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How to be an amazing designer: apps every good designer needs

As a designer, you’re constantly pulled in a dozen different directions. Every phase of a project requires a different skillset and level of focus. So to get the job done, you need to grow your skills—and find and use the right tools.

So here’s my list of must-have apps to help you become the design hero you’ve always wanted to be. They’ll help you focus, boost your productivity, stick to your commitments, and be the best designer you can be.

Design efficiency

If designers wore toolbelts, these would be the most-used tools in mine. Together, they create a complete experience for me on Mac. Without them, I feel lost.

  • Alfredalfred - Apple essentially ripped off a bunch of Alfred in Yosemite’s new Spotlight tool. But the original’s still better. With all kinds of shortcodes and plugins, this one’s essential. Get to know this quick-launching madman today.
  • littleipsumLittleipsum - Sometimes, lorem ipsum has its place. And this app will help you put it there. It lives in your menu bar, making it easy to throw some filler text right onto your clipboard.
  • colorsnapperColorSnapper - Here’s your go-to for grabbing colors from anywhere you see them. Set your keyboard shortcut and get the HEX, RGB, or RGBA value of a color straight onto your clipboard.
  • divvyDivvy - Divvy takes the pain out of managing your windows. You can set shortcuts for screen size and placement, as well as open a great tool for placing windows just where you want them on a grid.
  • menubrainMenuBrain - This stupid-simple app helps you keep snippets of information at your fingertips. It lives in your menu bar and will throw anything you’ve saved to your clipboard with one click.
  • fluxf.lux - f.lux adjusts your computer’s display to the time of day, warm at night and sunlight-bright during the day. Some have even argued that if you work late at night, you could even sleep better with f.lux. Give it a try for yourself.

Development

I’m a firm believer that all designers should learn to code. I’m not talking full-stack, backend, systems development. Just the basics. HTML, CSS, Javascript. Learning the language of the web can only help you as a designer. These are my go-to apps when development is the task at hand.

  • sublime-textSublime Text 3 - The development app space is crowded, but I love Sublime Text the most. You can install packages that extend the app’s functionality, including beautiful color schemes like Predawn.
  • codekitCodeKit - CodeKit helps you build websites faster and better. It works as a code compiler for awesome web things like Sass, it auto-refreshes browsers so you can instantly see your changes, and it just works.
  • towerTower 2 - As soon as you get up and running with code, you’ll need to get to know Git, and Tower’s my go-to app for managing all my Git repositories. Sure, you can do it all through the CLI, but why bother with that when Tower can lay it all out for you visually?
  • imageoptimImageOptim - This is one of those apps that does one thing really well. After you’ve exported your assets for the web, just drag and drop them into ImageOptim and watch your page load times drop. If you aren’t optimizing your assets, I’d argue you don’t love your users.
  • transmitTransmit - Transmit is the #1 FTP client for Mac OS X. If you need to move files up to a server, this app has you covered. I’ve been using it forever because it’s simply the best of the bunch.

Writing content

Just last week, John offered up 10 UX copywriting tips for designers designed to help you skip the lorem ipsum. I’ve always been an advocate for filling in your designs with content that’s as close to the real thing as possible. Lorem ipsum can play its part in blocking out space in a design, but when it comes time to show your work to a client or coworker, real content always sells the design.

This can be a real challenge at times, and for me, focus is the missing ingredient. The following apps provide the focus you need to craft winning content.

  • writer-proWriter Pro - This has been my favorite app for a long time. It walks you through the writing process from rough initial notes to the polished final product, giving you the confidence to work through your writing the right way: in drafts.
  • typed-roundTyped - This brand-new app goes toe-to-toe with all the features I’ve come to love in Writer Pro. It also helps you focus on your writing, and its robust export options are the sexiest part.

File syncing

This is still magical to me. Having my files somewhere online where I can always access them has saved my bacon more times than I care to count. I’ve got just one recommendation here, and believe me, it’s well worth the investment.

  • dropbox-iconDropbox - The tagline says it best: Your stuff, anywhere. If you can get to a computer with internet, you can get to your stuff. Magic, I tell you.

To-do lists

To-do lists are non-negotiable. Every time the words “I can do that” come out of your mouth, write it down. These apps will help.

  • todoistTodoist - Managing your to-dos is a snap with Todoist. You can share lists, sync across devices, plus do all the other magic you expect from an app these days.
  • cheddarCheddar - I’ve been a fan of Cheddar from day one. It’s super simple and instantly in sync on all your devices.

Note-taking

Believe it or not, note-taking is a skill. And if you need proof of that, just check your notes from last week’s standup. These apps make it easy to grab things you need to remember, and like any good app, sync across all your devices.

  • evernoteEvernote - Evernote has been my go-to for years. I love the ability to organize notes into notebooks and then share them. With its fine-tuned balance of complexity and ease of use, it never disappoints.
  • simplenoteSimplenote - Simplenote lives up its name’s promise, offering shared lists, synching, and quick search, all for free. It’s definitely worth a try.

Calendering

No matter how many designers petition for the death of meetings, they’re a necessary evil. So you can’t have a job without meetings. But you can have beautiful apps that help you wrangle your day.

Both of these apps boast beautiful interfaces that make your calendar more accessible and enjoyable. I personally use them in tandem, creating invites from the menu bar with Fantastical and managing my full schedule with Sunrise. A deadly pair, if I do say so myself.

  • sunriseSunrise - To my mind, this is what Apple Calendar should have been all along. The interface is cleaner, the hierarchy is approachable, and changing the language from Yes/No to Going/Decline seems so natural to me.
  • fantasticalFantastical - This app introduced plain-language calendar event creation to my life. It lives in your menu bar, always ready to help you create events. Just type something like “Lunch with Mike Friday from 11–1 at Taco Diner”—the magic of Fantastical handles the rest.

Processes drive the apps

Remember that an app is only as good as the reason you’re using it. To be a truly amazing designer, you need to focus on the things that will make you great: doing what you promised to, showing up where you’re supposed to be, building meaningful experiences, communicating well, and using your time wisely. These foundations can help you be an amazing designer—if your focus is on the right things.

Author

Ben Jordan
Storyteller and Agent of Change. Lover of people and ambassador of good experience.

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