Design tools, illustrated

14 tools every freelance designer should use

Freelancing is hard work. The right tools can make it easier and more manageable. Here are 14 services and applications I use all the time to get things done.

The Essential Three

1. Dropbox

Maybe this is the most obvious starting point, but its hard to think of a more essential part of my design and freelance workflow than Dropbox. It allows me to work between a notebook and a desktop seamlessly, with all my files and projects in sync. From time to time, I’ve managed files from my phone and sent them to clients without ever opening up a computer. Dropbox also provides the peace of mind of cloud backups and version control. I also use it to create shared folders with clients to make it easy to send and receive documents, images, and other files easily.

Price: Free for 2GB or $9.99/mo for 100GB. For years, I went with the free version of dropbox and found a few tricks to get it up to nearly 7GB in free storage. As my business has grown, I eventually had to upgrade to the “pro” plan to get a 100GB dropbox. A no-brainer.

2. Spotify

I still get an eerie feeling that Spotify is too good to be true, like that happy dream you hate leaving when the alarm rings. But it’s real: ad-free music, including almost every artist and every album you can think of: classics to new releases, seamlessly synced across all your devices, with offline modes that let you listen whether or not you have Internet. I use Spotify at my desk, when I walk the dog, when I workout, and in my car. And unlike Pandora or similar “radio”-style music services, you can skip as many tracks as you want. Or play them again. Or pick any order you want. Spotify is driven by playlists and social sharing to help you explore new music with friends and strangers. And hey, if/when you get Spotify, feel free to work to my go-to focus playlist: it makes anything you’re working on feel thrilling and epic.

Price: Free (with ads) or $9.99/month for ad-free listening and downloads to your device for offline play

3. Evernote

I use Evernote to organize projects, take notes at meetings, sketch out ideas, capture inspirations and visual concepts, collect and organize research, and jot down half-baked ideas. Like Dropbox and Spotify, it’s synced across every device I use, allowing me to use it whether I’m at my desk, on a plane, or stepping out of the shower. I’ve written about Evernote before, so I won’t go on and on again about its value. Along with Dropbox and Spotify, it’s one of the essential tools I use every day, without fail.

Price: Free, or $5/month or $45/year for Premium (more storage/transfers and some advanced tools).

Web Design & Development Tools

4. Coda

screen grab from codaCoda has been my go-to HTML and CSS editing tool for a few years.

The interface is simple and polished, and it also provides a wealth of simple tools and functions to make it easy to scan and focus on chunks of code. Coda includes terminal and FTP tools that make it easy to send and receive changes made on the server. And it plays nice with Git, too. If you use Coda on two different Macs, you can sync them with iCloud.

Price: $75

5. Adobe Creative Cloud

Don’t start with any anti-corporate, “I-miss-Fireworks” whining/ranting. Adobe may be the big dog, but their three flagship design products: Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign are essentials for almost any legitimate designer. Are they massive, big, bloated products? Yes. But they’re also fucking amazing. Think I’m wrong? Go back any try to do a day’s work in Illustrator 2. And the subscription model works a lot better for me than having to buy some massive bundle for $1000 at one time. The Creative Suite gives me access to those products, and EVERY other Adobe application if I want them. The CC subscription also gives you access to almost every Adobe font. And I never have to sweat the upgrade charge if I happened to buy an Adobe suite at the end of its life cycle. There are some nice alternatives to the Adobe CC out there, but no clients I’ve worked with have handed over Sketch files. Adobe is the Microsoft of design software (like it or not) and if you want to work with clients, you need to be able to work with their Adobe files.

Price: $49/month or $29/month (students, upgrading users in the first year)

6. Codekit

Once I started using SASS to handle most of my CSS, I really wanted a way to avoid having to manage and compile that code with a command line interface. Yes, yes, I know, terminals are wonderful and all, but line commands just feel very 1982 to me. Codekit is better, easier, and makes me happy. It keeps an eye on your SASS files and compiles fresh CSS files for you on the fly. If you make a syntax error, it spots it and helps you fix it. It can also refresh your browsers for you to show you instant previews of your changes. It makes it easy to add mixins and frameworks to your workflow. I’m barely scratching the surface of what it can do. But if you are any kind of Mac web professional, at $29, it’s a steal.

Price: $29

7. Kaleidoscope

My developer friends tell me that comparing and merging slightly different files of code is easily done within the command line and some Git commands. For them, I’m sure it’s fine. But that would never work for me. Again, it’s 2014, not 1982. Kaleidoscope not only makes it easy to compare and merge two text/code files, it also lets you compare images or folders for differences. The interface is clean, modern, and simple. It helps make the most tedious and maddening tasks manageable and painless. There are a lot of other tools and apps that do the same thing for a lower price, but from my experience, Kaleidoscope is worth it just for sparing you the frustration and bad UI of inferior products.

Price: $69.99


I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but for years, I did a lot of my WordPress development and testing on remote servers. This was fine, but it meant I always needed an internet connection to do any work, and sometimes it took a while to handle file transfers and updates while making design tweaks and adjustments. Only a few years ago did I discover MAMP, which changed the whole way I developed designs and themes for WordPress. With MAMP, you run a live web server locally on your Mac, allowing you to design and test sites in a virtual environment before ever pushing the files out onto any remote server. It also allows you to create and manage databases that drive those websites. It makes working and testing with WordPress (or Drupal) fast, efficient, and simple. Like many of the tools I’m listing here, it’s one of those things I can’t really remember how I managed before I had it.

Price: Free… or $59 for MAMP Pro (I’ve always used the free version)


9. RescueTime

RescueTime keeps track of what applications you use and what websites you go to, and how long you spend on them. You can teach it which applications or sites are “productive” and which aren’t. At the end of the day (or week), you can see where all your time went in clear, visual charts and numbers. It delivers an honest, clear picture of where your focus and energy went. Every morning it sends me an email with a breakdown of the previous day and a “productivity pulse” that rates the ratio of “productive” vs. “distracting” activities. You can set goals (2 hours of writing per day; less than 30 minutes of reading news per day). And if you use the premium version, you can tell it to block certain websites when you need to focus or limit them to a specified amount of time a day. To some, this all may seem a bit obsessive or Big Brotherly; and, if an employer were watching every click I made this closely, it would creep me out. But since I’m my own boss and this data is only for me, it’s a great way to objectively answering the eternal question: “where the hell did my day go?”

Price: Free… or $9/months for Premium (more extensive tools & features)

10. Mailbox

Mailbox app screengrabI’m a big fan of the “inbox zero” philosophy of keeping email under control. Part of that is just discipline: minimize subscriptions, delete junk immediately, and respond to quick emails right away rather than letting them pile up in the inbox. But for the rest of my email: assorted things that need more than a couple minutes of attention, or stuff that can wait until later, I use the “Mailbox” app for OSX. It’s nothing remarkable, but it helps you quickly figure out what to do email: one swipe lets you delete or archive it, or you can pull up a one-touch menu to send it away for a while until you expect to be able to handle it. It’s available for both OSX and Android and works on both phones and tablets. Mailbox was acquired by Dropbox, so it’s not going anywhere soon. My only gripe is that I can’t use this on my desktop or notebook, but an OSX desktop version of the app is expected soon.

Price: Free

11. Any decent pomodoro timer app

Another technique I’ve adopted recently is the “Pomodoro” method of managing time and working in timed short bursts, separated by short breaks. 25 minutes of focused work, then a five minute break. Then another 25 minutes of work, followed by another five minute break. Repeat again and again. Not only is this good for breaking up projects into small manageable tasks, but it reminds you to get up and move around twice an hour so that all that sitting doesn’t kill you. You could easily use a countdown timer for this on your computer or phone, or even use an actual kitchen timer. But geek that I am, I use an app for this. I’ve tried half a dozen pomodoro apps, including Focus, Timebar, and Pomodoro Timer. All three of these are good, but I can’t say that any single one is clearly superior. The features vary, but the better ones let you identify tasks to handle during a work stretch, or keep track of how many “pomodoro’s” you’ve completed — a nice way of keeping score with yourself and visually seeing the progress you’ve made. So it doesn’t really matter which of these you use: just find one and try it.

Price: Free… or up to $10. Here’s how to find some

12. Focus

There are many apps out there, including RescueTime, that will force some discipline on you and restrict your access to distracting sites that suck away your productivity. But my favorite for the Mac is Focus, a free, simple, one-click app that lets you “quickly and easily block out any website or service you want.” It’s elegant and it works perfectly. If you need to disable it for something legitimate, that’s easy, too. Best of all, it’s free.

Price: Free


13. Harvest

Harvest makes it easy to keep track of the time I spend on client work, categorize it, and then generate invoices. It also helps you track expenses, income, and project budgets. It’s cloud based, so it runs on both my laptop and desktop, along with tablets and mobile devices. it’s also smart: if you’re on the clock for a project, but haven’t touched a key for a while, when you return, it asks if you shouldn’t count the time when you were idle. Finally, it gives you a ton of ways to take all that data and generate reports and charts to see how your business is doing.

Price: Free (for a limited number of clients/projects)… three other pricing tiers for different levels of business. I currenly use the $12/month “Solo” plan that allows for one user and unlimited clients.

14. Bidsketch or Quoterobot

A screengrab from BidsketchPart of closing the deal with a client is putting a together a clear, organized, professional proposal and estimate. I’ve had clients tell me that my proposal was the key element in setting me apart from others they were considering for a project. I used to write these up in Word, but the time and effort became a burden. Since then, I’ve used two different services for generating proposals: Bidsketch and Quoterobot. Both made it much easier and faster to create proposals. Bidsketch offers more features and flexibility, but Quoterobot, in my opinion, delivers a slightly nicer-looking proposal. One great feature with Bidsketch is that it can generate a web-based proposal and track it, so you’ll know when a client viewed it and for how long. It also allows tools for comments and discussion about parts of the proposal. Quoterobot creates a great-looking timeline for a project. Both allow you a lot of customization and let you re-use common elements in new proposals. Right now, I subscribe to Bidsketch, but it’s not cheap. And if Quoterobot updates anytime soon, I might switch back. I go back and forth about whether either are worth the price, but ultimately, if they save time creating proposals help close the deal on one significant project, they pay for themselves easily.

BidSketch: $29/month
QuoteRobot: $19/month

Did I miss anything? Let me know below if I’ve overlooked or missed an essential tool…

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