As a freelance designer, you’ll want to have a solid set of web design and project management tools in your arsenal. But as you may already have discovered, most posts compile close to hundreds of different tools, many of which carry out the same functionality, and aren’t really necessary to get the job done.
In addition to that, most of them are written by freelance writers who’ve never even used all of the tools mentioned in the list they wrote – which makes the information pretty useless to anyone who is actually looking to find out what tools they need as a core part of their design work as a professional.
We know the exact tools you need in 2023 because these are the ones that actual designers really use to do incredible work – and which we use ourselves every day.
So let’s dive right in…
We’re obviously a bit biased on this one, but we’ve been told time and time again by our customers that Atarim has absolutely revolutionized the web design client feedback loop. It’s hard to find a web design agency that doesn’t say that improving client feedback is one of their top priorities. Which is why so many of them have joined Atarim.
If it seems as though you spend ages on the phone with clients explaining which part of the site they’re referring to, or get emails with hundreds of screenshots attached, Atarim will save you both time and stress.
Atarim lets you easily collect feedback in a visual way, and respond to it on your sites or from a centralized dashboard that connects to all of your clients’ websites. With tasks automatically created once a client or team member creates a screenshot and adds a note, and with additional information such as browser and screen size included, easy and efficient communication becomes something you almost take for granted. You can check out all of the features available here, or start collaborating visually immediately – no registration required.
And you’ll be in good company, as Atarim is now trusted by 5,000+ agencies, and 120,000+ clients, including Elementor, HubSpot, GoDaddy, Kinsta, and WPEngine – to name just a few!
Sketch is one of a number of pieces of software that can be used to prototype designs before implementing them with WordPress (which we’ll take a look at next). A number of professional freelance designers and web design agencies started adopting Sketch as a part of their workflow following Steve Schoger of RefactoringUI, where he not only teaches designers but also documents rebuilding and improving existing websites using Sketch in real-time on his YouTube channel.
If you choose to still separate the design and development process from each other, and don’t use Sketch, good alternatives would be Figma or Adobe XD.
With Figma, you will be working in a browser as there’s no app you need to download. It offers a bit more flexibility with resizing and using vector networks, but can’t compete with Sketch’s range of plugins.
Another alternative to Sketch is Adobe XD. If you’re using Windows, then Adobe XD might be just the solution you’re after as Sketch doesn’t support Windows, and there’s no need for plugins as all features are integrated.
WordPress is without a doubt the world’s best content management system – officially powering over 1/3rd of the entire internet. It’s become the platform of choice for millions of business owners all over the world.
It’s no coincidence that many of the top brands in the world rely on WordPress, including Sony, CNN, The White House, Time Magazine, Disney, Spotify and Microsoft – to name just a few. If you aren’t already using WordPress as a web design agency or freelancer, it’s about time to start!
You can download WordPress here, and browse thousands of WordPress plugins too.
Although there’s no direct alternative to WordPress as it’s a full CMS, there are a few web development platforms that have proven to be popular with many people. Two of the main names that frequently pop up are Wix and Squarespace.
Wix is currently powering over 180 million sites across 190 countries, and this is largely because they offer a completely free plan (no hosting costs, unlike WordPress). It offers an easy drag-and-drop interface, and paid upgrades are available.
Squarespace has a great range of good-looking templates, and these work well on both desktop and mobile, although customization of these is limited. There’s no free plan, with prices starting at $16 per month.
For those of you who run agencies that do more than web design, a solution like Basecamp (as well as the alternatives we’ll cover here) will be a great addition to your toolkit when paired with Atarim.
Atarim is designed specifically for visual collaboration and project management for web design-related projects. That being said, we integrate directly with other project management solutions including Basecamp, ClickUp, and more.
So, for example, good friends of ours over at ScaleMath are avid users of Basecamp for their customer acquisition and experience engagements with clients. And if they were to run a web design or work through frontend feedback with clients, they would naturally pair this with using Atarim’s 1-click visual collaboration functionality (as this wouldn’t be possible in other project management software directly).
The project management and productivity industry are full of software and ongoing debates about what the best way to manage a business is. At Atarim, we’re currently heavily invested in Teamwork’s suite of products. So, let’s take a look at some of the alternatives:
ClickUp is a highly customizable cloud-based project management tool that allows teams to chat, manage tasks, access and share documents, and set milestones, although it can present a steep learning curve.
Trello is an easy tool to get started with and offers a user-friendly interface that’s mainly based on drag-and-drop Kanban boards. It offers a free plan, although it may not be suitable for more complex projects.
Asana is packed full of features, and if your agency employs fewer than 15 people, you may never need to move on from the free plan. Having said that, there are some limitations, including not being able to assign more than one person to a task, and a weak mobile app.
4. Better Proposals
A huge part of running your business is sales – getting clients, and then actually closing deals. An all-time favorite among the web design community is Better Proposals.
Better Proposals makes it extremely easy to create a proposal, and even guides you through the entire process, showing you what you should consider including every step of the way. This helps to ensure that your proposal has all the information that it could possibly need. From just $15 per month, you can send out perfectly crafted proposals, support digital signatures, and use payment integrations to get paid more quickly.
Better Proposals Alternatives
Although a lot of people will convince you by saying that you need complicated software to create effective proposals, I personally still use Google Docs for all of my proposals because I recognize that clients don’t actually care all that much about what the proposals look like. What’s more important to them is the actual content of the proposal being useful to them.
Getting paid for the work that you do is one of the most important parts of the entire process because, after all, you want to be able to continue working with clients – not mention being able to put food on the table! ?
Wave is an excellent, free solution that works well to begin with, however, they have just grandfathered their integration with banks so you have to manually reconcile your accounts which some people have found to be frustrating.
Personally, this is my least favorite part of running a business. Getting paid – I love that part – but the actual organization of everything and keeping track of expenses, which is why the first thing I did after incorporating was to hire an accounting firm that would be able to lift this weight off of my shoulders.
Although Wave is free to use for invoicing, accounting and banking, there are additional services and options for which there are charges. For example, if you wish to accept payment by credit card through Wave there is a 2.9% fee per transaction, as well as a flat charge of $0.60. You can also pay to use their payroll service, which costs $35 per month.
There are a number of solid alternatives to Wave, with Xero and QuickBooks Online frequently cited as two of the most popular choices made by small businesses.
Xero offers a comprehensive set of tools that has been enhanced significantly over the past couple of years with a range of additional features and add-ons. It offers a high level of security and useful project tracking, but the UI can be a little challenging to get used to.
QuickBooks Online integrates well with most small business financial software and is fairly easy to get used to. It offers a clear reporting tool, and the online community support is excellent. You may well need this though, as some tasks do seem unnecessarily complicated, such as categorizing expenses and marking transactions.
As a web designer, a premium managed WordPress host like Rocket.net is a must-have.
We actually use Rocket.net to host the website that you’re currently reading this on. Yes, you read that right – Atarim trusts and relies on Rocket.net’s managed WordPress hosting! And if that’s not enough of an endorsement, I don’t know what is. ?
Evidently, Rocket.net isn’t for everyone. When it comes to WordPress, as with most things there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. So if you’re not looking for managed WordPress hosting, and are looking for something more inexpensive – here are some other web hosts worth looking into:
Runcloud provides an extremely fast hosting service that is especially popular for WordPress-based sites, offering several speed advantages for these. Not the cheapest provider, but you get what you pay for, and in this case, it’s speed, as well as quality support.
Servebolt offers speeds that might otherwise have seemed impossible, with every aspect of their server stack specifically engineered to offer the fastest speeds. Support is excellent, although there’s no one-click staging environment setup option.
Cloudways offers more of a balance between speed and affordability compared to the previous alternatives, with managed hosting plans from $12 per month. They don’t offer domain registration though, nor email.
GoDaddy is a name most people associate with domain registration before considering it as a web hosting company. It’s an easy-to-use service that’s ideal for beginners, and there’s a lot of video tutorials and support available to help. Although it appears very affordable, you may very well find you need to upgrade your plan fairly quickly, which can increase the price quite a bit.
Now that you have a premium managed WordPress host like Kinsta, next up is a solid WordPress backup plugin.
Fortunately, that’s exactly where BlogVault comes in.
BlogVault is trusted by over 450,000+ sites worldwide, including some extremely well-known brands in the WordPress industry. With over a million successful website restorations, there are a lot of people who are very thankful they signed up. It’s an absolute must-have because the simple restore & staging workflow will save you countless hours when testing complex changes on client sites – or recovering a site due to changes that were made.
For a single site, BlogVault costs $89 per year, and this includes automatic daily backups, an active staging site, and full migrations.
Of course, there are alternatives to BlogVault – although it’s our personal favorite backup solution as well. Here are some alternative options worth looking into:
ManageWP Backups provides a full WordPress management console allowing users to manage multiple sites, including bulk updates and maintenance. Backups are carried out automatically in the background, with off-site storage for extra peace of mind. A free plan is available, with a number of optional paid extras.
UpdraftPlus is a WordPress plugin that provides protection from hacking, server crashes or updates that break your site. Backups can be stored directly on DropBox, Google Drive, Amazon S3, email, or several other alternatives. A free version is available, with the option to upgrade to the premium plan for $84 per year.
WP Time Capsule offers a ‘set and forget’ feature that allows you to schedule automatic daily backups that include the specific files and databases you choose. Backups are stored off-site, and you can choose between DropBox, Google Drive, and Amazon S3. The free version provides up to 15-day restore points, with this being doubled on the paid plan.
Having a great sales CRM is equally as important as having the ability to craft the perfect proposals.
Pipedrive is another all-time favorite among the community thanks to how easy they make it to monitor the stage that every deal is currently in, as well as all of the emails associated with a specific company.
You’ll be glad to hear that Pipedrive is also very reasonably priced – especially when compared to some of the other CRMs out there – with their plans starting at just $14.90/month.
The CRM that you choose to rely on will depend on where you’re at, but both Close and HubSpot offer solutions that may suit both your needs and your budget.
Close is a popular CRM tool designed to help manage relationships with your clients, and make life easier with a range of automation tools. It’s ideal for lead generation and helping the sales pipeline. They currently offer a two-week free trial, with plans ranging from $35 per month to $145 per month.
HubSpot is particularly aimed at small businesses and is ideal for those looking for a custom solution, as it offers a wide range of optional add-ons, which may suit the needs of larger, mid-sized businesses too. For the price, it may not be as feature-rich as some alternatives, ranging from $45 per month (supporting up to 1,000 marketing contacts) to $3,600 (supporting 10,000 marketing contacts).
ProofHub is an excellent project management and online collaboration software for designers. It gives you a central place for all your tasks and communications. One of the best things with ProofHub is its intuitive online proofing tool that makes the file review process easy, quick and streamlined.
Used by more than 85,000 teams and businesses from all over the world, ProofHub offers a lot more than any other project management tool in the market – and at a fraction of the cost. However, there are plenty of other tools in the market. Some worthy ones to check out include:
ClickUp is a cloud-based project management tool that offers a user-friendly interface, and a good number of tools for teams to collaborate and manage project updates. It’s highly customizable, and for many people, the free option will be more than enough. If not, the paid plan of just $5 per user per month makes it a competitive alternative, although its steep learning curve can be a challenge.
Monday.com is an online collaboration tool that helps teams keep track of tasks. It’s not really a project management app, but more of a way of logging project updates for teams to be able to monitor tasks and progress. Plans start from $39 per month, although a 14-day trial is available.
Trello is a simple tool to get started with and provides a user-friendly interface that’s based on simple drag-and-drop Kanban boards. It offers a free plan, although this may not be suitable for more demanding projects.
Wrapping Up: The Essential Design Tools
Nobody wants their design process to look and feel anything like this.
And we know that by using the design tools in this post, you’ll be far from it! ?
Related: Looking for UpWork alternatives that you can use to get clients you and your team enjoy working with?
Now, before you go, it’s important to mention that there are alternative tools that carry out the same functions as the tools included in this post.
We chose and recommended the ones in this post because those are the ones that we have personal experience with, and believe are better than the available alternatives (based on our evaluation).
That may not be the case for you, so if you’re willing to possibly waste a lot of time, I invite you to try all of the available software and remake a list like this of your own! Otherwise, I’m confident that the tools here will be more than enough to complement your abilities and succeed as a designer.