Access over Ownership

Many, many years ago, when I started in design school, there were two things that really intimidated my: The amazing work of the world-class designers I looked up to and the expensive design tools.

I looked up to designers like Art Chantry or Erik Spiekermann, admiring their work and the talent they had. Could I ever become close as good? I knew that this required a broad skillset, lots and lots of hard work and - world-class tools.

Man, were those tools expensive. In my first year in design school, I had to buy Japanese layout markers, special paper for them to draw on, photo film, all kinds of crafting materials, and, of course, a MacBook including a really pricey Photoshop license. Just owning these tools didn’t help though - it required a special technique to draw with these markers, developing photo film was science on its own - and learning and mastering Photoshop took me years.

A designer was considered a craftsman, and only those who mastered their tools qualified to out their own creation, their ideas onto a medium. This has changed, and what is expected from a designer today has changed as well. Tools have changed.

Owning specialised tools is not so important anymore, having access to them is much more. Take typefaces for example: The experience, ambition, and quality of a designer could be measured in the size of their Fonts manager. The amount of money you gave to Monotype and MyFonts directly translated into the originality of your work. Free fonts, at best, were incomplete, missing characters or rip-offs of paid fonts.

Today, Google Fonts has established as one of the biggest font databases, fuelling the internet with unique and readable typefaces. Own developments like Noto or Roboto are optimised for international audiences, providing characters and languages that wouldn’t be served before, or catering devices previously not considered.

There are more tools that enable designers to get started really quick. I am building a collection, with tools that fulfill the following criteria:

Easy to learn: The tool must be easy to understand by someone who is just starting in the discipline.

Affordable: The tool is available for under $20/month, the rate that students can rent the Adobe Creative Cloud for today.

Professional Output: The tool outputs the results in a standardised format that ćan be proceeded by printers, marketers or web developers. You will get a PNG, PDF or HTML out of it, not a link to a proprietary platform - which excludes tools like Squarespace & co.

Here is my list:

Photography

VSCO

If you ever thought about iPhone photography in a bit more depth, you might have tried Polar, Snapseed and co. Of the mobile photo editing apps, VSCO clearly sticks out for one reason: The app promises and deliver true professional film simulations, that are en par with what you would get from tools like Lightroom. A basic set is free, the best presets though are available via In-App Purchase.

Pixlr

Basic photo editing, directly in the browser. If you have ever thought about getting Photoshop Elements or GIMP, give Pixlr a shot first. The cool thing about this tool is the connection between Smartphone and and Desktop availability.

Canva

Similar to Pixlr, Canva offers some good basic photo editing functions - directly in the browser. Additionally, Canva has a really good layout editor, which can be used for banners, infographics and the likes. Edited photos can be passed directly into working designs.

Graphic Design

Infogram

The main purpose of Infogram is to create professional-looking infographics. It does that so well, that it is actually used by editorial companies and newsrooms world-wide. Infogram comes with loads of presets and templates, making it simple to get started with your Infographic project.

Adobe Spark

“Can you teach me photoshop so I can make pretty Facebook posts?” - a question I would often hear from Social media manages describes the dilemma of professional design software quite well. With Spark, Adobe is set out to fix that issue, bringing a design tool that is targetted to design simple layouts with texts for everyday use.

Autodesk Sketchbook

Of all the sketching tools available for tablets, Autodesk Sketchbook is my favourite - the balance between simplicity, useful helpers like onscreen rulers and complex layers and brushes makes it the perfect sketching tool for me. however, make sure you try out some others like Paper or Procreate

Vectr

Editing vectors directly in the browser? What crazy times we live in! If you miss Illustrator or just need to fix a quick icon idea, Vectr can help you. I still have to try it though, the mere fact that it exists gives it a rightful spot on this list.

Brand Design

Logo Maker by Squarespace

Here is where I send people who need a quick logo, but have no idea what they want. The Squarespace logo maker is supersimple to handle, fun to use and gives you great inspiration in what you want to have for your brand.

MyPantone

Dealing with corporate color can be a pain - professional color books are super expensive, but a must if you work with offline brands. A good workaround is the MyPantone brand, which gives you the full catalogue for just a few bucks.

Web Development

Webflow

Designing and building websites in Webflow is pretty cool and not too complicated to learn. The output is quite professional, Webflow will generate HTML, CSS and Javascript files for you, which could be put directly on a server or plugged into a content management system.

Launchaco Website Generator

Launchaco, recently acquired by Namecheap, is a dead-simple service to create simple startup websites without ANY coding knowledge. The basic package is free and hosted on their servers, however for $49, you can download your site and do whatever you want with it.

This list is still incomplete. If you have an addition to make, hit me up on Twitter or via Email.

Johannes Ippen
About the Author

Johannes Ippen is a designer from Berlin, passionate about French punk rock, really strong espresso and writing about design. Follow him on Twitter for more of design-related essays. Full bio →