Maybe it's just Gmail, or maybe it's something more esoteric like Processing, but there are certain apps we rely on so much that if they suddenly went missing, we'd have a hard time getting by. That's especially true for designers. Their livelihoods depend upon great software. What's more, as people who dissect design details all day, they have unique insights into what makes an app great. They can see UI/UX friction points the way Superman can see microscopic structural flaws in steel.
So we combed out rolodexes and reached out to more than two dozen designers to ask about the apps they couldn't live without. While a few designers said they don't use apps at all—Sagi Haviv and Daan Roosegaarde, we're talking about you on the Internet, if you even know what that is! :)—most designers had at least a couple apps they wanted to wax appreciatively about.
Some of these apps are aimed specifically at designers, but many of them are useful to anyone. Here are the apps the designers we quizzed love most.
What It Is: A Mac app for automatically replacing abbreviations with text snippets.
Why It's Indispensable: "It’s awesome for date and time templates or when you want to quickly drop your contact details into an email. There’s a bunch of pre-defined snippets and you can create custom ones," says Lee Simpson, product designer at ustwo.
What It Is: From Github, a cross-platform, hackable text editor.
Why It's Indispensable: According to Toby Milner-Gulland, senior designer at Moving Brands, the version control options and versatility of Atom make it the text editor to beat.
What It Is: A cross-platform app and website prototyping tool.
Why It's Indispensable: "Axure is our go-to prototyping tool," says Jason Broughton, head of user experience, Zappos. "It gives us a way to rapidly create design prototypes for user testing, build documentation, and stakeholder presentations. The Team Project feature allows us to collaborate on projects without the fear of overwriting others work. The best part of the tool is that it’s versatile for designing mockups on phone, tablet, and desktop."
What It Is: An Adobe-owned website and app for designers to share their portfolios online.
Why It's Indispensable: "I love browsing through Bēhance to see what other designers are working on. You can use the app to follow your favorite designers, or use the 'Discover' function to browse the best current designs in any conceivable subject. The iPad version works great as well," says Eleanor Lutz, data visualizer at Tabletop Whale.
What It Is: Google's cross-platform web browser, available on Mac, PC, Linux, and mobile, as well as the basis for the Chrome operating system.
Why It's Indispensable: Due to its compliance with modern web standards, fantastic speed and reliability, Chrome is "the best browser for testing, experimenting and on any platform," according to Toby Milner-Gulland, senior designer at Moving Brands.
What It Is: An online platform for sharing anything between computers, including screenshots, files, web links, and even screen recordings.
Why It's Indispensable: "I’ve been using CloudApp for as long as I can remember," says Lee Simpson, product designer at ustwo. "For quickly hosting screenshots and small files it beats Dropbox hands-down and it makes it super easy to send image links to clients without cluttering up an email. I’m still on the free plan and I haven’t maxed it out yet. For bigger files, I use Dropbox, naturally."
What It Is: A cross-platform digital locker for all your recipes, notes, receipts, and other digital files.
Why It's Indispensable: "I work across lots of different devices, including my MacBook Pro, iPhone 6 Plus, and Samsung S6 Edge, so I need a way to capture ideas, thoughts, discussions, screenshots and pictures no matter where I am or what device I have handy," says Josh Bloom, VP of design at Skully. "Evernote makes sure all of those platforms are in sync and I can find anything I've captured, whether paper sketches, whiteboard photos, product ideas, blog posts or book ideas."
What It Is: An online reader for RSS feeds with support for loads of apps.
Why It's Indispensable: "A friend put me on to Feedbin about six months ago as an alternative to Feedly. Feedly just became too clunky, it had a ton of features I never used and an interface that got in the way of the content—at one point I stopped checking my feeds. I like that Feedbin is really simple, and it just works! $3 a month and it integrates with Reeder," says Lee Simpson, product designer at ustwo.
What It Is: A prototyping tool for interfaces, interactions, and animations.
Why It's Indispensable: "I only started using Framer Studio recently but it looks like it's going to become an integral part of my workflow," says Raphaël de Courville of ART+COM Studios. "Framer is in its early stages so some features are still a bit rough around the edges, but it is very promising and integrates perfectly with Photoshop and Sketch."
What It Is: An online, collaborative text editor owned by Dropbox.
Why It's Indispensable: "I'm a big fan of Hackpad for collaborating on documents. I use it to compile resources when doing research (it embeds video automatically which is great for gathering content from various video platforms all in one place) as well as for drafting articles," Raphaël de Courville says. "Since anyone can join and contribute to a pad, it is a great tool to take turns writing notes during a meeting or a conference."
What It Is: Google's cross-platform messaging, voice calling, and video conferencing platform.
Why It's Indispensable: "I work in Portland, my clients are in SF, and my co-workers are in NY, so I live in Google Hangouts," says Joe Stewart, co-founder of Work & Co. "Nothing is as good as being in a room with somebody, but, it works tremendously well—even on the phone. Being able to see someone's face when you talk to them is super powerful. It's great for sharing work and it's relatively lightweight."
What It Is: A recipe tool for linking together multiple services: for example, making sure that all your starred Gmails automatically get backed up to your Dropbox.
Why It's Indispensable: "I signed up to IFTTT sometime in 2010 (I was part of the original beta) and I’ve used it religiously ever since," Lee Simpson, product designer at ustwo, says. "I’ve used it to backup photos, capture links I’ve shared, send reminders, cross post to social networks—basically, it does a ton of stuff. Recently I built an SMS mood-tracking app by stringing together a few ‘recipes’—it’s so quick for experimenting with fairly complex ideas and prototypes."
What It Is: A vector graphics editor by Adobe for creating original digital art.
Why It's Indispensable: "This is the one I use most frequently pretty much for everything, including drawing, design, user flows, and wireframes," Sandijs Ruluks, founder of Froont, says. Toby Milner-Gulland, senior designer at Moving Brands, agrees: "The best app for any sophisticated vector drawing as well as wire framing and layouts."
What It Is: Apple's version of PowerPoint, Keynote is software for creating presentations, available on the iPad and Mac.
Why It's Indispensable: "Keynote, which I use on my MacBook Pro, is great for sharing designs and concepts to larger audiences. You can very quickly create click-through prototypes that exhibit great animation and transitions. People are even making great motion graphics that look like something from After Effects (see Linda Dong's recent work)," says Josh Bloom, VP of design at Skully. Sandijs Ruluks, founder of Froont, puts it more succinctly: "Design is only one side of the equation. For telling the 'why' behind a design, I turn to Keynote."
What It Is: A social network for professionals.
Why It's Indispensable: "Obviously LinkedIn is a great place for finding a new job, but it’s also a good resource for staying connected to the design community," writes Jason Broughton, head of user experience at Zappos. " Clichéd aspirational image posts aside, it’s easy to find a group having in-depth conversations on design. We’re currently following a great thread on the evolution of personas."
What It Is: The latest version of Google's mobile operating system, available on smartphones, tablets, wearables, and even the occasional laptop.
Why It's Indispensable: Charles Fulford, group creative director at Huge, says he couldn't live without Lollipop's Priority Mode. "Priority Mode allows me to turn off all but extremely important notifications on my phone," he says. According to Fulford, good work requires focused time. "I constantly see clients in meetings staring at their phones every 23 seconds. Listening, and the natural empathy that accompanies it, are core tools to great design. Priority Mode clears the airwaves during frenetic days."
What It Is: Mindmapping software for the iPhone, iPad, and the Mac.
Why It's Indispensable: "A MindNode diagram is like a subway map to me, and the design helps us navigate through our work," explains Jannie Lai, head of UX at Light. "I use this app to capture all things big and small—everything from concept models and design hierarchy, and all the way down to specific gestures and features. It provides a bird's-eye view of our work. As designers respond more to visuals than a text document, I find it to be an effective tool for planning and communication."
What It Is: A designer-centric sketchbook app for iPad.
Why It's Indispensable: "I like to start any design work with a sketch. My favorite app for this is Paper by FiftyThree as it’s easy to generate new concepts that can be shared with the team," says Shaun Tollerton, Product Designer at ustwo.
What It Is: Adobe's legendary photo-editing and retouching software.
Why It's Indispensable: "Once I’m confident with a sketch or concept I will use Photoshop to bring the design to life," writes Shaun Tollerton, product designer at ustwo. "Yes it’s a very bloated tool, but it does what I need it to do with ease. All design elements are vector-based too so that the design can be scaled easily."
What It Is: A popular social network based off of online bookmarking.
Why It's Indispensable: "This is hardly an underground app, but I’ve been surprised at how often I come back to it," explains Charles Fulford, group director at Huge. "Like the elusive blue whale, free time and inspiration both surface quickly and stick around for a short time, so the ability to access Pinterest from any device (and even effortlessly from Chrome plugins) makes this an ever present and ever expanding design museum without walls." Jason Broughton, head of user experience at Zappos, agrees: "You’d be hard pressed to find a designer who hasn’t used Pinterest for a project."
What It Is: A cross-platform app for creating 100% native prototypes, no matter what device you're on—even wearables.
Why It's Indispensable: "At the moment, we're working on creating watch faces for Android Wear, so I’ll use Pixate to prototype due to its support for the platform," writes Shaun Tollerton, product designer at ustwo. "This allows me to validate proposed designs and test their functionality."
What It Is: An open-source programming language for new media art, electronics arts, and visual design projects.
Why It's Indispensable:
"It lets me quickly explore design possibilities in code," says Raphaël de Courville, ART+COM Studios. "When necessary, it can scale to develop more complex installations. I like that it offers the quick feedback loop necessary for the iterative creation process I'm used to."
What It Is: A statistical computing environment, useful for making data visualizations.
Why It's Indispensable: "Although technically not a 'design app,' it’s irreplaceable for me. I make data graphics and R is good at handling data. There’s a substitute for everything else I use," says Nathan Yau, founder of FlowingData.
What It Is: A user interface and icon design tool.
Why It's Indispensable: "Everyone in the design team relies on Skala to look at their work real-time on their phones," says Jannie Lai, head of UX at Light. "We want to make sure our design looks right in a high-pixel density screen, but we also make sure it is comfortable to use."
What It Is: An easy-to-use UI/UX design app.
Why It's Indispensable: "Sketch on my MacBook Pro handles wire framing and visual design with equal aplomb. It's deeply vector-based and has a ton of great features to output various sizes of design assets without lots of work," explains Josh Bloom, VP of design at Skully. Joe Stewart, co-founder of Work & Co. agrees, although he points out that the app is only really good for designing iPhone apps. "They don't seem to care much about supporting Android, which seems idiotic to me," he says.
What It Is: A cross-platform team communication tool based around persistent chat rooms.
Why It's Indispensable: Amazingly, Slack was the app mentioned by more of the designers we polled than any other. Charles Fulford, group creative director at Huge, chalks it up to the fact that collaboration and communication are key for any design work. "Having all accounts and projects organized and searchable under one roof and accessible from any device helps soothe daily chaos," he says. "The ability to check comps within Slack and give instant feedback keeps projects moving. Also, third-party integrations provide seamless workflow. For example, Box gives access to all project files—from briefs to research to wireframes to comps. Slackbot even retrieves a daily feed of inspiration from Product Hunt."
What It Is: A graphical text editor for OS X, specializing in code and markup.
Why It's Indispensable: "Text editors are my most used type of app. I use them for everything from keeping track of my ideas to writing code," says Ryder Ripps, creative director at OKFocus. "To be honest, I have used many text editors, so I don't really care that much about which one I use: TextMate gets the most use, but I used to use BBEdit, Text Wrangler, and Notepad, too."
Editor's Note: Are you a designer with a favorite app (not your own) you want added to this list? Feel free to leave a comment below and we'll fold it into the post.