11 Essential Tools for Running My Design Business

With so many tools, softwares, programs, and apps out there, you’ll find that each business owner has their own set of tools in their kit that suit their personal preference. Everyone has their own way of working and creating, staying organized and keeping their business running smoothly. Today I wanted to give you an inside look at the top 11 essential tools that I use to make things happen around here, from designing and blogging to staying on task and boosting creativity.

 
11 Essential Tools for Design Business, blog post by Gillian Tracey Design
 

1 | ADOBE CC

It’s stating the obvious to say that the Adobe Creative Cloud is a vital tool to my design business. I use InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator, and Lightroom on a daily basis for various design and photography work. 

Illustrator

The sweet spot of this program is the ability to create vector-based graphics, and for that reason it's the favored program among many designers. Since vectors offer great versatility and guarantee quality, they are the perfect type of graphic for logos and many other pieces used in developing a brand identity.

Illustrator is also great for creating pieces for print, like business cards and stationery, for digitizing hand-lettering and calligraphy, creating custom icons, illustrations, and patterns, and so much more!

InDesign

My favorite program in the Adobe CC family! It’s the perfect program for layouts and creating print pieces, but it’s certainly not limited to just print. InDesign has several tools that carry over from Illustrator, which makes it even more flexible, plus this program makes laying out text and other design elements a breeze. I use InDesign for just about everything that I design. I may create certain elements in Illustrator or Photoshop, but I usually end up placing them into an InDesign file to create the finished product. All the blog post graphics you see on my website, along with any content upgrades have been created in this program. It’s certainly a program worth learning!

Photoshop

While this program’s primary function is to edit photographs, it’s capable of much more than making people look thinner than they actually are. Photoshop's ability to edit photos and resizing images blends well with adding layers for text, images, etc. to create design pieces. Some people create digital paintings in Photoshop, and others design their blog post graphics in the program. It’s quite versatile and it’s strengths pair nicely with both Illustrator and InDesign.

Lightroom

This program is fantastic for editing photos, more specifically photos shot as raw files. Lightroom is easy to use, and has great image management and workflow abilities. Another reason why this is such a great program to use for preparing photos is the ease of batch-editing. For example, let’s say you just did a shoot of all the new products you’re going to put in your Etsy shop. If the lighting and settings you shot with are the same in several photos, you just edit one and then sync the settings for the rest. You don’t have to go through each photo individually, and you don’t have to go through the steps of creating an action like you would in Photoshop. There are lots of reasons why this is a great program, but I’ll save that for another day!

 

2 | MACBOOK PRO

In order to use Adobe, I need to have a computer that will support it! Having a reliable and robust computer is key to running a business, particularly when there’s an online aspect, such as selling digital products, running a blog, and working with clients remotely. I’ve been using a Macbook Pro to design with for close to 10 years, and they are wonderful machines to work on. I’ve also worked on a 27” iMac, which is amazing (!!!), but right now the mobility of a Macbook Pro is a necessity. Once you go Mac, you never go back!

 

3 | SQUARESPACE

I can’t say enough good things about Squarespace! And no, I’m not an affiliate, this is just genuine love and thankfulness for this awesome platform. As someone who comes from a primarily print design background, coding is not my strong suit. Not at all. Finding a platform that would a) have clean, aesthetically-pleasing templates to build off of and b) be so simple to create, maintain, and integrate with social media and other programs was absolutely key. 

 
The back end of my Squarespace site.

The back end of my Squarespace site.

 

When I started building my site, I was still working full-time, so I definitely didn’t have the time to learn how to code a site. While some people may want to use WordPress so they can have a totally custom site, that just wasn’t a priority for me. This platform is flexible enough that it will continue to grow with my business for quite a while.

 

4 | GMAIL

With all the great tools that Google has available, using Gmail for my email account was an obvious decision. It was incredibly easy to create and link a Gmail account to my Squarespace site. I thought it was especially important to have an email that matched my domain name to keep my work and personal emails separate, as well as add a professional touch.

Speaking of Google’s tools, Google Docs are a great and effective way to send documents to clients. I use Google Docs to send clients a creative brief/questionnaire that they fill out at the start of the brand identity design process. It makes sharing information super simple and streamlined. Plus, there’s the added bonus of not having to dig through emails for the most up-to-date version of a document.

 

5 | DSLR CAMERA

Along with being a designer, I dabble in photography, although it’s mainly for personal projects and capturing views and special moments. However, having photography knowledge and a quality DSLR camera are very helpful for my business. By having this tool on hand, I can stage photos, photograph design work, produce quality images for my Etsy shop when necessary, create my own stock photography, etc. I personally use a Nikon D7100, along with a couple lenses that are each helpful for different shooting situations. 

If you’re a designer, blogger, or small business owner (or all three!), learning photography could be a helpful skill to add to your toolbox, plus it could have the potential to save you a significant amount of money.

 

6 | PENCIL + PAPER

Anyone who’s been reading this blog for awhile is aware of the fondness I have for pencil and paper. I love drawing out my ideas to help me get a clearer picture and boost creativity. And for that very reason it’s a key part of my design process!

I very rarely, if ever, go straight to my computer when I’m starting a new design project. When starting on a branding project, it’s essential to start designing a logo by taking the time to sketch ideas out. It’s faster, ideas flow better, and more creative solutions come from using this process rather than diving straight into design programs.

Other posts you may be interested in: 10 Ways to Overcome a Creative Block and 3 Reasons to Keep a Sketchbook.

 

7 | SCANNER

One investment that I made for my business at the beginning of this journey was a good printer that had an awesome scanner (but still have a reasonable price tag). Since I do a lot of hand-lettering, sketching, etc., having the ability to take those hand-drawn images and transition them to a digital image is key. By having a scanner that can create high quality files, I can easily turn my drawings into vectors and use them for various projects, including brand identities. 

Have you seen the Becky’s Berries conceptual brand identity? Well, you may be interested to learn that a majority of the design elements started as a pencil drawing and, thanks to my scanner, were able to be digitized. Another way I use my scanner is for creating the prints available in my Etsy shop. They all start out with being brush-lettered in watercolor or ink, then they scanned onto my computer, opened in Photoshop to clean it up and prepare the final files. Below is an example of a before/after image of a pattern I designed. It started as a line drawing, and then was changed to a vector with the Image Trace tool in Illustrator, and then color was added in.

Scanned image of line drawing

Scanned line drawing of custom pattern by Gillian Tracey Design

Finished product

Custom pattern by Gillian Tracey Design

 

8 | 17HATS

As a business owner, it’s important to have a program that will help you track your finances, workflow, projects, invoices, etc. There are many programs available made especially for these purposes, and some of them are even geared toward freelancers by utilizing tools such as time-tracking.

I personally decided to go with 17hats because of the variety of tools that are available. You can send contracts to clients and collect e-signatures, you can send invoices and collect online payments by connecting your account to PayPal or Stripe. You can also create project folders for each client, import contacts from your email, manage workflow, send questionnaires to clients, send proposals, etc. It has a lot of great features for an affordable price tag. Other invoicing/financial tracking programs that I’ve heard good things about for creative entrepreneurs are Quickbooks, Freshbooks, and Harvest.

 

9 | APPLE'S Business Apps

Since I’m a Mac user, I opted to use the Pages, Numbers, and Keynote apps that are freely available, rather than purchase Microsoft’s software. The programs are easily to use and are helpful for my business in a variety of areas.

I use Pages (Apple’s answer to Word) to draft my blog posts and keep a running list of topics to make planning my editorial calendar easier. By writing directly in a blog post draft in Squarespace I’m running the risk of losing everything I’ve written if the Internet crashes unexpectedly (yeah, that's happened, and it's terrible). I know that other people write drafts in Google Docs, but I’ve found that by having a clean space to focus on what I’m writing without the temptation of Facebook one tab away works best for me. Since Numbers is the equivalent of Excel, it’s great for tracking expenses, income, and growth. Keynote makes beautiful presentations, and can be a helpful tool if you decide to do an online workshop/webinar or if you need to create a professional-looking proposal/presentation for a client.

 

10 | PLANNER + TO-DO LISTS

My Day Designer!

My Day Designer!

I know a lot of people use Google calendars or Evernote or one of the many tools available for keeping a to-do list, but I’ve always favored a planner and a pretty notepad. I like writing something down where I can plainly see it, and I love checking things off a list with a pen much more than pressing a button on my phone. I write down a to-do list each day (sometimes it’s on a pretty notepad, and other days it’s scribbled on a piece of scrap paper floating around in my studio), but a great tool I started implementing last year was a weekly planner. Too often I overwhelm a daily to-do list because I write down everything on my mind that needs to get done. By using a weekly list, I can write out what needs to happen in the next 5 work days, mark the 5 highest priority items, and then start dividing out the tasks to different days of the week depending on how time sensitive they are and how much time it will take to accomplish each one.

There are so many great planners out there that are designed to help make the process of scheduling a full day easier, and that’s especially helpful for small business owners. Last year I used the Inkwell Press Live Well Planner, and it was great for setting monthly goals, and balancing work/life events that happen each day. This year I switched over to the Day Designer, and I’m loving it so far! Not only is the cover gorgeous, but it is so It thoughtfully designed and includes so many sections that I just know I’ll find super helpful as the year goes on. Since each day has it’s own to-do list, I won’t have to use random scraps of paper!

 

11 | DESIGNATED WORKSPACE

Though a workspace isn’t technically a tool, it’s definitely something that makes a big impact on my productivity. I was moving into a new apartment around the time I was starting my business, so I didn’t have a very orderly office while I was still in the process of settling in and unpacking. What I noticed was that with the new schedule I had, it was very difficult to get a good routine without an organized place to work. I didn’t realize how easily I was getting distracted until I saw how much I was getting accomplished in a space that was designated for working and creating. 

Being able to approach your workday with the proper mindset can be very affected by your environment. With the freedom of working at home comes the distractions of chores and pets and Netflix. There's no one but myself to keep me on task, so that’s why it’s important for me to have a specific space that I go to work in. My studio/office is my focus zone. If you’re a solopreneur, sometimes it’s also helpful to go somewhere different to help you get in a focused frame of mind. Coffee houses, shared working spaces, and the library are all great options to act as a productive workspace.


That’s a wrap on my top 11 tools I use to run my design business! What are some of your favorites tools you use daily for your business? Share in the comments section below!

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