely adopted across the graphic and web design professions, so your collaborators stand a good chance of being familiar with it already. But if not, it’s very intuitive and easy to use anyhow. Best of all, Trello is free for most purposes, and you’d only need to graduate to the paid-for versions for large-scale enterprise use.
02. 16-inch MacBook Pro
A powerful laptop for intensive creative work
Display: 16-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit Retina display | Processor: 2.6GHz 6-core 9th-generation Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz or 2.3GHz 8-core 9th-generation Intel Core i9 processor with Turbo Boost up to 4.8GHz | Battery life: Up to 11 hours wireless web battery life | Storage: 512GB or 1TB SSD | Weight: 2.0 kg (4.3 pounds)
Over the last three decades, Apple’s launched a lot of laptops and had as many misses as hits. So we’re pleased to report that its latest offering, the MacBook Pro 16-inch, is a real winner. With a larger screen, double the storage, a higher-resolution display, a better keyboard and generous battery life, it’s an all-round excellent performer that will handle multiple tasks smoothly and efficiently. In short, it's the perfect laptop for busy creative professionals, especially those who do a lot of processor-intensive work like animation and 3D modelling.
As ever with Apple, it’s not cheap. But if your current machine crashes and slows down a lot, then consider how much more creative work it might help you get done in a typical day, and how much money you could earn as a result.
There's only real downside we could find with this model: it features only four Thunderbolt ports, so for devices with a USB connection you’ll need an adaptor. For full details, read our review of the MacBook Pro 16-inch.
03. Adobe Creative Cloud
Industry-standard creative software, all in one giant ecosystem
The Adobe Creative Cloud is a subscription service providing a full suite of desktop apps, mobile apps and services from Adobe. The best known of these are Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, After Effects, Photoshop Lightroom and Premiere Pro, but there are plenty more you may not have heard of, such as notably Prelude (video logging), Flash Builder (app building) and Story Plus (screenwriting). Note though, each tool needs to be separately downloaded to each Windows or Mac OS device you use it on: despite the ‘Cloud’ name, this is not browser-based software in the Figma or Google Docs sense.
Your subscription also gets you access to typefaces via TypeKit; cloud storage for your projects; Adobe Portfolio, a tool for building your portfolio; and stock images, videos and templates with Adobe Stock. While there are some decent alternatives to Photoshop and other Adobe apps these days, there’s quite simply nothing to rival the Creative Cloud ecosystem, and as the industry standard it’s a no-brainer for most professional graphic and web designers, not to mention photographers, digital artists and illustrators, and increasingly, 3D artists and animators.
Having to pay a monthly subscription might put you off, but the productivity benefits of having access to the entire CC ecosystem cannot be understated. To take one example, Adobe Stock allows you to find, try out and licence stock images directly within apps like Photoshop, which can save you an awful lot of time and effort. Check out the latest Creative Cloud deals to help you save some money as well.
04. Apple Pencil
First-class stylus for natural, lag-free drawing on the iPad
Length: 166 mm (6.53 inches) | Diameter: 8.9 mm (0.35 inches) | Weight: 20.7 grams (0.73 ounces) | Compatibility: Apple Pencil: iPad Pro 10.5-inch, iPad (6th Generation), iPad Pro 12.9-inch (2nd Generation), iPad Pro 12.9-inch (1st Generation), iPad Pro 9.7-inch; Apple Pencil 2: iPad Pro 11-inch, iPad Pro 12.9-inch 3rd generation
Are you struggling with an old-school stylus that suffers from a lot of lag? Then you'll likely get a huge productivity boost by investing in a newer model, and if you're an iPad user, we'd highly recommend the Apple Pencil for its accuracy, speed and precision. In short, it's the best experience we've had drawing on the IPad, and the closest to using a real pencil on real paper. It looks pretty darned stylish too.
There are actually two versions of the Apple Pencil available today: the first generation model, originally released in 2015, and the Apple Pencil 2, released in late 2018. Both offer the same level of performance, but the later version justifies its slightly higher cost because of its nicer feel in the hand, its flat edge (which keeps it from rolling away when put to one side), the ability to double-tap said edge for extra functionality, and the way you can attach it magnetically to the side of an iPad Pro. (For a full rundown of the differences, see our article Apple Pencil vs Apple Pencil 2.)
05. Wacom Cintiq 22 HD
Superior drawing tablet at a surprisingly low price
Display: 21.5-inch display with anti-glare film | Resolution: 1920 x 1080 (Full HD) | Colour gamut: 72% NTSC | Size: 650 x 400 x 55 mm (25.6 x 15.7 x 2.2 in) | Weight: 8.5 kg with stand (18.8 lbs)
If you've been struggling on a low-powered tablet, then here's some great news. Although Wacom has long led the market in high quality, responsive and powerful drawing tablets, they've also been very expensive... until now, that is.
The Cintiq 22 offers a device that's cheaper than similar predecessors, and yet still provides all that a digital artist or graphic designer needs to create high quality, professional work: a large, anti-glare and full HD screen, a capable, pressure-sensitive stylus, a flexible stand to set up the perfect drawing angle, and the reliable performance you'd expect from a Wacom.
The main downside of this model is the colour gamut, which at 72 per cent is a little limited, but overall the Cintiq 22 offers outstanding value. Okay, it's still not the cheapest drawing tablet on the market, but for any professional creative it's going to be worth the investment over time, enabling you to work faster and more accurately, and just generally making your work more enjoyable. For more details, check out our Wacom Cintiq 22 review.
06. Moleskine 2020 12-Month Daily Diary
Get organised for the year ahead with this super-stylish diary
There are many great apps to keep track of our daily activities, but at the end of the day there's nothing nicer than the feel (and smell) of a new, physical diary. And if you want elegance, style and quality, then there's really nowhere else to go but Moleskine.
The Italian notebook brand is beloved by creatives around the world for its superior quality and attention to detail, and this large softcover daily diary is no exception. Featuring a new page for each day, ruled for notes and appointments, it also includes a ribbon bookmark, an elastic closure, and three sheets of organisational stickers. Quite simply, it's a gorgeous piece of design that won't just make you more productive, it will make you want to be more productive.
07. Surface Pro 7
Use full WIndows 10 software on the move with this smart tablet
Display: 12.3” PixelSense Display | Resolution: 2736 x 1824 | Memory: 4GB, 8GB, or 16GB LPDDR4x RAM | Size: 292 x 201 x 8.5 mm (11.5 x 7.9 x 0.33in) | Battery life: Up to 10.5 hours
The Surface Pro 7 is a tablet that’s powerful enough to run full Windows 10 programs, while remaining sleek and light. It also doubles up as a laptop with the separately sold keyboard. Using Intel’s latest 10th generation processors, the Pro 7 is a step up from previous models in terms of performance, and the more expensive model does a great job at handling graphic-intensive tasks, such as video rendering.
While this device is still no match for the performance of a powerful Windows desktop, it does offer a superbly flexible way to stay up to date on the move, for anyone who needs to run full Windows 10 tools like Photoshop and Illustrator, rather than lower-powered Android or iOS alternatives.
Excellent digital painting app for iPhone and iPad
Want to do some digital painting while you're away from your desk? Then you need to check out Procreate, a raster graphics editor app for digital painting for iPhone and iPad. Closely replicating the feel of physical drawing in a digital format, it supports a range of styluses, including the Apple Pencil, along with hundreds of high quality brushes and a suite of innovative features. In short, everything you need to create sketches, paintings, illustrations and animations while you're out and about. And if you want to analyse your process and improve it, there's a very handy feature that lets you make recordings of every single brushstroke.
09. Derwent Graphic Medium pencils
The perfect pencils for sketching
Prefer the physical approach to sketching to the digital? Then you'll need a quality set of pencils, and we'd highly recommend these graphite drawing pencils from Derwent. Sold individually and in sets, they make smooth, easy lines on the paper and are ideal for both fine detailed illustrations or adding shading and texture. Crucially, they're also easy to sharpen and break-resistant, helping to smooth and speed your workflow while sketching.
Brilliant time- and expense-tracker
If you're a freelancer, then you may find that keeping track of how you spend your hours, and charging for it accordingly, is taking up an unreasonable amount of time and energy. In which case, we'd recommend introducing an element of automation by using Harvest, a time and expense tracker that includes tools for invoicing, expensing and team management.
Available for Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and browser, it's easy to use, integrates with many similar apps, such as Quickbooks Online, and there's a free plan to get you started, although you'll probably need to upgrade to the subscription version once you get going. If using Harvest means your clients pay you faster, though, it's going to be well worth it.