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The One Design Tool You Absolutely Need to Use

posted by Matt Ward on Feb 4, 2010.

In this article, we are going to look at a myth that I feel is floating around in the design community. I am going to make an effort at debunking that myth, and by extension underline what I feel is the absolute most important tool of any designer. You don’t want to miss this one.

I believe that there is a perpetuated myth out there in the design community. That myth is that today, with the vast array of software options that are available to us, we can fill our OS X Docks or Start Menus with all kinds of “design” software. I’d like to suggest that this belief is fundamentally wrong, and allow this discussion to move us forward to the one design tool that you do absolutely need to be using.

 The One Design Tool You Absolutely Need to Use

The One Design Tool You Absolutely Need to Use

First, back to the software.

Look at all the programs you are using. Find me one “design” program. Photoshop? Nope. That’s an imaging program for manipulating pixels and basic vector shapes. Illustrator? I don’t think so. It’s a vector program. InDesign or Quark might be closer, but they are layout applications. What about Dreamweaver? Coda? TextMate? All coding/developing tools. Flash is an animation program.

The list could go on and on, but as far as I have been able to tell, there is not a single program or piece of software out there on the market that is an actual a design application. All of the aforementioned programs can help you with design, but they do not encompass design itself.

My argument on this point is two-fold.

The Argument – Part 1

First, we can simply look at the variety of programs that we have already mentioned. We have imaging programs, vector programs, layout programs, coding programs. There are also 3D modeling programs, animation programs and drafting programs being used by designers of various sorts. All of these can be used in some aspect of design, but not a single one can be use for all aspects of design.

More often than not, a given project will require more than a single application. For a website design, I usually use at least Photoshop and Coda. I may also use Illustrator for some elements. For a magazine or book design, I would use InDesign for the layout and Photoshop to create most of the graphics. Again, I might make use of Illustrator to some degree.

For me, these programs are all just tools that contribute to the design process.

Each application we use serves a unique purpose

Each application we use serves a unique purpose

Alright, many of you are probably thinking that I am just arguing about semantics here. You’re right. I am arguing semantics. You may also be wondering what my point is. Call them design programs or call them something else, it doesn’t really matter as long as we know how to use them right?

It might not be that simple.

The Argument – Part 2

Which brings me to the second part of my argument. Design is not and can never be an automated process. It is function of the human mind, and a skill developed through study and practice. We may use various tools to help us create designs, but the actual design process itself does not happen in the computer. It happens in our minds. We make conscious decisions about how to arrange items, about type and colour, proportion and symmetry.

That is the essence of design. It can no more be captured, programmed or replicated into any software than other human qualities, such as love, faith or empathy. It is an intellectual exercise rather than a mechanized one, and that leads us to the heart of this article and the one, singular tool that you absolutely need to use for every single design project, no matter how small or how large.

That tool is your mind.


As I’ve already noted, design is about making choices. Good design is about making good choices. Great design is about making the right choices. And choice is never arbitrary. It doesn’t just happen. It is purposeful and intentional, informed by a lifetime (whatever the length) of knowledge and experience.

Choice is something that is performed with your mind, the very same mind that collects and stores all of that knowledge and experience. Your mind is also the tool that allows you to analyze project requirements, to critically assess those questions of typography and colour, to understand the rules of design and to make that bold decision to break them.

Without your mind, then, the latest version of the Creative Suite loaded onto your bright shiny 27” iMac is essentially as useless to you as it would be to a duck. Yes. That’s right – a duck.

Brain Food

So, if your mind is so important (and, obviously, I think it is), what have you done for it lately? A carpenter will take care to protect his tools. A painter will wash out his brushes. A master chef will make sure that his knives are always sharp. Too, often, though I fear that we neglect our minds.

You feed your body every day to help keep it strong, right? When was the last time you really fed your mind, specifically that part of your mind that drives your designs? When did you last take the time to read a book or dissected a great design to determine not only how it was created, but why it was created and what made it great? When was the last time you even sat down and worked through a tutorial?

These are tough questions for some of us.

Heck, these are tough questions for me. Let me be the first to admit that I’m not always the best at keeping my mind fed with fresh, meaningful design related information, and goodness knows that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve picked up some books, though, and am doing my best to carve out the time to actually sit down and read them! By the time I’ve turned the last pages, I can only hope that the words I have read have strengthened my design mind and helped make me a stronger practitioner of my craft.

Your RSS reader can be a valuable tool, too, but do be warned that not all of the information out there on the internet is really strong mind food. A lot of what you will find is like fast-food for your brain. It may taste wonderful and fill you up, but there’s no real nutrients, nothing that will help your mind to grow stronger.

Beware of too much "fast food" content

I have nothing against this kind of content. If you’ll indulge me in the food metaphor for a little while longer, I have to say that I like that slice of pizza or that thick juicy burger as much as the next guy. I also recognize, however, that a steady diet of such food will eventually lead to a very unhealthy me, and possibly even an early grave.

I try to treat my mind in the same way. I can only fill it with so much fast, processed content before I need to get a hold on something fresh, stimulating and challenging that will actually help my mind – and my single most important tool as a designer – to grow.

In Conclusion

To bring this article back to where we started, I think this is part of the real issue that I have with the concept of “design” software. There is absolutely nothing wrong with the programs and the applications themselves, but the act of grouping them together under this one, all encompassing umbrella can have a somewhat dangerous effect. By constantly discussing “design software” we flirt (though unintentionally) with a tendency to place too strong of an emphasis on the software itself and not enough emphasis on the mind that drives it.

With this in mind (pun intended), I suppose that it could be argued that the myth is not so much that there exists such a thing as design software (though I maintain that that is a myth), but rather that the software in question helps make the designer. This is where I think that the real danger lies, even if it is not affecting you specifically. I would boldly suggest that the very concept of “design software” at least implies that somehow the various programs that fall under this heading are going to transform their users into (better) designers.

Since this simply is not the case, the danger of the “design” software terminology is simply the danger of perpetuating an untruth. The only thing that can really make you a better designer is the grey matter located right there between your ears. Everything else is merely a tool to be utilized as an extension of your designer’s mind.

As a designer, it’s the one tool you simply cannot live without! So be sure to take care of it!

Okay, now it’s time for you to have your say. I feel that I may have opened a giant can of worms here, and I want to give you the opportunity to respond. I would bet some of you are thinking that I am making a mountain out of a molehill, as the expression goes. But I’m a language guy. Words are important to me. So let your voice be heard and leave a comment!

Post A Comment

Also from Echo Enduring Media:

An Unfolding Tale

About the Author

Matt Ward is a digital artist who lances freely under the moniker of Echo Enduring Media, and specializes in graphics design, illustration and writing. He is also the Creative Director for Highland Marketing, a creative direct marketing company based out of Waterloo, Ontario. You can follow Matt on Twitter

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Feb 4, 2010

Lindagal22 says:

Interesting article, Matt. Didn’t go where I expected it to but raised some compelling questions. One that sticks in my mind is where you challenge us to use our minds to analyze designs that work and find out how and why. Would love to see you do a few posts (or open some discussion) doing that very thing: choosing a site, deconstructing it, and discusing what works and why.

Feb 4, 2010

Josh says:

This was a fascinating article Matt. I wholly agree with your view that design itself is an ideational entity – it is something that is entrenched within our minds. Only by sharpening our perceptive consciousness of our own surroundings can we truly master the skill of designing effectively. Design programs are merely “prosthetic agents” which allow us to translate our thoughts into practice. Design is not a mechanical process.

Great thoughts. I really enjoy the work you do here. Looking forward to your next piece with much anticipation.

Feb 4, 2010

Inside the Webb says:

Cool post dude! Keep up the awesome content, I’m following your blog and I love your stuff

Feb 4, 2010

Tuhin Kumar says:

I think there are two fundamental issues here.
1) The definition of design needs to be established for developing a software. Even if it was, the components are so large and varied that ONE size does not fit all.
2) The design is guided by experience and years of knowledge but ideally it should be guided by UX.
Nice issue to ponder upon Matt. Good one!

Feb 4, 2010

Mary Baum says:

I couldn’t agree more, Matt.

That’s why I recommend designers study the liberal arts in college – George Lois agrees with me, btw.

And if you want to carry the tool metaphor a little farther, I’d suggest we all go back to starting projects the way I was taught in school: with actual hand-drawn thumbnail sketches.

I even (when I’m disciplined enough to take my own advice) use a black fine-point felt pen and a sketchbook. And I notice Moleskins have a following for that.

Now, everyone – go look up George Lois and Paul Rand. ;-)

Feb 4, 2010

Morgan Finley says:

Great article! Some great points, especially that software is just one of many tools for the designer to use. The best design tool a designer has is DRAWING. For it is visual thinking, and can do way more than any piece of software.

Feb 4, 2010

Peach says:

Great post man. Couldn’t agree with you more. I am currently feeding my mind alot of fast food lately. Maybe I should take a break and just read a novel or something.

Thanks for the post. It makes me to re-think about my day to day activities.

Feb 5, 2010

Richie says:

Distinct aspects I must admit. The human brain is definitely ‘the’ key in bringing design to reality.

As you aptly said, all other ‘softwares’ are merely tools to ‘enhance’ the process. Design takes birth in the mind

But, the fact remains that, each one of them contributes proportionally to the ‘design’ elements and the absence of even one of them creates a disparity which will depreciate the desired results.

Nice read, albeit it wasn’t so convincing. I would love to read more of such articles here. Sort of – a quick check on the perspectives of various designers.

Good work, Matt

Feb 5, 2010

a reader says:

Matt, it’s impossible to read on this black backround and shiny font!
I couldn’t finish the article because of that.
My eyes are really tired ..

Feb 5, 2010

Design Informer says:

Hey Matt, I enjoyed this article, and it’s actually a coincidence, but I’m also currently in the process of writing an article similar to this, but in a different way. Great thought (no pun intended) and I completely understand your arguments. There is definitely a danger with all the software that’s available to anybody today, that many people consider themselves to be designers because they have the tools.

For instance, you can give me some tools that a mechanic uses to fix cars, but that would be useless to me since I know absolutely squat about designing cars. The alarming thing today is that many people consider themselves to be designers just because they have Photoshop or Illustrator. Just take a look at some of the advertisers on Craigslist claiming to be designers. Yuck!

Hopefully, my comments made sense.

Feb 5, 2010

Ren says:

Nice article..

Don’t forget the “toilet break” or the “long showers” – they are my ultimate tools for creativity. :-)

What also helps me a lot is watching art-house movies – because they change my perspective on what “normal” is.

Feb 5, 2010

JC says:

Great article. I couldn’t agree more with your point. All the fancy tools and software don’t do you any good if you don’t make the right choices and consistently push your own skills. Design like anything else takes hard work and dedication. Thanks for the article.

Feb 5, 2010

Mark says:

Man, I’m glad I clicked into this thinking “Brain…it should be the brain”…

You make a valid argument. You can run all of the newest software on the flashiest machines, but if you don’t think about what you’re doing, the end result will never be as good as what a smart designer can come up with using a napkin and a ballpoint pen.

Feb 5, 2010

Neil Porter says:

Totally agree.

Moreover, by too closely grouping ‘design’ with the ability to ‘use software’ we run the risk of taking value away from the person who comes up with a design concept – the designer.

(I should note that ‘using software’ is not ‘programming’ which is totally creative).

It’s like writing. People don’t get paid for using Microsoft Word for example. They create ‘value’ with the words they create. People don’t seem to have a problem understanding this – and thus paying for the written word.

However, unfortunately, perhaps because of the strong linkage with technology and design (via Adobe Creative Suite for example) many people, as you alude to in your blog, forget that these are just tools of the trade and forget about the many long days spent thinking about the design concept.

Feb 6, 2010

Kerstey says:

This is a great article.

I’m just about to start a graphic design course and this has helped me understand that just because I have the software, it doesn’t mean I’ll instantly get great designs. I’m not an artist by any means, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to find something creative inside me by learning more.

Thanks for this, I really enjoyed reading it.

Feb 6, 2010

The Amazingest says:

I’m sold.

Where can I download this design tool?

Feb 6, 2010

sibidiba says:

I agree also with Jeff Reeves, that a complete software design must include the completed software.


Feb 7, 2010

Vladimir Remenar says:

The one tool: inspiration

I can use any tool as log as I have inspiration, whether it’s a pen and paper, Photoshop, …

And I can use my brain to think all day long about designing something but it just doesn’t do any good if I have no inspiration.

Feb 7, 2010

Sneh Roy says:

Another compelling and intriguing piece of writing Matt. Well done!

First of all I agree about “choices”. As designers, good design is about making good choices and great design is about making the right choices.

But …

A good designer is also one who caters to the needs of his clients and balances the “choices” in a manner that satisfies all. It may not necessarily be the best design out there, because again “design is about perception too!”, but choosing a “not so great” design won’t make the designer any less great in this case, IMO.

“The only thing that can really make you a better designer is the grey matter located right there between your ears” .. to some extent this may be true, but I will have to respectfully disagree. Our mind is very powerful indeed but we have yet to discover telekinesis that would actually move mountains and whip out websites with just “brain power”. What makes a person a better designer is not just the mind, but also a strong will, a lot of discipline, hunger and practice.

I used to think that too, if I have a strong sorted out mind, I’ll be a great designer. Not true! A great writer maybe, but not a great designer. After undertaking a daily project, I am now realizing the value of repetitve practice and self-discipline. You may argue now that self-discipline comes from a strong mind .. I’ll give you that. But you can practice and re-do something over and over again and it will make you better. In fact practice makes you so good at the task on hand, that eventually you learn to switch off your mind and do it on automaton occasionally and it turns out just as well :)

Feb 8, 2010

EricW says:

That was a great article. I was expecting you to actually talk about some “design software”. You made some good points, and I have to say, I’ve seen way too many websites out there of people who think they know web design just because they can move objects around in Dreamweaver. One thing that I wish you added to this article is the name of some books or websites that you have used to “feed” your mind. I am always interested to learn what inspires other people’s creativity.

Sometimes when I am designing a new website, if my client hasn’t been too specific on what they want, I look around at other websites to get some inspiration. But it’s hard to find websites that aren’t bland or poorly designed(especially ones that look like they were designed before the turn of the century). When you aren’t feeling too creative, what do you look at or read to help your mind along?

Feb 8, 2010

Bas says:

Matt, thanks for writing this down!
The web design world lacks a decent deal of critique (most blogs report inspiration and how-to-stuff) and your article delivers some good thoughts on the big perspective.

Feb 8, 2010

Dereck says:

Could’t agree more. This is something I’ve been talking about for years. Trying to get people to understand that software is just a tool. Your mind is the most precious and versatile tool you have. The next is pencil & paper – the only way to get your ideas down, unrestricted by any lack of software knowledge.

Feb 10, 2010

DesignLovr says:

I actually completely agree with you. So-called “Design”-Programs just have a supporting role in the Design and Creation Process – after all we can even design with a pen and paper…

Feb 10, 2010

Richard Georges says:

Brilliant article as usual Matt. Keep it up and the hits will keep coming.

In support of your thesis, I am a proponent of: sketching out your designs for web and print in a sketchbook or journal; making a favourite group of sites that capture some of the competitors’ approaches, or the feel and emotion you want to go for; creating mood boards (I need to do better with this); and searching for inspiration in unlikely areas all before I fire up a design program.

This cuts down the time spent in that program ‘playing around’ hoping for inspiration to hit and be perfect the first time.


Feb 11, 2010

SEO Packages says:

Great post. This is one of the best blog I have read. Thanks for sharing your tips.

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