What Tools Do You Need?

A mechanic is only as good as his or her tools, or so the saying goes. The ones that care about their work the most are the ones that most significantly invest in their tools. It’s true for auto body shops, and it’s true for design shops as well.

Before making a serious effort to create an app, designers need to make sure they have the best equipment available at all times. When starting out, this can be a bit difficult, as new computers and professional software are often quite expensive. To avoid wasting money on improper tools, it’s important to get the best bang for your tech buck.

Many of the tools and tips recommended in this chapter developed from labors of love: fondness and expertise forged over a couple of years and a hundred apps worth of experience. But it’s important to note that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions when it comes to choosing tools or selecting a process to draft a design. The following recommendations come from a process that has led to the creation of several successful apps, but if you come across a piece of software better suited to your task at hand don’t be afraid of going your own route. Likewise, the tools available to designers grow and evolve at a lightning-quick pace, and new products are constantly hitting the market that make design faster, easier, and more efficient. It’s always worth giving new products a try, as any learning curve involved may pay off significantly down the road.

The first tool needed in a designer’s supply kit is one that’s essential to everyone from elementary school students to rocket scientists: a quality notebook, journal, or word processor. Being a successful interaction designer requires taking notes consistently and excessively. Everything from trends in the industry seen in other apps to thoughts on personal work should be documented for future reference.

NOTE: Remember that the tool suggestions in this chapter are just that: suggestions. If you currently have a workflow that functions better than what’s recommended, feel free to diverge (or, even better, share your setup with other designers online). The goal is to do apps well, regardless of the tools and methods used.

Interaction design focuses on the constant development of a product in order to increase usability and value, so there’s always room to improve a work. As is also true for painters and comedians, inspiration doesn’t always strike at the most convenient moments. Some of a designer’s best ideas will come when he or she isn’t working; they’ll arrive while walking down the street or in the middle of the night. Always having a notebook or phone-based word processor handy is a great way to quickly jot down thoughts as soon as genius strikes. Try Field Notes by Draplin Design Company and Coudal Partners. These handy, portable notebooks come in a standard size that’s roughly the same aspect ratio, width, and height as a smartphone screen and, likewise, work well to approximately portray a scaled-down tablet screen. They fit well in a pants pocket or purse, and they’re great for scrawling out quick ideas or sketching out design prototypes.

When it comes to computer hardware for a designer’s utility belt, it’s tough to suggest anything other than an Apple laptop running OS X, preferably the most recent version available so there are no issues with compatibility for Apple’s development applications. There’s no denying that all iOS development and interface design implementation and most Android development takes place on computers running OS X. Access to Windows is required, however, for Windows phone app development, so designers planning on taking that route will need to keep that in mind.

If you don’t plan on doing any coding at all and most of your work will be focused on creating visual designs, you could be perfectly fine with a Windows PC. Do consider using a machine, however, that will allow you to commit code for the projects you plan on contributing to, even if you don’t see yourself as the programming type. It can be very valuable for designers to have access to source code for modifying art files or making basic code changes, typography selections, or color choices. If you plan on developing for iOS, it will be well worth your while to have an Apple laptop or desktop so that you won’t be limited in case you want to tinker with code in the future.

The most frequently recommended computer for mobile design is Apple’s MacBook Pro, ideally one with a Retina display. The benefits of the mobility a laptop provides far outweigh the added power provided by a desktop. Apple’s most recent laptops with Retina display are great for designing work that looks fantastic on the high-resolution displays found in most phones and tablets. Designing on a low-density display can be difficult, because in some cases you may not be able to preview app designs from Photoshop or a similar program in full resolution. If cost is an issue, the MacBook Air is an excellent laptop, but steer clear of the 11-inch model; such a small screen size will make design work difficult.

If a stationary computer is preferable based on your personal needs, a designer can’t go wrong with an iMac, either. These need to be capable of professional-level functionality, so it’s best to purchase the most well-equipped computer you can afford. If you’re low on budget, Apple’s Mac mini is a more than capable machine for design and development. The biggest and best system isn’t always essential; for most practical purposes, Apple’s recently redesigned Mac Pro is probably overkill for the type of work you’ll be doing.

WARNING! Upgrades Can Be Difficult

It’s important to note that for many Apple computers, specifically the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and iMac, it can be difficult or impossible to upgrade RAM or hard drive storage space after purchase. Carefully consider your spec decisions before ordering a computer.

Preferences for design software can vary greatly based on personal taste, but there are a few essential tools to look for in any program. First and foremost, designers need some sort of wireframe or mockup function that can take interaction ideas and translate them into a visual element programmers can use to begin their work.