How To Build Your Graphic Design Toolbox

If you have any desire to influence the look and feel of an instructional or information product, then you need tools to generate, communicate, and implement your ideas. If you are already responsible for some aspect of graphics, then you may want to continue expanding your capabilities.

What Good Tools Can Do

Having the correct and complete set of tools can increase your effectiveness and productivity. I was inspired to write about this as a result of a recent discussion we had about creativity and design thinking on The Toolbar podcast with Judy Unrein and Brian Dusablon. Truly, the right tools can enhance your creativity.

Here are my recommendations for what to put in your graphic toolbox. If you’re starting from scratch, you may want to try a few of the free applications first. Note: I haven’t used every one of these tools, but have researched all of them. Be sure to do your research before buying.

Generating Ideas, Sketching and Drawing

Sketch Pad and Pencil

Sketchbooks: Everyone who has to solve problems should have a sketchbook. Use it when you need to generate ideas; communicate with programmers and artists; or discuss concepts with clients and stakeholders. Using an inexpensive wire bound or stitch bound blank book with heavy paper lets you play with ideas, explore, discover and share. If you are concerned about your drawing abilities, use stick figures and geometric shapes. Those are the only skills you’ll need for using this tool. There’s something about the kinesthetic action of sketching that seems to activate new parts of your brain. Use with caution.

Stop Drawing with A Bar of Soap: Digital Pen Tablets

It’s possible that nothing will improve your graphic abilities more than ditching the mouse for a graphics tablet. Creating graphics with a mouse is like drawing with a bar of soap, while graphic work with a digital pen tablet feels similar to using a pencil.

The graphic tablet comes with a stylus or pen for input and a flat digital surface for drawing. This setup can replace a mouse for all of your computer tasks or use it for graphic purposes only. You can cut out backgrounds, create freehand drawings, touch-up photos and make fine-tuned tweaks more quickly and accurately with a stylus. Graphics tablets aren’t always perfect, but they are a huge improvement over the mouse for these purposes.

If you only create vector drawings where a click creates a point in a path, you may prefer to stick with the mouse.

Note: if you rarely engage in graphic tasks, you probably don’t need a digital pen tablet. Just stick with the sketch book and pencil.

Wacom Tablets

Probably the most popular graphic tablets in the U.S. are those made by Wacom (pronounced Wah-com). They are pressure-sensitive, have a wide range of models and work with both Windows and MAC operating systems. See below.

Wacom Bamboo Pen Tablet: The Bamboo line consists of Wacom’s lower end or “home and office” products, such as the Bamboo Create Pen and Touch Tablet. Although I can’t vouch for their accuracy, they get good reviews on Amazon. Scroll down on any of the Amazon Bamboo product pages for a comparison chart. Note that the chart was created before the Wacom Intuos5 was around. Read more on that next.

Wacom Intuos5 Pen Tablet: This line represents Wacom’s professional quality pen tablets. They come in a variety of sizes (small to extra large), have extreme levels of pressure sensitivity and are expensive. I recently upgraded to this tablet after using an older Intuos for many, many years.

Consider the Intuous4, an older version of the professional tablet, for a less expensive alternative. When determining the size you need, be sure to note the active area of the tablet, which is smaller than the dimensions of the entire tablet.

Image Editors

Image or graphic editors allow you to create, modify and manipulate bitmap or raster graphics. Bitmap graphics are made up of pixels in a grid and every pixel is embedded with color information. Bitmap images have a fixed resolution and lose quality when they are enlarged. Photographs and graphics from paint programs start out as bitmapped graphics.

GIMP (free): This program seems to be the most popular free graphic editor around. It has capabilities for retouching photos and composing images. It has a paint program, does batch processing and converts files to various image formats. It also has some plug-ins that extend

Adobe Photoshop Elements: Elements is a reduced version of Photoshop for people who don’t need all the features of the full version. It has some of Photoshop’s photo enhancement and editing capabilities, but is priced under $100 and it is often discounted even lower. One feature that is noticeably lacking is the ability to adjust the spacing between letters, known as kerning. The other is its lack of CMYK mode, the color model used for printing. It’s definitely a place to start.

Adobe Photoshop CS: This is the premiere graphic editing tool for professional designers. But you already knew that. Photoshop has what seems like an endless array of features and capabilities. The drawback, of course, is it’s price. If you want to get serious about visual design, however, your workplace might be willing to invest. You can buy it as a standalone product or as part of their CS (Creative Suite) package. There is a CS Suite for web design and one for print design.

Adobe also has a membership site—Creative Cloud—that provides access to the suite online. You can pay by the month or yearly. Finally, if you are a student or teacher, you can get an educational discount on Adobe products. Education products can only be installed on one computer and may require some form of proof.

Microsoft PowerPoint: There’s a good chance you own this software even though it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of graphic editors. Over the years, however, PowerPoint has grown in graphic capabilities that are easy to learn and use. If you’re using PowerPoint as the basis for online learning, presentations, storyboards or any type of sketching to communicate ideas, you may not need anything more than this application.

Illustration Tools

Illustration software creates vector graphics, in which every object is essentially a mathematical statement. Vector graphics are scalable without losing quality and they usually have a smaller file size than bitmapped graphics.

Adobe Illustrator: In Illustrator and other vector applications, you draw with points and lines, creating paths that become objects. Although Illustrator is a complicated program to learn, it has some compelling advantages. Objects are easy to select, every element can be re-sized, there are numerous effects, and text renders beautifully. Illustrator is pricey and there are other well-used vector applications that cost less. Illustrator is included in some of the CS Suites and is also included in Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription.

CorelDraw: Many consider CorelDraw to be the best alternative to Illustrator. Although the CorelDraw Graphics Suite is a little pricey, see if their Home and Student Suite will meet your needs.

Inkscape (free): This free application for producing vector graphics comes recommended as a solid alternative to the pricier applications. It is both Windows and Mac compatible. Although it doesn’t have all the capabilities and features of Illustrator and CorelDraw, you can probably complete all the drawing tasks you need with Inkscape.

Wireframe and Diagram Applications

Wireframing tools are good for thinking through and communicating the layout and organization of user interfaces, websites, online courses, mobile products and job aids. They allow you to create a quick mock-up or prototype before you start thinking about content, color and graphics. It’s faster to implement a wireframe than to write a requirements document. You can also continue with your wireframe idea to include lots of detail. Some wireframe tools also have functionality for adding interactivity.

Axure: This is one of the more robust wireframing tools and has many purposes. In addition to layouts, you can create functional and interactive prototypes, add color at the mockup stage and use it for charts and diagrams. It also has collaborative and sharing features, making it good for working in teams and for user testing. It comes in Standard and Pro versions.

Balsamiq Mockups: You can quickly create layouts with a sketchy look using Balsamiq. The graphics have a hand-drawn and low-fidelity appearance so no one will mistake your wireframes for anything more than what they are. Balsamiq comes with a library of pre-built objects and icons and has capabilities for making interactive prototypes. This is what I used to design the user interface of the Instructional Design Guru app.

Cacoo (free plan): Many use Cacoo as an online diagramming tool but it also works well for creating wireframes. It has all the basic drawing functionality that you would expect, lives in the cloud and allows you to collaborate on diagrams with other users in real time, making it good for team work. Cacoo has several pricing plans that provide added functionality.

Mockingbird: This is another web-based wireframing tool with a variety of pricing plans. Similar to Balsamiq, it has a library of pre-built objects that you drag into your document. Mockingbird does a good job of resizing text inside labeled objects, has customizable grids and you can make multiple pages that link to each other.

Omnigraffle (Mac Only): This is popular software in the Mac community, used by many to create diagrams and charts. You can also use it for making interactive wireframes. You can find a wide array of stencils and templates that work with Omnigraffle and it’s easy to learn and use.

Now I can’t wait to hear about your favorite graphic applications. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the Comments below.

Get The eLearning Coach delivered to your Inbox twice a month, with articles, tips and resources. Sign up below.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


  1. Katherine H says

    I have to say Microsoft Office Powerpoint – especially 2010 is my one stop shop for graphics or graphic communication. It is amazing what I can produce with so little :)

    Just with the Corel products – if you are an Articulate Studio user, Corel interferes with Articulate’s publishing process…I used to have this app but have had to uninstall in all my laptops to allow my Articulate courses to be published. :)

    I have been thinking about a digital pen tablet for a while….hmmmm… maybe after I feel more confident with my sketchpad drawings :)

    Thanks for these ideas Connie!

  2. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Katherine,
    That’s very interesting about the Corel interference. I know that when Articulate Presenter is publishing (not sure about Storyline), I believe it can draw in anything that’s in RAM (if I understand this correctly), so it would probably work if Corel were shut down. Maybe you can try a tablet out at a Best Buy or something. I’ve seen the Bamboo there. Good luck!


  3. Peter Severin says

    Also take a look at WireframeSketcher for a powerful offline desktop wireframing tool. It comes with native UI on all platforms. It lets you create wireframes using a clean and sketch style; comes with lots of pre-built controls and extensions for mobile apps; and lets you export results into clickable PDFs. All graphics are vector based which gives crisp and clean results.

    Take a look at it here:

  4. Percita says

    Thank you for all these good tips!
    Another tool I can’t live without is SnagIT by TechSmith – very cheap, simple, full of features and so easy to use.
    I do IT Systems training so I need good screen shots – that is the main reason I use it but I do a lot more than just take screen captures. I edit pictures make backgrounds transparent, add arrows and shapes etc etc.

  5. Craig Hadden – Remote Possibilities says

    Thanks Connie – there are quite a few tools here I hadn’t heard of, so it’s good to get info on them.

    Percita mentioned SnagIt, and it was only a couple of weeks ago someone showed me how to use that to smudge parts of a screenshot (to blur-out customer names etc). Very useful!

    With Inkscape, I love the fact that it’s free and yet so powerful. It also lets you use keyboard shortcuts a lot, which can speed up your work.

    A 2nd free tool is Picasa, which I rave about. It’s not an image editor as such, in that you can’t select parts of an image, but it has loads of great features. For instance, you can store and reuse cropping dimensions, which makes it easy to crop numerous photos to fit the title-page template we use on our elearning courses. It also has amazing face *recognition* (not just detection), so you can use it to find all your photos with the same person in them, which again is handy for elearning scenarios. You can get it from (and at about 15 MB, it’s a fairly small download).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>