The design apps you need to know about

Alex Bigman

The number of design apps out there is simply staggering. Think of any handy tool—calendars, sketch programs, color palette generators, font references—and you’ll find a dozen apps for it, each with slightly different functionality. What is more, almost all of them are well designed (they are made for a demanding market, after all). So how do you choose?

The best approach is to think about what sort of features would really make your life better, and then do research into a couple of different options. Fortunately for you, we’ve done most of the leg work and assembled a heaping handful of the best design apps in several categories. Once you try these out, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without them!

1. Organization and collaboration apps

Organization and collaboration app
Via Paper by 53

For a long time, the titan of organization and management apps has been Evernote, which allows you to create checklists, sync them across devices and communicate with team members. But now there’s a new kid on the block, who we think is much more suave and amenable to creative types: Paper. Similar idea, but with more of an emphasis on sketching—onto blank notes, photographs or web pages you may want to mark up. And did we mention it’s free?

Todo app
Via Todo

It’s also useful to have an app that will help you keep on top of your tasks and to-dos, preferably one that is able to send you reminders and sync across devices. Omnifocus is a true powerhouse in this category, but it ain’t cheap. Clear is by far the most aesthetically pleasing.

But in our opinion Todo is the best bet, offering substantial functionality including calendar views and the ability to sync and collaborate easily. (For those looking for a calendar alternative, check out Sunrise).

Harvest app
Via Harvest

For many designers, one of the biggest organization challenges is keeping on top of how many hours you have worked so you know how much to bill clients, and this only gets more complicated when you involve a team or start outsourcing work.

Well, there’s an app for that. A few actually. Hours is a very good and inexpensive time tracking option, but if you are working on a more complex level you may prefer Harvest for all of your expense logging and invoicing needs.

2. Sketching and drawing apps

Adobe Illustrator Draw
Via Adobe Illustrator Draw

Obviously if you are a designer, you already have a set of programs you like installed on your desktop. But what about when you’re on the go? For those who want to draw on iPads or even iPhones, there are a number of options.

Among the most professional drawing apps are Adobe Illustrator Draw, built for free form vector design that can be uploaded directly to Creative Cloud, and Autodesk Graphic, which is particularly good for logo work.

ProCreate
Via ProCreate

On the more artsy side of the spectrum, you have some alternative choices. ProCreate is an exceptional painting app for intermediate to advanced artists. It doesn’t take too long to get the hang of, but it definitely takes some effort to fully master it.

If you’re looking for a more simple, casual creative outlet, consider Tayasui Sketch. There are just a handful of brushes, but all of them look great and are reasonably responsive.

3. Web and app design apps

Adobe Comp
Via Adobe Comp

When it comes to web and app design, a lot of designers prefer to start off using a more casual interface, where they can think through UX and UI issues before getting into the details. The real magic might not happen at the desktop, but with an iPad on the couch or even on the subway.

One design app that caters to this approach is App Cooker, a simple and easy-to-use prototyping studio. Another option with much more functionality is Adobe Comp, which automatically converts your sketched layouts into crisp outlines and saves your work to Creative Cloud so you can finish it on InDesign, Illustrator or Photoshop.

 Ikonica
Via Ikonica

A key concern for app designers is the ability to test a design across devices—making sure it looks just as good on an actual mobile phone as it does blown up on a computer. Design Duet and Adobe Edge Inspect offer exactly that capability.

Meanwhile, Ikonica does something similar for app icons, allowing users to see how they appear on the mobile device for which they are intended. (A similar app called Skala is in the works, but currently only offering a preview mode.)

4. Color apps

Adobe Color
Via Adobe Color

The number of color apps out there is mind boggling. Some provide rather specific services that might sound unnecessary but are actually very useful, like 0 to 25, which helps web designers quickly find lighter or darker versions of a given color.

The majority, however, are more broad in function. Apps like MyPantone, Palettes, Adobe Color and Pictaculous all enable you to easily generate color palettes (for example, based on a photo), save and share them. Which one you choose will be a matter of preference. If you’re looking for inspiration, Colour Lovers provides access to color schemes generated by a large community of users.

5. Typography apps

Fontbook
Via Fontbook

Typography nerds and initiates can rejoice: there are a lot of great design apps in this category, many of them serving very different purposes. Some of them are essentially memory aids, like The Font Game, from I Love Typography, which quizzes you on your fonts to help you memorize names and characteristics.

Font Book is more straightforward, but an absolutely indispensable reference. Easily look up fonts from over 145 foundries, categorized by name, designer and style.

Fontli
Via Fontli

What the Font also makes a great app, with software that does a pretty good job of identifying fonts you give it in the form of screenshots—an easy way to identify cool fonts you encounter in your internet travels. Its functionality has also been integrated into other apps like Fontli, where a typography-loving community uploads inspiring type that What the Font tags.

iFontMaker
Via iFontMaker

Typecast is an extremely useful resource for designers. It allows you to experiment on a web browser with tons of fonts usually limited to subscription services like Typekit, Font Deck, Fonts.com and Google Fonts. And if you decide that the typeface you need simply doesn’t exist, you can create your own using iFontmaker for iPhone or iPad.

6. Social design apps

Behance
Via Behance

Finally, as a designer it is important to be a part of a community where you can share your work, get feedback and find inspiration. We aim to provide such a platform on 99designs. Another great social platform is Behance, which plugs right into Adobe Creative Cloud so you can easily share your work. They now have an app for iOS and Android.

TED app
Via TED

Besides communicating directly with peers, it is a good idea keep on top of credible design publications like Computer Arts, which has an app so you can peruse it on your phone or tablet. Use Instapaper to download articles so you can read them later, even without an internet connection.

Don’t feel like reading? Try the TED Talks app instead, which has an entire subsection devoted to design.

What design apps did we miss? Share your favorites in the comments!

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