The Tools I Use Most as a Freelance Designer

The Tools I Use Most as a Freelance Designer - Gravity Design Co

Before I jump in, let me clarify that I am mostly a brand and web designer. I recently made a move away from designing complex interactions in apps for larger companies, and instead am now working with small businesses to build their brands and websites. Honestly, most of the tools on this list are more about running my business than doing actual design work. I’ve split the list into three categories: Project Management, Creative, and Finances. Onward!

Project Management

iCal

At the beginning of each week, I plan out what I’d like to accomplish and schedule it right into my calendar. It isn’t a rigid schedule, but it helps me get going in the mornings if I don’t have to think too hard about my workload and just get started.

As my day goes on, I often update my calendar based on what I actually did. A day never goes exactly how I planned, and I give myself the freedom to move things around based on what I’d like to work on.

When I do a quick review at the end of the week, I have a record of my entire week. I can evaluate how I spent my time and think about what I might improve the following week.

If this idea interests you, here are a couple of articles on designing your ideal week. There are some great tips and ideas in there.

Pivotal Tracker

Though I imagine Pivotal Tracker is used mostly with teams, I use it solo. My two favorite features of Pivotal Tracker are estimating how long a task will take and displaying different phases of each task (not yet started, in progress, finished, delivered, accepted). It’s a helpful way for me to prioritize my tasks and see at a glance just how large my workload is for the week, or for the entire backlog. Other task management systems are often too complex and get distracting rather than promoting focus (I’m looking at you, Omnifocus). Pivotal Tracker is the just-right solo project management software for me.

With clients, however, I use Basecamp to review progress, provide explanations, and document feedback because it’s a little warmer and less technical.

Disclaimer! Development Tasks vs. Design Tasks
It’s true that Pivotal Tracker works best for me when I’m building out a website. It’s more difficult to use when I’m working on branding or visual design because the stages in those projects tend to overlap or get revisited throughout a project. They’re just not as cut and dry. I generally use Trello for those, but am interested in giving Asana a try too.

Toggl

As a solo designer, I’m all for automating as many project management and administrative tasks as possible, so I can spend more time doing what I love. I use Toggl to get an easy overview of a couple things: how many hours I spend working each week (on client projects and administrative tasks), and how much time I’ve spent/have left for a given project.

Since I generally estimate projects at a flat cost, it’s important that I try to stick to the number of hours I planned out. With Toggl, I can review my hours each week and make sure I’m on track. Even if I go over sometimes, it’s really useful to see which tasks I underestimated, so I can adjust for future projects.

And hey! If you recorded what you worked on right in iCal, you have a pretty accurate record already in case you forget to enter your hours one day (or for an entire week).

Basecamp

I use Basecamp to communicate with clients throughout a project. Basecamp is like an organized project directory full of remaining project tasks, notes from meetings, design explanations, client feedback, and a folder with the most recent versions of everything project-related. I insist on using it even when working with only one other client. If they ever need to bring someone else on to the project down the road —boom— the entire project history is already documented in one place.

Creative

Bear

I suck at writing. But being able to articulate your thinking and explain how you arrived at a design decision is arguably one of the most important skills for a designer to have. I get distracted so easily by clutter and visual messiness, so I love how sparse Bear’s interface is. It’s really designed for writing, and it isn’t overly bloated like Evernote or too simplistic like Text Edit or Notes. It’s markdown is all I need to compose my thoughts and revise through the third, or even fifth draft.

Thanks to Elliot Jay Stocks for tweeting the recommendation. I thought I’d never find a replacement for Editorially.

Sketch

Sketch is where I do 90% of my design work. From user flows to wireframes to polished UI, Sketch facilitates it all. I waved goodbye to Photoshop for everything web design a few years ago and never looked back. Sketch used to be annoyingly buggy, but they really are dedicated to working out the kinks. It’s truly wonderful to use and has made my designing so much more efficient.

Adobe Illustrator is still my choice for designing logos, and Photoshop remains in my toolkit for editing photos.

Money & Finances

Cushion

Cushion is a forecasting app for freelancers, providing better insight into clients, projects, and income. It allows me to set financial goals for the month and year and then track how I’m doing. You can track things like potential projects that might happen, how long a client typically takes to pay their invoice, and if a project dragged on a little longer than you expected. All of these factors are taken into account and you get a very useful visual representation of where you stand with your goals. It helps me predict and visualize my income, even though it’s completely irregular and unstable.

I can’t believe I used to use a Text Edit file where I’d list out all of my definite and predicted income for a month and then prioritize which bills I’d pay first as the money came in. Oof.

Johnnie, the creator of Cushion, also does a great job documenting his journey building Cushion, and it feels nice to support a designer who gives so much back to the community with his shared experiences and stories.

QuickBooks

Quickbooks links up to my bank accounts and credit cards, making it really easy to track all of my business income and expenses. They show you an overview of your income vs. expenses, and even go so far as to estimate the taxes you’ll owe for the quarter. That is a huge help for giving me clarity and insight into my finances as a solo business owner.

From what I can tell, the majority of the industry uses FreshBooks, but after some research, I’ve concluded that FreshBooks focuses more on invoicing, where QuickBooks is better for accounting. So I’m sticking with QuickBooks for now.

YNAB

We’ve arrived at my last tool. By now, you’ve probably noticed that I really enjoy tracking things. Well, I like having the same understanding of how I’m spending my money. I use YNAB (You Need A Budget) mostly for managing my personal money, but it helps a little with anticipating business expenses too. It’s basically budgeting software on crack. It’s Mint times 20. Even if I sometimes overspend or have a surprise expense in my life, YNAB helps me feel really prepared and anticipate the money I’ll be spending each month. They have a 34-day free trial, so it’s easy to give it a shot and see if that level of micromanaging your finances is for you.

So. How much does all of this cost?

While I’m able to get by with the free version of some of these, I do pay for most of them. All in all, the costs of running my design business are around $150 a month. Which is SO. LOW. I’ll be following up with a post detailing out every monthly expense I have as a freelance designer. There are some things that aren’t included on this list like DropBox, website hosting, etc.

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