Freelance toolbox: essential gear and gadgets

Freelance Toolbox Gear and Gadgets Are you a graphic designer who dreams of being your own boss? Now are you scoffing at me for asking a really stupid question? As a newly self-employed designer with a hearty circle of creative friends who are also planning their escape route to freedom, I thought it would be fun to start this ongoing blog feature highlighting helpful tools and resources for anyone thinking about starting their own design studio.

It goes without saying that the crucial elements you need are a computer, design software and a whole lot of motivation. Other than that, our field doesn't require much in terms of start-up costs and equipment. I am not a gear-head and prefer to have as little on my desk as possible, so this is my shortlist of the additional items that I consider necessities for working from home.

1. USB hub : Even if you are a minimalist, chances are your computer does not have enough USB ports for all the things you need to keep connected. On any given day I am using my printer, Wacom tablet, digital camera, external hard drive, phone charger and thumb drive and I can attest that it is extremely annoying to constantly be swapping and untangling USB cords (not to mention a real time suck). I've been looking around for a while for the perfect USB hub and I keep coming back to this classy Aphrodite bust - she reminds me of all the inspiring women I know and I am a sucker for white.

2. Pantone color book : These can get a little costly, but they are a crucial investment if you are producing any printed materials. If you don't want to pony up for a new one, ask around online to see if anyone you know has one they don't use, or keep your eye out at your place of employment for ones that appear to have been forgotten about. It's not stealing if it is just going to get thrown out anyway, right?

3. Design and technical magazines : Because how else are you going to stay on top of the latest design trends and techniques when you are sitting at home every day all by yourself? I have been longing for a Computer Arts subscription for years, and since starting SIBLING it is calling to me louder than ever (except now its saying "Tax write-off!")

4. Wacom tablet : This is my preferred tool for designing, illustrating and browsing the web. I'm rocking the one my college roommate gave me in 2005 and it still works perfectly. If you haven't tried one out yet, I encourage you to try it for at least a week. You will be slower at first, but after you get adjusted you will be surprised at how much faster you can work. For me, my Wacom is a productivity booster.

5. External hard drive : Back. Your. Work. Up. Every. Day. Always. Your reputation and financial earnings are on the line - "my computer crashed" is not going to garner you any sympathy from a client who paid you money to deliver the project on time. Plus, do you really want to be that guy?

6. Information and confidence boosters : For me, this means educating myself by reading books about design practices and freelancing. My first essential recommendation is the Graphic Artists Guild Handbook: Pricing & Ethical Guidelines, which was recommended to me by another freelance friend (thanks Jodi!). Updated and published yearly, this is book contains a wealth of information about the proper procedures for determining rates, what to include in your contracts and what established industry practices you should abide by. My second information is My So-Called Freelance Life by Michelle Goodman. This book walks you through the basics of setting up your own freelance business step by step, with really specific, helpful information. It talks about pitfalls to avoid, all of the factors you should be considering when calculating your hourly rate, and for me, was a huge confidence booster. If you don't have confidence that you will succeed as a freelancer, you won't.

7. Camera, tripod, and lenses: Professional photography of  finished design projects is a cost I think few freelancers who are just starting out are able to afford. With the right equipment and a small time investment, you should be able to take your own *nearly* professional-looking photos. Somehow I made it through art school without a single photography class (I'm still upset about it too) but with a little practice with my camera, I am now able to take my own project photos that look pretty okay. My setup is simple - my Canon Rebel XTi, kit lens, 50mm f/1.8 lens (<- life changing, btw) and a tripod.

I hope this was helpful for some people. I'd love to hear what other designers consider essential freelance tools so please leave a comment and let me know what you can't live without. And check back next week for the next Designers Toolbox post, a round up of handy app and website resources.