There’s no denying 2020 was a difficult year to be a freelancer.
Work was scarce, pay not at its usual level, and the number of people willing to take a risk on an inexperienced web designer has dropped significantly.
By all accounts, 2021 is much of the same, as long as COVID-19 remains a persistent issue.
As freelance web designers, to ensure that we make the most of this year, we need to make smart investments in tools that will not just help us in our day to day work, but find projects where we can shine.
That’s why I’ve put together a list of four crucial tools for freelance web designers to ensure you can find great opportunities and do your talents justice.
What to look for in freelance web design tools?
Before you dive into my choice for the best tools for freelance web designers in 2021, it’s crucial to address what’s important to look for in a tool before making your choice.
Many blogs will lazily recommend the industry standard, which doesn’t necessarily offer the best option for a freelancer looking to make their mark.
Here are four elements to consider before committing to a tool.
- Price: Subscriptions can be expensive and often come with a huge early cancellation fee. Before committing the future of your freelance operation to a select few tools ensure you’re getting value for money and can reasonably budget for it. Affordability is essential, and there may be a lesser-known alternative out there that offers more bang for your money. Consider using a budgeting and accounting app to get your finances in order.
- Accessible learning curve: Some web design tools are difficult to master, and while you should dedicate some time to learning the basics before offering your talents as a service there’s no point struggling with poorly designed tools. Tools with an accessible learning curve make things simple, with an easy to understand UI and simple integration with other essential tools.
- Industry cache: While I do recommend looking for bargains, sometimes it’s beneficial to go with tools that have a certain level of name recognition within the industry. For example, try and stick to recognised file-sharing software such as Microsoft Office for immediate familiarity and comfort (while this can be expensive, third party distributors can offer great, industry-leading tools at a reduced rate).
- Flexibility and features: Some great tools do one thing well, but the very best are multi-purpose. Whether it’s a well-thought-out full service like the one Slack offers or a more flexible tool that gets more powerful with every use, you want the tools you invest in to have more to it than meets the eye.
What is really important for web design in 2021?
Now you know what to look for in a tool, let’s take a quick detour to check in on the state of the web design industry in 2021.
To become a really effective freelance website designer, you need to understand the hottest trends. Clients are going to be asking for them, and you need a way to integrate them into your services.
- Mobile responsiveness: Probably your number one priority in today’s portable device-driven society. Some web designers fall prey to thinking desktop-only, but ensuring you can build websites that work just as well on mobile is essential for getting work as a freelancer. After all, we all know how popular they are.
- Accessibility and useability: It sounds obvious, but if a website isn’t very usable, it won’t get very far. Sure, every user has their own personal preference, but there is a lot to be learned from following best practice conventions of web design.
- Page speed: You might think you’re a patient person, but what happens when the website you want to visit takes more than 3 seconds to load? Most people leave that site, and you need to consider that. Don’t let your site suffer at the expense of elaborate ideas. Simple, usable and speedy are the most important traits of a great website.
- Easily upgradeable: Very few clients will want a website that feels stagnant and can’t move with the times. Offering a build or design that allows for simple integration and swift appearance changes is important. Don’t be particular about your work; this is a constantly adapting industry.
My recommended freelance tools for web designers in 2021
Now that I’ve given sufficient background on the lay of the land and what should catch your eye with a web design tool let’s get onto my recommendations for crucial tools every web design freelancer needs in 2021.
A significant number of freelance web designers use either Photoshop or Sketch to produce their designs. If you’re one of them, Zeplin is the reliable assistant you need.
Zeplin was designed with a particular aim in mind — make collaboration between designers and developers easier. That sure helps when you’re a freelancer trying to collaborate with an external company you can never get in the same room with!
Inside Zeplin’s intuitive design, users can click on everything they see without the fear it might mess up hours and hours of hard work. It’s a tool that’s equally useful for developing big design ideas and making small tweaks along the way.
But where do Photoshop and Sketch come in? Well, Zeplin shows its value by translating both kinds of files into a web-based app. This makes your design much easier to access and saves precious time when you’re on a tight schedule.
One of the most important lessons of lockdown has been the value of clear communication. That’s not just true for businesses, but freelancers too.
In 2021 you need the tools that help you organise effectively and communicate with clients on the go.
Basecamp is one of the most prominent project management tools out there, with an intuitive blend of communication and productivity-focused features.
The benefits of a project management tool should be obvious (clearly defined tasks, easy to follow checklists and the option to add notes when inspiration hits), but where Basecamp thrives is the simplicity in which these benefits are realised. Clients can be given logins and gain access to all the stages of your design, allowing them to feel involved in the process and reducing spent time explaining concepts over Zoom.
An essential tool for not just streamlining existing projects, but enhancing your ability to win new ones.
As a freelancer, time is the greatest commodity you have.
Freelancers deal in time and often find themselves going over for that very reason.
If you’re the kind of web designer who always runs up the clock, it might be worth using RescueTime. I know what you’re thinking, you’ve used time trackers before, and it’s just highlighted a problem rather than solved it. This tool is different, though.
Running in the background RescueTime automatically tracks how long you spend on particular websites and apps without manual entry. This means no mistakes and a clearer picture of where you actually spend your time, rather than what you remember to track.
Their detailed reporting system allows you to address your productivity issues and change them, while their training programs are great for web designers with a bit of downtime that wants to become as productive as they claim to be.
Adobe Kuler / Type Genius
Without the basics of design, you won’t get very far into your pitch.
Having the right colour palettes and font options is essential to becoming the versatile web designer you need to win clients.
The branding rules from 2020 still rule in 2021, so ensuring you have the tools to blend a company’s message, ethos and mission into something as ever-present as a font or banner colour, is essential.
That’s why every good freelance web designer in 2021 should have Adobe Kuler and Type Genius in their arsenal.
Kuler features a selection of pre-made colour swatches that are ideal for created designs of all flavours — from subtle, grounded ideas to lavish meshes of bold colours. This tool makes it easy to experiment outside of the pressure of a design, crucial to bossing the pitching process.
Type Genius plays a very similar role, making the text pop in every design you pull together. This straightforward website helps you find the perfect partner font for your main choice. A brilliant tool for when you’re settled on one font, but can’t find the perfect complement to it.
Before I go… a little extra!
Before I leave you to explore these tools by yourself, I thought I’d highlight just a few more general types of tools that are relevant to all freelancers.
- Freelance sourcing platforms such as Fiverr make it much easier to find both short and long term projects. Both fresh startups and industry leaders are comfortable using these platforms to find web designers.
- The use of images is essential for presenting a proper pitch and bringing your designs to life. A Shutterstock subscription entitles you to thousands of images you can use to make your designs stand out. iStock, Freepik and Photocase provide somewhat more affordable alternatives.
- If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us one thing, it’s the importance of video chat software. While Zoom rules the roost, I also recommend alternative options such as JoinMe which offer the same essential features for pitch presentations, such as screen sharing.
- Finally, while I highly recommend my own blog, freelance specific blogs such as The Freelancer offer superb tips for both new and experienced professionals going it alone.
Okay, so I may not have been able to hold back from recommending just four tools there, but I think I’ve given a pretty comprehensive overview of what freelancers should be equipping themselves with in 2021.
Of course, if there are tools, you feel more comfortable or experience with, go for it! As long as your talents shine through, and your work is easily accessible to the client, you should try and use tools that make you feel empowered.