This buying guide brings you the essential graphic design tools you need to work smarter and more creatively this January. 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, we’ve got you covered.
Graphic design tools
Jump straight to the section you want with these quick links:
- Laptop or desktop
- Monitor calibrator
- Reliable hard drive/SSD
- Graphics tablet and stylus
- Top-end smartphone
- Studio camera
- High-res monitor
- Creative software
- Quality sketchpad or notebook
- Pantone swatch book
- Office desk
- Ergonomic chair
Of course, being a good designer isn't about having the latest hardware or software (see our best free graphic design software post if you're on the hunt though): ideas and execution are far more important than shiny new equipment. But it's always worth investing in the best kit you can afford.
We've split the products here into four sections: hardware (covering everything from workstations to extra storage); creative software; creative tools (think sketchpads and Pantone books); and home office items. You'll find our list of essential graphic design books elsewhere on the site.
Here are 12 must-have graphic design tools to get you started…
MacBook Pro With Touch Bar (2018)
The latest MacBook Pro, now with Vega graphics
Processor: Intel Core i7-i9 | Graphics: Radeon Pro 555X-Radeon Pro 560 with 4GB of GDDR5 memory | Screen: 15-inch 1920x1200 IPS display | Storage: 256-4TB SSD | Memory: 16-32GB RAM | Ports: 4 x Thunderbolt 3, 1 x headphone jack | Dimensions: Starting at 349(w) x 240(d) x 15.5(h)mm | Weight: 1.83kg
Apple's latest MacBook Pro refresh might be pricey, but there's no denying this is the closest that creative professionals can currently get to laptop heaven.
Apple dropped eight-generation Coffee Lake processors into its most recent MacBook Pro with Touch Bar models, and now includes up to 32GB of DDR4 RAM in the 15-inch models. And if money is no object, the new availability of optional Radeon Pro Vega 16 and 20 graphics cards on the high-end 15-inch models ensures that designers with souped-up performance needs are also catered for, handling demanding tasks, such as video editing and 3D, with ease.
Other than that, Apple has packed in super-fast SSDs and a more robust keyboard, and yet the laptop manages to remain thinner and lighter than Microsoft's Surface Book 2. Just remember that you've only got four USB-C ports to play with, so you'll need a decent dock or adapter if you want to plug in an Ethernet cable or legacy hardware.
Also read: The best laptops for graphic design
Microsoft Surface Studio 2
A great Windows PC for graphic design
CPU: Intel Core i7 | Graphics: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060-1070 | RAM: 16GB-32GB | Storage: 1TB or 2TB SSD
When the Surface Studio came out two years ago, its huge 28-inch touchscreen pivoting display took all the plaudits, and rightfully so. Its inspired design allowed creatives to lay it almost flat like an easel and draw on it with the Surface Pen. The only problem was that Microsoft was offering a desktop-class workstation powered by underwhelming laptop-class internals.
That's no longer the case, thanks to the arrival of the Surface Studio 2, which keeps the best bits of the original model and improves upon it by significantly upgrading the internal specifications. The Studio 2 features a more powerful processor and faster graphics, while the hybrid hard drive has been replaced with proper solid-state storage. Unfortunately that makes it pricier than ever, but digital artists are still unlikely to find a better suited creative workspace.
Also read: The best desktops for graphic design
03. Monitor calibrator
X-Rite i1 Display PRO
A top calibrator for professionals
Settings: Unlimited | Laptop and desktop: Yes, plus projectors | Connector: USB
If you're looking for the calibrator with the most options, the X-Rite i1 Display PRO can't be beat. It enables you to use your custom profiles on several displays, either on the same computer or the same network. It will even analyse the ambient light in your work environment so you can set up your monitor for optimal results.
Elsewhere, X-Rite's Flare Correct technology is able to measure and adjust display profiles for reduct contrast ratios caused by screen glare, while video editors can benefit from the included video colour standards. It's an expensive bit of kit, but the extra pounds go far.
Also read: The best monitor calibrators for creatives
04. Reliable hard drive
LaCie Porsche Design External Hard Drive (4TB)
Offers both USB-C and USB 3.0 connectivity
Capacity: 4TB | Interface: USB 3.0 and USB-C
If you've ever suffered the torment of losing work because your computer died or your hard drive went kaput, then you'll know the importance of backing up, either manually or using automated solutions like Time Machine in macOS.
There are plenty of great external hard drives and solid-state drives that will do the job for you, but not all of them have the sort of future-proof connectivity as LaCie's Porsche Design Mobile drive. It boasts a USB-C port for connecting to the latest computers, and also includes a USB-C to USB 3.0 adaptor cable in the box for backwards compatibility.
With fast 5 GB/s transfer speeds, the LaCie can perform fully encrypted backups in super-quick time. Measuring in at 84mm × 128mm × 21mm and weighing 315 grams, the sleek all-aluminium enclosure is also highly portable, so you can take up to 4TB of data with you.
05. Graphics tablet and stylus
iPad Pro and Apple Pencil (2018)
A new breed of creative tablet
CPU: A12X Bionic | RAM: 6GB | Screen: 11-inch 1668 x 2338 | Storage: 64GB - 1TB | Ports: 1x USB-C | Size: 247.6 x 178.5 x 5.9mm | Weight: 468g
Wacom once held the monopoly on industry-standard graphics tablets, but the iPad Pro and Apple Pencil have quickly become the go-to tools for designers who can't justify splashing out on a dedicated drawing hardware. Not only is the sketching experience first-class, the iPad Pro handles plenty of other tasks too.
Apple's latest 11-inch and 12.9-inch iPad Pro models have adopted the signature slim-bezel design of the company's flagship smartphones, with stunning results. Both tablets feature crisp edge-to-edge displays twinned with an integrated TrueDepth camera, enabling Face ID authentication in lieu of a home button (plus there's no notch).
But that's not all. Thanks to Apple's A12X Bionic processor, these models are also blazingly fast, able to reach speeds that would leave many PCs behind. Additionally, Apple has had the foresight to replace the Lightning Port with USB-C, which opens the device to a world of creative connectivity, including 4K/5K displays, cameras, and more.
Pair it with the new Apple Pencil, which is smaller and lighter than the original, and you have a perfect marriage. Apple has dropped the Lightning connector in favour a magnetic function, so the Pencil now snaps smartly onto the top of a new iPad Pro for pairing, charging, and storage. What's more, gesture support has also been added, allowing you to switch between app tools with a quick double tap, for example.
The tools you need does, of course, depend on your practice, however. So 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.
Also read: The best drawing and graphics tablets
06. Top-end smartphone
Google Pixel 3
The best camera on a smartphone
Screen: 5.5-inch FHD+ Display | Processor: Snapdragon 845 | Memory: 4GB RAM | Storage: 64GB/128GB | Camera: 12.2MP | OS: Android Pie | Connectivity: USB-C
A decent smartphone is essential for any professional creative, whether it's to use the latest creative or productivity tools, take photos, or test app or website designs. It might not be the sexiest smartphone on the market (that plaudit goes to Apple's iPhone XS), but the third iteration of Google's Pixel is its finest yet, due in no small part to that magnificent 12.2-megapixel camera on the back. For this reason alone, if you tend to take a lot of photos on your mobile device, the Pixel 3 should be your next upgrade.
Surprisingly, there's no secondary lens on the phone, but it doesn't really need one because most of the magic is software-based, and the results are formidable. Portrait mode shots are unnervingly accurate, while regular photos are similarly loaded with detail. And then there's the new Night Sight – a dedicated low-light mode that boosts brightness in scenes that have almost no light at all.
But enough about the camera. The Pixel 3's OLED screen renders your pictures naturally and beautifully, while the optimised hardware under the hood makes navigating through the Android-based interface a smooth, lag-free experience. Suffice to say, this is our go-to Android phone for capturing creative inspiration.
Also read: The best smartphones for designers
07. Studio camera
The best cheap DSLR camera
Sensor: APS-C CMOS | Resolution: 24.78MP | Lens: Nikon F mount (DX) | Viewfinder: Optical | Screen type: 3.0-inch screen, 921,000 dots | Maximum continuous shooting speed: 5fps | Movies: 1080p | User level: Beginner
Like the D3400 before it, the Nikon D3500 has a straightforward control layout and puts a tremendous amount of power and flexibility at the fingertips of the novice photographer.
The sensor is a great foundation for taking quality pictures, and combined with a decent lens kit, has the capability to make your photos soar. Plus the 1,550-shot battery life means you can keep shooting without worrying.
It might lack 4K video capture and touchscreen functionality, but the D3500 does so many things so well that we can overlook those shortcomings. Anyone looking for their first DSLR need look no further.While most modern smartphones can capture some pretty decent shots for reference materials and moodboards, if you're shooting images for clients, or documenting physical work for your folio, it's worth investing in a quality camera.
Also read: The best cameras for creatives
08. High-res monitor
LG 34WK95U 34-inch 5K2K UltraWide Thunderbolt 3 Display
Upping the resolution
Display: UltraWide Nano IPS | Resolution: 5K2K WUHD (5120 x 2160) | Connectivity: Thunderbolt 3 | Color: HDR 98% DCI-P3
This Thunderbolt 3 display may not be a true 5K display (it only has 5K resolution on the horizontal x-axis), but coming from a 4K or lesser resolution display, it's still a fantastic upgrade and one we can highly recommend.
The LG 34WK95U boasts a crystal clear nano IPS panel and a wide 21:9 aspect ratio with a native resolution of 5120 by 2160. It also features enhanced wide colour support, thanks to 98 percent coverage of the DCI-P3 colour space (the digital film industry standard), and a maximum brightness of 450 nits.
Also read: The best monitors right now
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. You could also check out these 6 amazing free Adobe CC alternatives.
Here are a few more software services that graphic designers should have in their toolkits:
09. Antivirus software
Bitdefender Antivirus Plus 2019
Accurate and reliable at rooting out ransomware
OS: Windows | Maximum devices covered: 1 | Protection: Ransomware and remediation, privacy tools, VPN, Safepay
Bitdefender maintains its reputation as one of the best software security solutions on the market with this latest version. Virus detection and web filtering is as accurate as ever, while its secure browser keeps online shopping transactions equally safe.
This year's edition also comes with multi-layer ransomware protection, which learns the behaviour of such evolving threats to keep your browsing safe. And if that's not piece of mind enough, it also includes the Bitdefender Mobile app, which can scan devices linked to the same account.
Also read: The best antivirus software for designers
10. VPN software
Swiss-based virtual private network with no-logs
OS: Windows, Mac, Android, iOS | Server locations: 14
Encrypted email provider ProtonMail launched its own VPN service in 2017 called ProtonVPN, which includes a free user tier in its pricing plan. The Swiss-based company behind the service set out to address many of the common pitfalls that other VPNs have. To that end, a subscription includes access to its Secure Core servers which route traffic through multiple encrypted tunnels in multiple countries to better defend against network based attacks.
It also boasts a no-logs policy backed by Swiss law, not to mention seamless integration with the Tor anonymity network. The Basic tier costs 4 euros a month and includes access to all ProtonVPN servers across 14 countries, high speed bandwidth, and usage on up to two devices, while the Plus tier (8 euros) offers the highest bandwidth, connection on up to 5 devices, Tor servers, and access to Secure Core data networks hosted in Switzerland, Iceland, and Sweden. The Visionary tier costs 24 euros a month and includes a premium ProtonMail account.
Also read: The best VPN deals
11. Productivity software
The robust web-based productivity suite
In 2019, Google Docs is much more than a web-based version of classic productivity suites like Microsoft Office, and has come along in bounds and strides since it first appeared as a free service.
Apart from making your documents, spreadsheets and slides accessible from any browser (as well as supremely easy to collaborate on with other users), the online suite employs an intuitive interface that even integrates Google's vast search features when you need them.
There's a range of quality templates ready for you to use, plus third-party add-ins available that offer features you'd normally find in Microsoft Office, like mail merge and a more advanced equation editor. You can also use Google Translate to convert one of your documents into another language. And if you want more collaboration features, you can always plump for the subscription-based version of Google Docs, now called G Suite.
12. 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.
13. 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.
14. Variable desk
There's no two ways about it. However careful you are about the ergonomics of your workstation setup, sitting down for eight (or more) hours a day isn't great for your body – especially if you're hunched over your screen undertaking a painstaking creative task, or working into the night on a heavy deadline.
The solution is simple: a variable desk. Changing position between sitting and standing helps keep your body moving, and you'll feel and work better as a result. You can pick up a decent adjustable sit/stand desk for a few hundred pounds from IKEA, but if you're attached to your existing desk there is another option.
Varidesk offers a range of adjustable-height converters that quickly transform any surface into a sit/stand workstation. They can accommodate either a single or dual monitor setup, as well as your keyboard and mouse. At around 400 Euros they're not much cheaper than buying an entire sit/stand desk, but are versatile enough to cater to any number of studio situations.
15. Ergonomic chair
Herman Miller Sayl chair
Half the price of Herman Miller's iconic Aeron chair
Back support: 3D Intelligent Back tech, PostureFit sacral support, Dynamic support | Design: Responsible design
Every bit as important as your desk – if not more so – is an ergonomic chair for your studio to help combat the back pain, RSI and other health issues that are all-too common for designers who spend long hours slaving over Creative Cloud.
Put simply, a good-quality office chair is an essential accessory for any creative professional who values their health. It's worth spending as much as you can afford: don't splash all your cash on top-of-the-range hardware only to slump over it in a rickety £50 chair.
If cash really is no object, Herman Miller's iconic Aeron chair is the gold standard when it comes to offering ergonomic comfort. It adapts naturally to your body and seating position, and the design is effortlessly stylish. But at £900+ for some models, the price will put off most.
Fortunately for your wallet, Herman Miller has also created a more 'budget' offering. Tasked with creating a highly affordable chair without compromising (too much) on style and comfort, designer Yves Béhar created the Sayl. It comes in several colours, and is less than half the price of the Aeron – although you do sacrifice many of the customisation features.
Lead image: Brad Neathery.