How to run a design business with just an iPad

How to run a design business with just an iPad

The design industry has changed a lot since computers came along to make life easier for everyone. Back in the day a studio was a necessity; you needed a physical space in which to draw, create and bounce ideas off colleagues. But nowadays the computer fulfils all of these needs, and it's entirely possible to work remotely with just a desktop or laptop machine.

Do you even need a traditional computer, though? Could you run a design business using just an iPad? It would definitely be possible with a Microsoft Surface Pro, as that's a full Windows 10 machine that'll run all the creative apps you need – albeit with less power than you'd get from a full fat desktop. An iPad as the hub of your creative business is a bit more of a challenging prospect, but depending on the nature of your work it's definitely doable. Here's what you'll need.

The hardware

How to run a design business with just an iPad: iPad Pro

An iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard and Apple Pencil makes for an excellent go-anywhere setup

Naturally you'll need an iPad, and if you're going to be relying on it as your all-in-one work machine then you'll need to do things properly and opt for an iPad Pro with all the extra options you can afford. If you go the whole hog and plump for the 12.9-inch model you'll be getting plenty of screen real estate, and with a 4G model rather than wifi then you'll truly be able to work wherever you want. With up to 1TB of storage available you shouldn't run out of space, and multi-tasking means you can easily switch between those high-end iPad Pro apps (opens in new tab) and the best drawing apps for iPad (opens in new tab)

You're almost certainly going to need an Apple Pencil and Smart Keyboard, too; they'll make the difference between having a desirable tablet and a proper work machine. We've rhapsodised about the Apple Pencil plenty of times in the past, and it really does live up to the hype, and as for the keyboard, it's a must-have if you need to do a lot of typing. Typing on-screen works just fine in short stretches, but if you're facing a day of admin (it happens to us all sooner or later) then an actual physical keyboard will make things a lot easier.

How to run a design business with just an iPad: iPad Air

The new 10.5-inch iPad Air is an ideal budget alternative

If you can't stretch to an iPad Pro, all is not quite lost; the new 10.5-inch iPad Air supports the first-gen Apple Pencil (although its 60Hz rather than 120Hz display makes the experience a little less fluid) and Smart Keyboard. It doesn't quite have the power of a full-on Pro, but it's close enough if you're on a budget.

And whatever model you opt for, don't overlook vital iPad accessories (opens in new tab) like a case or cover; if you're relying on it for your business, it's wise to invest in a little protection in case of accidents.

Creative apps

How to run a design business with just an iPad: Affinity Designer

Affinity Designer gives Illustrator more than a run for its money

The real sticking point when it comes to the iPad ecosystem is that you can't get the full Adobe Creative Cloud apps for it; if you're absolutely wedded to Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign and the rest then you're stuck with a PC or Mac, or perhaps you could try the Surface Pro. 

The good news is that Photoshop CC is coming to the iPad (opens in new tab) at some point, and it'll be the full Photoshop experience, not a cut-down version like Illustrator Draw; when that arrives it could change everything, and if Adobe could follow up with the rest of everyone's go-to CC apps then that would be lovely.

For now, though, you'll have to do your best with what's available, and there's a very good selection of iPad apps for designers (opens in new tab) available to fill the Adobe CC gap. Serif's Affinity Photo (opens in new tab) and Designer (opens in new tab) can comfortably stand in for Photoshop and Illustrator, and at a fraction of the price. 

How to run a design business with just an iPad: Procreate

Procreate's an unmissable creative app, even more so now that it has typography tools

For artists and illustrators there's only one choice: Procreate (opens in new tab). Designed with creative professionals in mind, it gives you 64-bit colour and all the tools, effects and blends you need, and on the iPad Pro it'll let you work on canvases up to 16k by 4k in size. As of the latest version it features proper typography tools as well, and it'll even export as a PSD; do you really need to wait for Photoshop CC (opens in new tab)?

Business apps

How to run a design business with just an iPad: Numbers

iWork Numbers makes spreadsheets fun! Well, as close to fun as you get with spreadsheets

You may well have the creative side sorted, but there's more to running a creative business than that. Fact is, you're going to need to take care of the business side too; that admin won't do itself and those clients will still need chasing up for payment.

Thankfully the iPad is well catered-for when it comes to the sort of productivity apps you'll need. Apple Mail and Calendar come as standard, and Apple thoughtfully gives you its iWork (opens in new tab) suite for free with your iPad; that's Pages for word processing, Numbers for spreadsheets, and Keynote for presentations.

Alternatively, if you're already using Google's productivity apps (opens in new tab), you can carry on using them on iPad, with the added benefit that you can make use of all the collaboration features. And as a third option there's Microsoft's Office apps (opens in new tab); you'll need to sign up for Office 365 and install OneDrive, and then you'll be able to run Word, Excel and PowerPoint on your iPad.

Any of these setups will cover most of the business bases; however when it comes to the question of managing your finances you'll need to look a little further afield. Intuit's Quickbooks (opens in new tab) has two versions of its accounting software for iPad; there's one for the self-employed to help track receipts and expenses, send invoices and calculate your tax return, and a more heavyweight app for small businesses that also tracks sales, calculates VAT and generates financial reports to help you see how your business is performing.

How to run a design business with just an iPad: Quickbooks

For the boring financial side of things, Quickbooks will help you get those figures in order

While they're not strictly business apps, it's useful to have a selection of communications apps for those inevitable tele- and videoconferences. You can guarantee that various clients will prefer to use different systems, so if in addition to FaceTime you have Skype (opens in new tab), Zoom (opens in new tab) and Google Hangouts (opens in new tab) installed and set up, you'll be ready to jump in on most online meetings.

One last thing: for peace of mind you'll need to get some cloud storage set up. If anything happens to your iPad, if you have a good online backup in place you can at least be sure that you haven't lost any vital work. Many cloud storage providers have their own iPad apps; read our guide to the best cloud storage (opens in new tab) for designers to find out more.

Is it for you?

How to run a design business with just an iPad: Conclusion

Why not get ahead of the game?

Everyone prefers to work in their own way; some depend on the security of a studio setup and having all the right kit in place, others are more free-wheeling and enjoy the freedom to work however and wherever they want. With the right systems in place it's clearly possible to run a design business with just an iPad, even if it means having to compromise a little on the tools you get to use, and as things move forward you'll have to compromise less.

Nothing lasts forever, and the current studio setup may eventually seem as anachronistic as drawing boards and spray mount; why not get ahead of the game?

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Jim McCauley

Jim McCauley is a writer, performer and cat-wrangler who started writing professionally way back in 1995 on PC Format magazine, and has been covering technology-related subjects ever since, whether it's hardware, software or videogames. A chance call in 2005 led to Jim taking charge of Computer Arts' website and developing an interest in the world of graphic design, and eventually led to a move over to the freshly-launched Creative Bloq in 2012. Jim now works as a freelance writer for sites including Creative Bloq, T3 and PetsRadar, specialising in design, technology, wellness and cats, while doing the occasional pantomime and street performance in Bath and designing posters for a local drama group on the side.