When You Don’t Have the Tools

I recently made the decision to splurge on an iPad Pro and I confess, now that I have one, I’m a little attached to the thing. I don’t think you can blame me though—it’s one of those things where, once you have it, you don’t know how you ever lived without it.

On the other hand, there was a time when I didn’t have an iPad, or Illustrator, or a Mac, or all the fonts. But I still designed stuff and came up with pretty good ideas. What I did then is actually not that different from what I do now; it’s just that designing became a little (OK, a lot) more convenient now that I have the tools. But that is all that they are: Just tools.

A doctor or construction worker may be unable to function without their tools but then again, they are not in the business of creativity. As artists and designers, working with limitations doesn’t just come with the territory—it makes us more creative.

Two kinds of people.

My list of tools

I could easily have made a list of all the design tools that have made my life easier—the ones I use now. But I won’t do that. Instead, I have made a list of tools that are not necessarily the most elegant and not generally preferred by most designers, but are free and/or accessible to most people. I used most of these before I even knew about Illustrator, and I honestly believe that they helped make me a better designer. Once you have mastered these and learned the basics of design, investing in a ‘real’ tool will be so much more rewarding.

MS Powerpoint (or Keynote on a Mac)

Maybe the idea of designing in Powerpoint sounds a bit unsophisticated but I still think that designing presentations is one of the best exercises in visual communication (and so many people still get it wrong—but that’s another post for the future).

MS Publisher

Definitely not the industry standard in DTP but if you don’t have InDesign, working in Publisher will teach you the basics of layout design and designing for print.

MS Word (or Pages on a Mac)

You don’t need more than a word processor to learn about the basics of typography. It will allow you to experiment with font pairing, columns, alignment and so on. And if you need some placeholder text (Lorem ipsum dolor etc.), this website is a great tool for that.

Where to find high-quality free fonts (for commercial use)

Speaking of typography, not all of us have the money to spend on expensive fonts, which is why Google Fonts and Font Squirrel are such fantastic resources. Here you can find plenty of high-quality, free-for-commercial-use fonts that are suitable for just about any project. There are a bunch of other websites that allow you to download free fonts but I would be careful of these—the fonts are not always free for commercial use (which limits how you can use them) and those that are, are usually not of great quality. So don’t be tempted to download all the free fonts—you really don’t need that many.

Free software

Apart from apps like Canva, which offers free design elements for anyone to use, there isn’t a lot of free design software out there. My opinion is that if you are going to invest in your design career, you might as well start by purchasing the right software (Adobe Illustrator being what most designers use). Having said that, here is a list of free programs for those of you who are not quite ready to make that commitment:

  • Inkscape is a graphic design program that can do a lot, even though it is more basic than Illustrator. I’ve used it a lot to trace bitmap images and convert them to vector format.
  • GIMP is a photo editing program. While it is not as powerful as Lightroom or Photoshop, it can do a lot more than just basic retouching.
  • SketchUp is another powerful tool you might want to look at if you want to get into 3D design. It also offers a bunch of helpful tutorials to teach you the basics.
  • If you want to create fonts from scratch, FontForge is exactly the kind of software you’ll need. It is 100% free but unfortunately only available on Mac.

I can go on and on about using what you have—hell, sometimes a pencil and a piece of paper are enough—but I think I have made my point.

Now, go design something.


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