I’m a great fan of the underdog and for that reason the idea of using freely available software rather than lining the pockets of a global corporation is always going to be an appealing proposition. The common thought is that if something is free then it can’t possibly be as good as it’s paid-for alternative but hopefully this list will dispel that myth. Each of the tools listed below is invaluable to me with my Red Robot work and is used daily. For any freelance web designer I would suggest that these tools form the basis of your online business. This is by no means a complete list of essential software (sadly you will have to pay for some things!) – and there are some caveats that I’ll point out as we go – but conversely I would describe each of these as essential downloads. Each title and image links to the corresponding download page.
Remember – there’s no better price than free!
When I first stumbled across GIMP it seemed too good to be true – a free, open-source alternative to Photoshop. A copy of Adobe Photoshop or Creative Suite can set you back a substantial sum (and with good reason – it’s a fantastic piece of software) but when you consider just how much of it’s functionality is freely available with GIMP you start to question why you’d ever splash out. GIMP stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program and is a layers-based photo editing programme that fares very well when compared to it’s more expensive competitor. Photoshop is still considered the industry-standard for image editing, and for a commercial product you’d expect it to have greater functionality than it’s poorer open-source rival (which it undoubtedly does), but when you consider that GIMP is a free download it has an awesome array of features. Also, as it’s open-source, new functionality is constantly being added in the way of community-developed plugins. Speaking of community, that’s another huge plus with GIMP – there is a large supportive community of GIMP users creating support material should ever need a helping hand.
The biggest drawback with GIMP is that in it’s basic form you can’t “save for web” but this can be added via a plugin. I choose to use both GIMP and Photoshop (albeit a very old version) as they both have their advantages and drawbacks. This is one of the most “valuable” free downloads in this list. Along with this little gem…
If ever there was a companion piece to GIMP it’s this. Another open-source gem to rival one of Adobe’s flagship products, Inkscape is a vector graphics editor similar to Adobe’s Illustrator. It’s a great tool for developing logos or other vector-based graphics. In the case of Inkscape vs Illustrator it’s a tricky one as both programmes can boast features that the other one doesn’t have. Either way, with some creative work-arounds both can pretty much emulate the final result of the other. In my opinion Inkscape is more user-friendly than Illustrator and, like GIMP, boasts a thriving supportive community of users.
For vector-graphics I use only Inkscape as it’s notonly an incredibly powerful programme but amazingly it’s free.
Whether you focus mostly on web design or web development, at some point you’ll need an FTP client to upload your files to a remote server – and that’s where Filezilla comes in. Filezilla is open-source and an essential component of any web-design business. My only criticism is that passwords are stored as plain text files and therefore have the potential to be exploited if your system is ever compromised. However, I choose to side-step this by opting to never save passwords within Filezilla (which is best practice in any case).
This is a must for any web designer/developer and there is absolutely no need to use any paid-for FTP client.
When you’re handling a client’s files you need to know that everything is backed up and secure (files are protected with 256-bit AES encryption and two-step verification). If you’re not already familiar with Dropbox, once it’s installed it creates a folder that is continuously monitored and automatically backs up it’s contents in real-time to the remote Dropbox servers. Having Dropbox installed on multiple machines also means that your files and folders can be completely synced between them. It also allows you to restore a file to a previously overwritten version which is a lifesaver should you make an error and not notice it immediately.
I know it could be misleading to have it on a list of free tools so let me explain how it works… The free option for Dropbox is limited to 2GB – this wouldn’t be anywhere near enough for a full backup of your system but is still an excellent tool for making files available on different machines. Several clients have used Dropbox as a means of transferring files for me to use on their project, and in turn I have used it to transfer instructional videos back to them.
Whilst the free version is a great tool for small transfers I have opted for the paid-for version (currently £7.99 a month) which gives you a whopping 1TB of storage. This means I always have an up to date backup of my work and I can flit between several machines knowing that everything I need is right there. For added peace of mind I also know that when I turn my laptop off I’m creating a local backup of my work, as any errors I may make to the files stored in Dropbox won’t affect my laptop so long as it remains disconnected from the internet.
This is free screen-capture recording software which is fantastic for producing instructional videos for clients. The free version is limited to a recording time of 15 minutes per video (this hasn’t been a problem for me) and features a Screencast-O-Matic watermark in the lower left of the screen. It’s incredibly easy to use and even the free version offers a good set of options for choosing audio devices, output type and screen size. When a website is near completion I often record personal videos for clients instructing them on how to add or edit content (I then share it with them using Dropbox).
The programme also adds nice little touches such as highlighting the moving mouse pointer and adding in an effect to indicate when the mouse pointer has been “clicked”.
Mozilla Thunderbird is an open-source email client such as Microsoft’s Outlook or Apple’s Mail. It’s very easy to set up and comes pre-loaded with a wide range of features (which can be expanded with plugins). As an open-source project it is supported by a thriving community of users. It certainly meets all my needs for an email programme and it currently monitors 5 of my email addresses. It works with POP3 and IMAP protocols and can sync folders between the client and a webmail account.
I have found it a very useful tool in the past, when migrating between hosts, for locally backing up a client’s emails prior to transfer. I also recommend the Lightning plugin which adds calendar functionality. I use this to remind me when I need to send out invoices or when hosting/domain services are due for renewals.
7. PDF Creator
PDF Creator converts every printable document to PDF. This means that even if I generate an invoice or receipt in OpenOffice or Microsoft Office I don’t have to send a client an editable document. After installing PDF Creator simply choose “Print” in whichever software package you’re using and you’ll see PDF Creator as a print option – selecting it will convert your document to a more secure PDF version.
If you ever intend to work remotely from a client then Skype is a great tool for a pseudo “face-to-face” meeting. This really helps to open you up to a larger market (my most recent Skype meeting saved me a 4,000 mile journey to Nigeria!)
As a freelancer your time is valuable and if you really don’t need to physically meet up then this is a good alternative – not all meetings result in paid work and so an initial Skype meeting can help determine how serious a prospective client is.
Gone are the days when choosing a browser was a no-brainer as these days they tend to compete on a level playing field – even the much maligned Internet Explorer has upped it’s game with IE11 performing very well on Windows 8 machines.
However… I have Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari and Opera installed on my machine so that I can test a new project on multiple browsers and I have to say that for me Chrome is my personal favourite. It has such a vast array of extensions that it can be very highly customised. Although not unique to Chrome, the option to sync your browser across multiple machines, in terms of bookmarks, browsing history and stored data, is a great feature.
OpenOffice is an open-source alternative to more popular office packages such as Microsoft Office. It contains a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), a presentation application (Impress), a drawing application (Draw), a formula editor (Math), and a database management application (Base). There are several iterations of the OpenOffice source-code with the most popular being Apache’s OpenOffice (to which the link above directs you).
On the surface it’s a valid alternative to Microsoft Office, albeit without some of the bells and whistles of it’s more expensive rival, but best of all it’s free! In terms of word processing or knocking up a quick spreadsheet then OpenOffice is great – however, should you require more fanciful templates for a presentation or intend to regularly share documents with others then you would need to fork out on an alternative. That said, for the purposes of straightforward admin tasks to help you as a freelancer, OpenOffice is a great tool.
So there you go… as a starting point for a budding freelance web designer these tools offer a broad basis for your web design work, and best of all they’re all free! I personally use all 10 of these tools. I’m not necessarily saying that this is all you’ll ever need but considering they needn’t cost you a penny you’d be daft to not at least take a peek! A completely free set of tools can’t hope to match the paid-for versions in terms of breadth of features, but depending on what you need from a software package you may just find that you really won’t mourn those missing features all that much…
What do you think? Have I missed something obvious? Have I overlooked a feature that you’ve found a disadvantage? I’d love to hear your thoughts – please leave your comments below.
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