Artist vs. artisan. What is a designer? The profession was on many occasions split between these two views on what a designer is. Valuing ’personal handwriting’ on the one side, and fully embracing digital tools on the other, mostly for speeding up the process and making it accessible for a broader and less professionally trained part of the profession.

Here’s a curated list of tools – from long forgotten, to widely used, and not yet on the market. Through interviews, videos, podcasts, images, etc. you get to be inspired, and perhaps ditch or swap some favourite tools yourself.

The introduction of semi-automated design machines fits in a process of attraction and repulsion between artist and artisan, between creativity and merely problem-solving. What part of the job can be outsourced (to non-specialists, to software) in order to concentrate on the essential part: imagination? How can even automation help the imagination flow, by allowing for chance to be a part of the process? Remember the Beowulf typeface by Letteror, where accidents where programmed into the software on purpose? Nothing to be afraid of, these programmed design suggestions. A godsend for novices, and a challenge for adventurers. But let’s first have a look at how things were done in the not-so-old days.


It’s been roughly 30 years since the desktop computer revolutionized the way the graphic design industry works. For decades before that, it was the hands of industrious workers, and various ingenious machines and tools that brought type and image together on meticulously prepared paste-up boards, before they were sent to the printer.


1Go Retro
Before Design was Digital

Graphic Means, A Documentary About Graphic Design Production
Graphic Means, A Documentary About Graphic Design Production

The documentary Graphic Means, which is now in production, explores graphic design production of the 1950s through the 1990s—from linecaster to photocomposition, and from paste-up to PDF. Briar Levit’s new film project aims to document the lost art of pre-Macintosh methods of graphic design production.

Briar Levit: “It’s wonderful that younger designers are often aware of the greats like Saul Bass, or Joseph Müller Brockmann – but if you can understand the level of skill they had, and the amount of work it took to make their master works, not to mention the other people who worked with them to realise these works, then I think you have a whole new level of appreciation.”

The film features interviews with Steven Heller, Ellen Lupton, Adrian Shaughnessy, Tobias Frere-Jones and others.

The editing of the documentary is in it final stages. The makers aim for a release end of 2016. Meanwhile watch the trailer.


Tools directly impact the way we as designers work, and the way we work impacts the kind of work we do. Analog and digital tools can live nicely together on the same project, each having their firm place at different stages of a design project.


2Go Analog
Stefan Sagmeister shares his Methodology


Stefan Sagmeister's sketchbook
Stefan Sagmeister’s sketchbook

World of Digits sat down with Stefan Sagmeister at the November 2016
KiKK Festival of Digital and Creative Cultures in Namur, Belgium
to ask them about his personal methodology.

Though he finds digital tools helpful, he resorts to pencil & paper for list making, and sketching. He speaks in length about mindmapping on paper for The Happy Film. His observation is that a mindmap can reveal an obsessive person, and be fully coherent at the same time.

Stefan Sagmeister, Mindmap for The Happy Film
Stefan Sagmeister, Mindmap for The Happy Film

3Go Curious
Ken Carbone celebrates analog in a digital world


Ken Carbone is curiously curious. Ken Carbone of design shop Carbone Smolan Agency found his secret to staying creative  - journals. He has been documenting and recording all that he finds fascinating for years. Every page of every journal is a labor of love, incorporating memories through collage, drawing and writing. It is a wellspring of inspiration. The side benefit, he says, is that the habit has now trained him to pay closer attention to his environment–to slow down enough to really see what’s around him.

Ken Carbone
Ken Carbone

Curiosity helps you clarify problems, ideas, and situations, and it encourages you to explore how they could be different. Actively exploring the environment, asking questions, investigating possibilities, and possessing a sense of wonder are all part of being curious. Questions are key. Once you open up to the nuances of life, it’s easy to find things that fascinate you and to begin wondering “why?” and “how?”

In this video Ken Carbone discusses the art of journaling.

4Go Experimental
Destroy your books like Arnulf Rainer

“Take someone elses work and make your mark on it, take it as a point of departure”


Books are objects with a special status, sacred in a way. Books are containers of knowledge, and when you made that knowledge your own, you can’t just throw it away, that hurts. The object contains within it a purpose, and that goes beyond you reading the book. It can be passed on to someone else.

As a designer you might create books, adding to the value of the object that will find its way into the world. A great job indeed. So, can destroying an object also add to the significance of it? Can adding your own layer of meaning to someone else’s efforts result in a richer and more meaningful object?

Arnulf Rainer. Übermalte Bücher
Arnulf Rainer. Übermalte Bücher

Arnulf Rainer – the best-known and most important Austrian artist of the past fifty years – forged a completely new path in European art with his “overpaintings“: paintings and drawings done “over” already existing works, and the masking of illustrations in books.

5Go Accidental
Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies


Let it all go. Leave the decision making neither to machines nor your prefrontal cortex. Leave it to accident instead and act upon that. Don’t try to bend the outcome towards your rust up aesthetic notions.

David Bowie's set of Oblique Strategies cards
David Bowie’s set of Oblique Strategies cards

‘Infinitesimal gradations’, ‘Repetition is a form of change’, ‘Bridges-build-burn’ – just three of the gnomic aphorisms contained in the Oblique Strategies cards devised in the early 1970s by artists Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno. The cards were aimed at providing a creative jolt to artists who were either stuck or searching for new directions for their work. Most famously, Eno and David Bowie used the cards during the making of the now infamous set of albums known as the Berlin trilogy.

Simon Armitage. Photo by Paul Webster
Simon Armitage. Photo by Paul Webster

Listen to British novelist Simon Armitage’s quest for a pack. He first came across them as a student, but has never actually owned or used a pack himself. In this BBC Radio 4 program he sets out to tell the story of the cards, talk to some of those who’ve used them (across the fields of music, writing, cooking, business and more) and also find out whether the cards will take his own writing in a new direction. Among those he’ll speak with are Carlos Alomar (the guitarist on those Bowie albums), user Paul Morley, chef Ian Knauer and creativity guru Professor Tudor Rickards. He’ll also use the cards to try and help him track down the elusive Brian Eno himself.

Draw a card online yourself or purchase your own set at Enoshop.

6Go Geek
Subtraction’s Design Tools Survey


A revealing look at the current state of how designers – globally – are working. What digital tools are most popular with designers? The market for software made for product designers, web designers, app designers, interaction designers and more has never been more vibrant and interesting.

2015 Design Tools Survey
2015 Design Tools Survey

Khoi Vinh conducted a short survey in 2015, consisting of a simple set of questions about the preferred software that designers are using today for tasks like brainstorming, wireframing, user interface design, prototyping and more. It helps us all understand the big picture in the day-to-day tool choices that we make. Over 4.000 designers put their comments in.

The winners in each category are:
Brainstorming: Pencil and Paper
Wireframing: Sketch
Interface design: Sketch
Prototyping: HTML/CSS
Project management: Slack
File management: Dropbox

The full results can be seen via Typeform.

“Tools directly impact the way we as designers work, and the way we work impacts the kind of work we do”

Khoi Vinh is Design Priciple at Adobe and Design Chair at Wildcard. He gave a summary of the project to Design Observer, and why it is important:

Design ObserverCan you give Design Observer readers a summary of the project?

Khoi Vinh: In the spring I did an informal survey of several design shops in NYC with a team that Adobe with whom I was collaborating on Adobe Comp CC. It was very revealing to me to interview a bunch of designers to get a sense of what tools they’re using. At first I thought that I’d like to travel around the country doing similar visits, but then the very obvious alternative occurred to me—that I could just run the survey via my blog. So I launched the questions in early June via Typeform, which is an amazing platform for this kind of thing. I left the survey open for about a week. Then I approached my friends at Hyperakt in Brooklyn. I gave them all of the raw data and told them that they could go to town creatively with the presentation of the results. They digested all of the answers and pulled out the major findings, which I edited lightly, and then they designed and built the whole site. 

DOWhy is it important? What do you want to get from the information, and how do you think it will help the respondents and others who read the results? 

KV: At the macro level, tools directly impact the way we as designers work, and the way we work impacts the kind of work we do. What’s specific to this point in time though is that the market for design tools is changing so rapidly, with new alternatives and independent software publishers putting new apps in the market all the time. Compared to the state of the market a decade ago, the change is so volatile that I thought it would be useful to try to quantify what’s happening, even if unscientifically.

Continue reading at Design Observer >

A second iteration was opened in June 2016, The results can be announced anytime soon now, the jury is still out.

Favorite tools, Subtraction's Design Tools Survey
Favorite tools, Subtraction’s Design Tools Survey

7Go Novice

Canva, the story so far...
Canva, the story so far…


Canva is an online graphic design platform. It offers free access to a wide assortment of design tools and options, as well as premium options for paying customers.

It is one of a new breed of “no tech or design skills required” content creation tools that have taken the online world by storm. These tools are helping small businesses get past two of the greatest obstacles to implementing an effective content marketing campaign: producing engaging content and producing content consistently.

Founded in 2012 by Melanie Perkins it now serves millions of users. The company operates on a freemium business model, providing free design tools and access to their library of images and offering additional paid designs, a marketplace for designers and tools specific for companies.

Watch Melanie Perkings talk at The Sunrise Conference 2016 about the story behind Canva:

8Go Together
Figma. Real-time collaborative design tool


Figma has three invaluable features that set it apart: real-time collaboration, vector networks and version history. It can handle dozens of designers working on the same document, at the same time without breaking a sweat. Last but not least, this tool is really fast, easily handling 20+ artboards in a single document. Figma is like Sketch in the browser with real-time collaboration. It is more polished and production-ready than Adobe XD and InVision.

“Figma keeps everyone on the same page”

Listen to this Design Details Podcast, featuring Figma founder Dyland Field, one of Peter Thiel’s 20-Under-20 fellows. He talks about his background, design tools an Figma, internships, opinionated design, design education and more:

In Dylan Field’s own words: “it keeps everyone on the same page. Focus on the work instead of fighting your tools. Powerful for professionals. Intuitive for beginners. From illustrating icons to crafting responsive layouts, interface design has never been easier”.


Figma was introduced December 2015: “Ever since Writely (now called Google Docs) launched ten years ago, I’ve believed that all software should be online, real-time and collaborative. Creative tools haven’t made the leap because the browser has not been powerful enough. Now, with WebGL, everything has changed”, says Dylan Field.


The basic principles behind the previous digital tools can be taken a step further: full automation of the design process. Can’t be done? Check out the next projects.


9Go Robot
DesignScape. Design with Interactive Layout Suggestions


In the future graphic design layout will be automated. DesignScape is an experimental system from Adobe Research and the computer science department at the University of Toronto. Its purpose is to demonstrate a system that “aids the design process by making interactive layout suggestions, i.e., changes in the position, scale, and alignment of elements.” The user is presented with a set of elements typical to most design problems – a headline, blocks of text, logo, icons and illustrations, contact information, etc. As these are manipulated, the system automatically generates new layout suggestions based on the input. The user can choose one of the suggestions to further refine, at which point the system generates still more suggestions. It’s like having a design assistant at your side as you figure out a layout problem.

Watch developer Peter O’Donovan explain the basics:

The examples are crude, but – as Khoi Vinh observed:

“Even so, what’s on display here all seems fairly academic until it’s demonstrated on a tablet. Fine tuned manipulation of design elements is difficult on touch surfaces; in this context, the idea of assisted graphic design layout suddenly seems not only viable but desirable. Rather than something that might come someday in the future, it suddenly feels like something that could make sense now.It seems safe to say that while a certain segment of graphic design will never be completely replaced by automated systems, at some point in the near future systems like this will become commonplace, either as a replacement for lower-dollar design needs, or even as a complement to big ticket design processes. Remember, there was a time when many of the world’s most famous graphic designers scoffed at the idea of ever needing a personal computer to do their work.”

Read the paper for indepth information.

10Go Lazy
Sketchplore. Sketch and Explore Layout Designs with an Optimiser


Sketchploration is a novel concept of integrating real-time design optimisation to sketching tools, to enable interactive exploration of design alternatives. Although traditional optimisation methods can attack very complex design problems, their insistence on precise objectives contradicts sketching.

Kashyap Todi
Kashyap Todi

The Sketchplorer is an interactive sketching tool that uses a real-time layout optimiser. It automatically infers the designer’s task and searches for local improvements, and global alternatives. Using several predictive models of user performance and perception, its suggestions steer designers toward more usable and aesthetic layouts. This facilitates the creative and problem-solving aspects of sketching, without requiring extensive intervention from the designer.

A team with Kashyap Todi of the Expertise Centre for Digital Media, Hasselt University (Belgium) demoed the tool first at the Human-Computer Interaction in San Jose (CA, USA), May 2016.

11Go Academic
TypeAdviser. A type design aiding tool


Researchers of the CISUC, Department of Informatics Engineering, University of Coimbra (Portugal) work on a nifty tool for helping type designers in their creative process. They explore the domain of computational creativity to the advantage of designers.

The tool aims to improve the consistency within a font. First various recurring elements of the font are analyzed, based on the designers initial sketches. After identifying the letter-parts, it would be possible to generate the rest of the letters. An “Adviser” then suggests similar designs, while interacting with the user.

A short paper was presented at a workshop on Compututazional Creativity at Bolzano (Italy) August 2016.

12Go Random
Evotype. From Shapes to Glyphs


Evotype needs no designer, it can do very well on its own. The value of this tool lies in the acceptance of randomness as an aesthetic quantity. The variables are given by the algorythm, they are not creative choices. But the outcome can have aesthetic appeal all the same.

Both showcase and demo were uploaded to Vimeo as recently as the end of November 2016.

Evotype consists in a generative system to type design based on an evolutionary algorithm. It relies on the idea of automatic assembling visual components to create glyphs for various characters. The system takes as input a Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) file containing a set of shapes that the system uses to construct glyphs. Thus, the glyphs evolved by the system are constructed from shapes provided by the user. The construction of the glyphs involve the translation, rotation, scaling, and mirroring of the shapes.

Tiago Martins
Tiago Martins

The whole construction plan of each glyph is encoded in its genotype, wherein each gene encodes one shape, as well as its position, angle, scale, and if it is mirrored. The system employs a combination of Deep Learning with distance metrics to assign fitness and this way automatically evolve glyphs. The evolved glyphs demonstrate the ability of the system to generate a wide variety of alternative glyphs that push the boundaries between legibility and expressiveness.

Evotype is being developed by Tiago Martins of Coimbra University. Tiago Martins is a cross-media designer by training who smoothly mutated into an algorist. He is also member of the team that works on the TypeAdviser.