7 Essential Tools for Freelance Designers

There are many reasons why you probably became a freelance designer. Perhaps you started freelancing right out of school, picturing a life that seamlessly combined artistic endeavors with financial solvency. Or, maybe after years of designing in-house you decided you had enough contacts, knowledge and confidence to make a go of it on your own. No matter where or why you started, one thing you probably didn’t anticipate was all the management freelance requires, whether tracking your time, finding new clients, or answering customer inquiries. When you’re a freelancer, you’re not just a designer; you’re your own marketing manager, customer service representative, salesperson, office manager, bookkeeper and sometimes even a debt collector.

If you’re not careful, it’s easy to become so consumed by the business side of your design work that you lose passion for what you’re doing. To prevent burnout, it’s crucial to find tools that will centralize and streamline your work, so you can spend less time managing and more time designing. Or, in other words, to nurture your creativity within structure. These top 7 essential tools will help you do just that.

1. Time Tracking with Toggl

Toggl
If you bill directly for your time or build time caps into your project estimates, tracking your time accurately is a necessity. Sure, you could do this in a spreadsheet or (dare we say it) on the back of an envelope, but the more projects you have, the more difficult winging it becomes, especially on design projects with lots of littler tasks within that bigger umbrella. And, even if you do this intuitively, syncing this information with your accounting and billing software can be a big time suck.

While there are a host of effective tools out there, Toggl is the best of the lot as it helps you not just track your time but also understand how you’re using it. Your use of the tool will begin when you enter a task to be done, assign it to a project, and then press “start.” When you’re done using the time tracker, Toggl offers charts that visually break down your activities, which are helpful for both budgeting your time and putting together more accurate project estimates in the future. It works seamlessly with Quickbooks and Freshbooks, as well as with mobile devices so you can go from tracking time to billing for it on any platform. And, of course, as any good contemporary tool should, it’s easy to share with others — clients included.

2. Communicate with MailChimp

MailChimp
A good email marketing campaign is a relatively simple way to maintain contact with former and present clients, and to be the name that comes first to mind when they’re looking for more design help. Beyond having a wonderfully cheeky sense of humor, MailChimp is great because it allows you to design personal email templates, so you can show off your own design during a campaign.

It’s easy to create multiple lists for multiple clients, and to see who’s actually opening your email… and with whom you should follow up. You can send campaigns right to your clients’ Facebook walls, easily produce forms, and visualize your communications efforts with a host of tools. Plus, chances are you’ll eventually have a client ask you to design them a MailChimp template anyway, so you might as well get familiar with the program now.

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3. Billing with Freshbooks

Freshbooks
As more and more of our work moves to the now ubiquitous cloud, it only makes sense that your invoicing efforts would too. Freshbooks is really the leader in cloud invoicing, allowing you to create customized invoices as well as quotes and estimates just like you would in a standard billing program. What really sets Freshbooks apart is how easy it is to access from any of your devices, and how well it integrates with other online services, like contacts in your email and other products and services. It’s easily accessible for clients, too, who can see how you’re spending your time.

What’s more it’s pretty simple to record payments and expenses. Overall, these many features enable you to get a better view of your finances, so you can make informed decisions. And, of course, so you can track payments and remind customers to pull out that credit card without having to beat down doors.

4. Project Management with Basecamp

Basecamp
By their nature, projects never stay as simple and centralized as they are in the project proposal. Clients change their minds mid-task, features are added and subtracted, and work on big projects becomes difficult to track as they’re broken down into their many moving parts. This is all the more true when you’re collaborating with other designers or members of a client’s company.

Basecamp gets rid of all the clutter by centralizing your projects in an easy to use dashboard, where different actions are color-coded for a quick, bird’s eye view of what’s on deck. It’s easy to set milestones, as well as to communicate with select, relevant collaborators about the progress of work. You can also store documents and other files (though this feature isn’t available in the free version). There’s a calendar where you can easily lay out your time and better pace yourself through projects — all of which is of course shareable with collaborators. And, while it’s a breeze to share with clients, it’s also easy to not share with clients, showing them only what they need to see, when they need to see it.

5. Stock Photos with Shutterstock

Shutterstock

After those first four tips, it’d be easy to be left with the impression we think the only tools a designer needs (besides Photoshop, of course) have nothing to do with design at all. So, once you’ve got these nitty-gritty, business backend systems in place, how will you find that design inspiration? One answer amongst many is stock photography —  at the site Shutterstock, specifically. Whether it’s a quick browse through people shots or a long peruse through intense abstract photos, flipping through the stunning photographs on offer on this site will be sure to get the design wheels spinning. The key term search box is good for this, too, allowing you take the key ideas from your brief and find stock photos and stock footage to support them.

And of course, Shutterstock can do much more than inspire your design efforts; it can make your vision a reality, too. Set at one, royalty-free price, Shutterstock’s photos, vectors and stock footage are much more cost-efficient than employing photographers, videographers or other designers directly. Overall, Shutterstock is to design what paint is to a painter: the raw materials needed to realize a creative vision. A whole warehouse of them.

6. Adobe Kuler

Adobe Kuler

Color – It’s one of the most basic design elements. But as a designer you know that nothing can influence a project, for better or for worse, more than its color palette. When the colors fit, all seems right in the world. But the perfect palette can sometimes feel really elusive.

While there are hosts of color brainstorming solutions out there, by far one of the best and most adaptive tools is Adobe Kuler. You can browse a ton of premade themes or start from scratch and create your own custom palette. Simply enter a starting value (either on the fly or by its respective color code) and then begin tweaking your complimentary values. And with a free price tag, it’s a tool you’ll most definitely want to tag in your bookmarks.

7. Fonts with Google Web Fonts

Google Web Fonts

We all understand the problems with typography on the web. For years we’ve been tied down to a small handful of fonts that refuse to evoke any design envy. But with the advances in CSS, web design has received a few pretty substantial face-lifts, fonts included. The problem however, is that many of these new font rendering techniques have either major compatibility or legal consequences, thereby making the web-font issue a complicated one.

Enter Google Web Fonts. A few years ago Google began developing an online library of open source web fonts that allowed designers to completely change how they were approaching typography on the web, all with just a few lines of CSS code. In just a matter of a few years, Google Web Fonts has grown into an ecosystem of more than 500 font families, thereby making it one of the best free resources any designer can find.

So there you have it: seven essential tools a freelance designer won’t want to live without. With your time, organization, projects and billing organized and your inspiration source set, you’ll be able to grow your freelance career into a full and thriving business. Happy designing!

Luke Clum is a Seattle based designer who specializes in web design and online marketing. He’s fascinated by the power of the internet to act as a catalyst for creative ideas. If he’s not pounding away at his computer, he’s most likely hiking or climbing in the mountains. You can follow him on Twitter @lukeclum

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13 Comments
  1. Sahil Saini Sep 16, 10:04 am

    You forgot to mention that Freshbooks has time tracking for projects as well. 3rd party apps, as well as in-browser capability to track time on projects, and create invoices automatically.

    Been using it for over a year and I love it.

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  2. Gregg Richter Sep 16, 6:35 pm

    Good list. I also like Tick for time tracking and Dreamstime for stock images.

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  3. Sean Sep 16, 10:49 pm

    Check you pancakeapp.com too – projects, time management, invoices, ……

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  4. TranceGeniK Sep 17, 10:22 am

    I would add an app to share designs with clients (like cageapp or something like it)

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  5. Kelly Sep 17, 3:39 pm

    I like Hours Tracking for time tracking – http://hourstracking.com. Just $1/month and meets my needs perfectly.

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  6. Dan Sep 17, 5:12 pm

    I would recommend checking out Gtdagenda.com for an online task & project manager.

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote, and also comes with mobile-web version, and Android and iPhone apps.

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  7. Oleg Sep 18, 12:54 pm

    Thank you for publishing this list!

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  8. Marianna Mills Sep 19, 10:57 am

    I did not use these systems, but I’ve heard a lot of good reviews of these systems. We are not a big IT company and have long used a system of collaboration http://www.teamwox.com . This system is ideal for task management tool, but it does not have the module “Project Management”. Perhaps it will suit you or you can search for other systems.

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  9. Natalia Sep 19, 1:18 pm

    Very nice and useful post! It is inspiring to see how users combine different cloud apps to make their job more effective. In this case you should be interested in services like CloudWork which actually connect business apps so that using them together is much easier and faster. Now it´s in the beta version so you can integrate only Freshbooks with Mailchimp but soon there will be more apps, as well as the possibility to create connections on your own.

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  10. Avi Sep 20, 3:28 pm

    Great list – I would check out Asana (http://www.asana.com) as a free alternative to Basecamp, and Traxmo (http://www.traxmo.com) as a free alternative to both Freshbooks and Toggl, as it tracks your time AND creates an invoice from the hours you were working.

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    +2
  11. Matt Sep 20, 7:53 pm

    I love Asana for project management and I use Billings (http://www.marketcircle.com/billings/) for time tracking and invoicing.

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  12. Jay Oct 19, 3:48 pm

    Another tool for invoicing and time tracking is Fanurio http://www.fanuriotimetracking.com . It helps with the less appealing aspects of freelancing like keeping track of time and billing. It costs $59 and it has a free trial.

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  13. Katrina Dan Jan 30, 8:30 pm

    Great tools to work with. Consider Talygen (time tracking) too. I am using Talygen for my managing my business tasks.

    Reply
    0

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