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9 must-have design tools for 2019

Is your toolkit all that it should be? A new year is a great opportunity to consider whether a particular device, software, tool or app could aid your career over the next 12 months. 

It's easy to get stuck in your ways, and assume there's only one way of doing things. But if you invest a little time in checking out the bewildering variety of software and hardware available for creatives right now, it can really pay off.

In this article, we'll help you out by drawing your attention to nine tools and services you might not be aware of, but which could potentially offer a huge boost to your creativity and productivity. 

Plus, apart from anything else, it's nice to have new things, right? You work hard, so you deserve to spend a little money on yourself.... particularly if it's going to help you earn more money in the longer term!

Woman using iPad as second monitor

Get a new perspective on your work by using your iPad as a second monitor

01. Luna Display

Turn your iPad into a second monitor

System requirements: Mac running MacOS 10.11 El Capitan (or later); iPad running iOS 9.1 (or later)
Supports: external keyboards, mice, and Apple Pencil
Warranty: limited 1-year warranty
Reasons to buy
+Cheap+Easy to set up
Reasons to avoid
-Not available in some countries-Not available for Windows

As humans, our vision is designed to be panoramic. Our evolutionary need to spot predators from a distance has programmed us to be happiest when we can scan a wide horizon. 

That's why as designers, the more we can see, the easier we find it to design and be creative. Not surprising then that ultrawide monitors are so popular right now.

But you don't necessarily have to spend a lot of money on a huge monitor to get extra screen real-estate. If you already have an iPad then you can connect that up wirelessly to act as a second screen, using a clever device called the Luna Display.

Available for Mini DisplayPort or USB-C, Luna sets up in seconds and instantly works with your existing Wi-Fi. It works with any modern iPad (iOS9.1+) and the app you need to operate it comes free. Note, though, that the Luna Display only currently ships to the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and the European Union. 

02. Abstract

Never ask "Is this the latest version?" again

System requirements: Sketch, web connection
Supports: External guests (Business plan only)
Pricing model: Monthly subscription
Free trial: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Keep track of files+Roll back to older version
Reasons to avoid
-Only works with Sketch-No good for Windows users

How many times have you experienced a situation like that brilliantly parodied in the video above, where your team has worked on so many different versions of a design that no one has a clue which version is the latest one, least of all you?

It's a problem that has long bedevilled web designers, leading to the rise of what's known as version control systems, which keep track of everything for you. But you had to really be a coder to work out how to use any of them. 

Now, though, this kind of solution is available for graphic designers working in Sketch, and it's easy and straightforward for any non-techie to use.

Abstract offers a system for teams of designers working in Sketch to keep track of all their assets, and allows you to roll back to earlier versions if needed. So you'll never again be bedevilled by confusing filenames like design.sketch, design2.sketch, .designfinal.sketch and designfinalfinal.sketch. Daniel Schwartz outlines exactly how it works in this article.

Logitech Craft Wireless Bluetooth Keyboard

This keyboard's special dial helps make Photoshop, Illustrator and other Adobe tools more responsive and easier to use

03. Logitech Craft

A specially designed keyboard for using Adobe apps

System requirements: Windows 7 or Mac OS 10.11; available USB port required
Supports: Word, PowerPoint, Excel 2010, 2013 and 2016 - Windows only; Photoshop, Lightroom Classic, Illustrator, Premiere Pro CC 2017+ – Windows and Mac; Adobe Reader DC, VLC Media Player - Windows; Preview, Quicktime, Safari® - Mac
Weight: 960g
Dimensions: 3.2 x 24 x 14.9cm
Reasons to buy
+Multi-purpose control dial+Light responsive backlight
Reasons to avoid
-Doesn't work with all software-Not cheap

When you think about it, it's kind of ironic. We spend our whole time trying to come up with designs that are more responsive, user-friendly, faster and more useful to society. And yet the main tool we use for this - the keyboard - is essentially a glorified typewriter that's rarely ever improved upon for the task in hand.

The Logitech Craft, then, is a very rare thing: a keyboard designed purposely for use by creatives. Specifically, its aim is to make it easier for artists, illustrators and designers to work with Adobe apps such as Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and Premiere pro. 

Its main innovation is a multi-function dial, which enables you to control parameters in these tools and others (Microsoft Office, for example). So it makes adjusting brightness in Photoshop, changing stroke weight in Illustrator, editing images in Lightroom, and countless other fiddly little tasks much less cumbersome than using a traditional keyboard. 

Photo of dancer being edited on iPad

You can't use the full version of Photoshop on an iPad, but you can use Affinity's similarly-powered rival

04. Affinity Photo for iPad

Full-blooded photo editing on your tablet

System requirements: iPad Air 2, iPad 2017, iPad 2018, iPad Pro 9.7-inch, 10.5-inch and 12.9-inch
Pricing model: One-off payment
Free trial: No
Reasons to buy
+Very powerful+Low price
Reasons to avoid
-Small learning curve for Adobe users

Do a lot of travelling? Fancy using a full-blooded photo editing and graphic design tool on your tablet? While most iPad versions of design tools are stripped down versions of the full software, Affinity Photo for iPad offers the full range of features found in its desktop cousin. 

Fully optimised for Apple's tablet, Affinity Photo for iPad is capable of supporting huge multi-artboard canvases with thousands of layers and can zoom to over one million per cent. You can check out our full review of it here.

Possibly in response, Adobe announced at its Adobe Max conference this October that it would soon be bringing out a full version of Photoshop to the iPad. But while we wait for that, Affinity Photo for iPad is currently the most powerful app available for doing photo editing and graphic design work on a tablet.

Cartoon animal on holographic display

See your 3D models in actual 3D: no glasses or headset needed!

05. The Looking Glass (standard version)

Holographic display for 3D artists

System requirements: Windows PC (Nvidia graphics card recommended) or a Macbook Pro, each with at least one USB 3.0 port and HDMI port
Includes: HoloPlay SDK for Unity, App Library
Optional add-on: Interaction Accessory Pack ($99); includes Leap Motion Controller, special carrying case, microfibre cloth
Connections: USB-C power cable, HDMI cable
Weight: 2.2kg
Dimensions: 20.9 X 9.3 X 15.4cm
Reasons to buy
+Serious wow factor+Many apps available
Reasons to avoid
-Hardly essential-Expensive

We're still pinching ourselves, as well as checking the date isn't April the First. But in fact, this is absolutely real: a holographic display on which 3D artists can see their designs in 3D, without the need for a headset or glasses. And at the time of writing, the price has been slashed to just $499!

The Looking Glass works using a sophisticated combination of lightfield and volumetric display technologies within a single three-dimensional display system. Forty-five unique simultaneous views of a virtual scene are captured on a computer at 60 frames per second. 

These multiple views are encoded into a video signal that's sent via HDMI to the Looking Glass, which decodes the video signal into a full-colour three-dimensional scene. As you move around the display, your eyes are exposed to different sets of 3D information, creating a life-like, 3D experience for groups of people.

Okay, so technically it's not a hologram: strictly speaking it's a lightfield display with volumetric characteristics. But to all practical purposes, it's the closest we've come to a Star Wars-style moving hologram, and if you want to wow your visiting clients, we'd suggest this will do the trick better than anything else on the market.

PDFShift homepage screengrab

PDFShift does one thing and does it well

06. PDFShift

Convert web pages to PDFs easily

System requirements: Web browser
Pricing model: Subscription
Free plan: Yes (up to 250 conversions per month)
Reasons to buy
+Easy to use+Free version
Reasons to avoid
-Only does one thing-Costs can add up

Some of the most useful design tools you'll ever find are the ones that do one thing, but do it well. And here's a great example. 

PDFShift is a browser-based tool that converts a web page into a PDF, quickly and simply. If you've ever tried doing that the long way round, you'll realise it's an enormous pain in the backside. So if you have to do this task a lot, paying the subscription will save you an enormous amount of time and expense. 

On the other hand, if this is a task you only have to do occasionally, then great news: this handy little app is available free for up to 250 conversions per month. Plus you can even get more free conversions by, for example, promoting the tool in a tweet.

You can also customise your PDF, for example by adding a header, footer or watermark, plus there's a sandbox version for testing. All in all, this tool solves a common problem brilliantly and effectively.

Creative card

These cards could be the creative catalyst you need

07. A Few Minutes of Design: 52 activities to spark your creativity

52 cards with ideas to get your motor running

Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
Author: Emily Campbell
Dimensions: 10.8 x 3.2 x 15.6cm
ISBN-10: 1616897422
ISBN-13: 978-1616897420
Reasons to buy
+Exercises are short and fun+Cards are beautifully designed
Reasons to avoid
-Can't "make you" more creative-You only get out what you put in

When we think about how tools can help us become better designers, we often think in terms of functionality and productivity. But what about creativity itself? We are creatives, after all; so what can help us out in that department?

A Few Minutes of Design: 52 activities to spark your creativity is a colourful set of cards created by Emily Campbell that aim to stimulate your imagination and fire up your creative mojo. Each contains a (deceptively simple) task designed to free you from creative block, help start a new project or finish an existing one. 

Each should take about 15 minutes, and could be a great way to start your working day and get your creative juices flowing.  Pentagram partner Michael Beirut described this set of cards as “a marvellous invitation to anyone with an interest in creativity, invention, and design”, and we're inclined to agree.  

Vectary homepage

You don't need to be a trained 3D artist to create 3D models with Vectary

08. Vectary

Like Google Docs for 3D design

System requirements: WebGL-enabled browser (eg Chrome, Firefox); laptop or desktop computer with mouse (recommended) or touchpad
Pricing model: Subscription
Free plan: Yes (up to 10 projects)
Reasons to buy
+Easy to use+Free plan
Reasons to avoid
-You can't animate characters  -Only basic UV mapping at present

More and more designers are getting into 3D nowadays, but you don't have to fully retrain as a 3D artist to dip your toe in the water. 

Vectary is a browser-based tool that allows you to create 3D models, simply by using their editable templates and dragging and dropping from a library of objects.

Your creations are saved to the cloud, and it's easy for teams to create models and scenes collaboratively via the web, hence the tool has been dubbed 'Google Docs for 3D design'. 

Vectary is not just aimed at 3D amateurs, though; it's also useful for more experienced artists wishing make more sophisticated models. As well as its drag and drop mode, there's an edit mode in which you can edit the geometry of an asset or build a whole scene from scratch, depending on your skill level.

Cartoon of man using laptop

Find out how much time you're really spending on design tasks

09. Timely

The easy way to track your time on a project

System requirements: Web browser; works with Android, Mac, Windows, iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch
Pricing model: Monthly or annual subscription
Free trial: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Easy setup+Automatic tagging
Reasons to avoid
-Requires internet access to work-Not free

If you're serious about improving your productivity in 2019, you really need to start measuring how much time you're actually spending on different tasks. Only then will you have a true picture of what areas you need to work on (and perhaps, what distractions you need to minimise), to become a more productive designer overall.

There are many time tracking apps available, but right now Timely is our clear favourite. It works in the background - because the last thing you want to do is waste time operating it - and even applies project tags automatically, which you can of course customise later.

All your tracked data is kept in a secure, private timeline only you can see. And best of all, Timely gives useful reports about the way you conduct your work in practice, and makes sensible suggestions about how to increase your profitability, productivity and efficiency as a result. 

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Tom May

Tom May is a freelance writer and editor specialising in design, photography and tech. He is author of Great TED Talks: Creativity, published by Pavilion Books. He has previously been editor of Professional Photography magazine, associate editor at Creative Bloq, and deputy editor at net magazine.