Visual Design

Visual Design

Essential Tools for Beginners in Graphic Design

Getting Started in Graphic Design

It’s safe to say that graphic design is one of the most popular fields in fine art. It is a career field that has massive growth potential for both part-time and full-time positions, working for a company or freelance. It’s a great career if you are interested in working in advertising or marketing, designing for mobile devices, making apps, specializing in multimedia or virtual design, or in web design and development, as with the expansion of technology, the demand for great designers will increase. 

Although the list of great graphic designers is far-reaching, one designer, Milton Glaser, named the Most Influential Graphic Designer of the Past 50 Years, stands out. He said, “There are three responses to a piece of design – yes, no, and WOW! WOW is the one to aim for.” But, what does a graphic designer do? Graphic designers are visual communicators. They sketch by-hand or use computer software to create visual concepts to convey a message that promotes or enhances a service, philosophy, or product. They solve problems, collect information, and come up with solutions that best meet the needs of their clients. A few of the most common graphic design titles might include: 

  • Illustrator
  • Log designer
  • Visual image developer
  • Web designer
  • Information architect
  • Art director
  • UI/UX designer
  • Multimedia developer 

As graphic designers progress and move up the ladder in their careers, their focus may change and they will direct their attention to strategy and concepts rather than manually designing. But, if you are just starting out in your career your focus will be designing logos and branding elements, icons and pictograms, print advertisements, posters and billboards, signs, packaging, etc., and you will need to invest in equipment that will allow you to practice and improve your design techniques and skills.


Choosing a Computer 

It’s an interesting debate many designers find themselves in when choosing a computer – Mac and a PC.  It’s probably a 50/50 spilt with many picking the one they are most familiar with or used in school.  But, when you’re just getting started in your career, do you really need a high-powered computer? The truth is, you don’t need an expensive computer right away because you will find you can do most everything necessary with a mid-range computer if it has a decent amount of RAM.  In fact, you probably won’t need a more powerful computer until you start heavy image or video editing, or working on extensive projects involving animation or 3D effects.  Most of what you’ll do will require using three major design programs – Abode Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign. So, it’s not necessary to break the bank on a high-end computer that you think you’ll need until you’ve earned enough to buy one comfortably. But, when that time comes, which is better? PC or Mac; Laptop or Desktop?


Laptop vs. Desktop 

Laptops are powerful, versatile solutions because you can work anywhere; in coffee shop, your dining room table, or even in an airport waiting to board a plane.  Desktops, on the other hand, offer larger screens and are typically more durable and powerful. They are great if you have space in your home office and some designers will even set up two monitors to work from.


Mac vs. PC 

Mac was originally developed to be used by everyone, not only the experts. As it gained in popularity, it became the ‘go-to’ for graphic design. Today, it seems like most all designers use the MacBook Pro. In reality, both the PC and the Mac are great for design, as long as they have enough power and graphics capability.

Mac Pros:

Mac Cons:

Excellent graphicsPricey
Great font capabilityDifficulty running Microsoft Office (although this is becoming less of a problem).
Strong design apps 
Clean workflow 
Reputation for high quality 


If laying out the big bucks for a Mac laptop, the best on the market for graphics right now is probably the MacBook Pro. It is fast, powerful, and boast up to 130 percent faster graphics. It also has something called P3 color, which makes 25 percent more color available than standard RGB (great news for designers).


Windows Pros:

Windows Cons:

Price (often much less than a Mac)Graphic design programs often slow down the speed of the computer
Options with good graphicsLower reputation for quality (although this is becoming less of a problem)
Sufficient processing power for workflowNot as ‘trendy’ or ‘cool’ as a Mac
Scalable hardware to add future functionality 


Our recommendation: Macs are still top of the line for graphic design (in fact, I’m working on one right now), and a Mac will give you excellent performance and credibility with your peers and clients. But, also consider which platform you used in school. If you are most comfortable using a PC, then go with that, but keep in mind that many graphic design firms use Mac, so even if you’re accustomed to using a PC in college, you may be required to learn on a Mac when you get your first job.


Investing in Software: 

Adobe Creative Cloud (which includes Illustrator, Photoshop, Acrobat, premiere Pro or After Effects, InDesign and more), is an essential package that you will need to get started in graphic design. The package includes access to 30 desktop apps and 20 mobile apps. The monthly fee for companies (if you’re self-employed and starting a freelance company) is $49.00.  The package is only $19.99 for students.  In the Adobe Creative Cloud package, you will primarily use Illustrator for vector graphics and illustration, Photoshop for image editing and composing, and InDesign for page design and layout for publishing. But, if you’re more focused on web design you might also need Dreamweaver for web and mobile design and Flash for interactive experiences and game design.   Also included is seamless syncing between your devices, access to online tutorials to stay up-to-date on all the newest techniques, and Acrobat Pro for PDF editing. 

When just starting out in graphic design, the Adobe Creative Cloud will suffice. But, if trying your hand at 3D effects or animation, you may want to also invest in Maya Autodesk, Autodesk 3ds Max, Cinema 3D, or Cheetah 3D (for Mac). Of course, there are also open-source options, like Drupal for building amazing digital experiences, Joomla, mobile ready and user-friendly way to build websites, or WordPress, content management system.  There are also a couple dozen free alternatives to the Adobe Creative Cloud, like Inkscape for vectors and drawing (similar to Illustrator, but not as powerful); Scribus for layout and design (similar to InDesign, but not as powerful), blender for 3D design, GIMP for working with images (similar to Photoshop), and KOMPOZER to replace Dreamweaver. Although not recommended as a replacement for the Adobe Creative Cloud, these open-source options can get you started if you are on a tight budget.


Tools for Creativity

The great Saul Bass, award winning designer and filmmaker once said, “Failure is built into creativity…the creative act involves this element of ‘newness’ and ‘experimentalism,’ then one must expect and accept the possibility of failure.”  Besides using a computer and software, most designers know how to draw well.  In fact, designers will sketch out a design by hand before it is even started on a computer screen. 

Two of the most popular tools for sketching are the Wacom Bamboo or Intuos tablets.  Sketches done on these tablets can be transferred directly into design programs on the computer. They can also take the place of a mouse, and start at about $40 (The best tablets, however, are about $200).  Of course, if you’re really on a tight budget and like to do things the old-fashioned way, then invest in a traditional sketchbook.  A standard sketchbook can really get the creative juices flowing, give you a break from the computer, and let you get back to the basics of drawing freehand. Always, keep one within reach in case you get creative.  Post-it-notes are also great to jot down short notes, organize and color-code your ideas and workflow, or never forget a new idea or your first job interview. 

Although often overlooked, there is nothing that will help get you through a long, but productive day than a comfortable work space. You’ll be spending much or your time in front of a computer, or sketching out ideas on your desk, so making sure the space you are in lets your creativity flow is important.  And, speaking of comfort, make sure the chair you’re sitting in is supportive, so you don’t’ get back pain down the road. 

Misc. business tools that simplify your business include Dropbox, which gives you access to files at all times. Plus, you can share documents with your clients, teammates, and peers.  Google also offers several business tools, like Gmail for creating a professional-sounding email account and communicating with clients, Google Drive to keep track of and share files, and Google Hangouts, for fast communication with teammates and clients. is a great tool for keeping track of your hours and for billing. 

One of the most, if not the most important tools for graphic designers that cannot be overlooked or tossed aside because it takes too much time to create is your personal, professional, online portfolio.  Your portfolio reflects your design skills, your expertise, and your talent, and will help you attract clients. There are dozens of websites for showcasing your work and offer help to get you started, including;; and 

There are also useful apps for graphic designers, such as

Sketchworthy is an app helps you organize sketches notes, images, websites, and anything else you come across that will help you design and keep track of your workload.  You just load up the media and place it in special ‘notebooks’ to keep organized.

Inflow Visual Notebook is like Sketchworthy, but especially great for visual thinkers who want to add pictures, text, photos and backgrounds, and then export them to a PDF.

Coffitivity is an app that produces constant “café noise” with options during breakfast, lunch or dinner.

FontBook gives designers access to thousands of typefaces and font families.

ColorSchemer helps designers gain access to one-million color palettes, or you can create you own color palettes and share them with other users. 

Paper Size is a quick guide to international paper sizes, with outlines in both mm and inches.  This app would be particularly great for print designers.


  • Kathryn Pomroy
    Kathryn Pomroy

    Journalist, Artist & Lover of Puppies | Kathryn is a writing junkie and coffee aficionado who attended Arizona State University where she earned a blue belt in Shotokan-ryu Karate, graced the local stage as a ballerina, and graduated with honors with a degree in journalism.