6 Time-Tested Applications for Freelance Web Designers

If you work as a freelance web designer or developer, you probably rely on a number of applications to perform daily tasks. From crafting code and pushing pixels to productivity and business management, it’s usually safe to say, “There’s an app for that.”

Shiny new apps are popping up more than ever. You are well familiar with the routine: a hot new URL sporting early beta invites buzzes its way across Twitter, picks up a handful of users and eventually falls off the map, never to be heard of again. This pattern is particularly strong for productivity apps (a.k.a. “getting things done” apps) and web development tools.

Don’t get me wrong: some of these little gems find success in segments of the market. They add to a vast reservoir of quality solutions that can be found for every task. With so many apps to choose from, how does one decide which to try and which to ignore?

In this article I will highlight a few apps that I’ve relied on heavily over the course of my career as a freelance web designer.


Why Not Try Them All?

For starters, many apps have a price tag. Most offer a free trial or a “light” version, but you won’t likely need more than a 30-day trial period to determine whether an app would be useful to you on a regular basis.

Time is an important factor. Incorporating an app into your daily routine and figuring out what you will use it for take time.

Most apps claim they will save you time, but there is often an unforeseen and time-consuming period to accustom yourself to a new application.


Separating the Best From the Rest

Longevity separates a great app from the rest. That is to say, the app must maintain its authority and popularity for years, not months.

Great apps pick up users steadily over the long term. The creators of great apps continually innovate on them and offer consistent customer support. Top apps garner word-of-mouth promotion because users love using them. Web workers are a vocal bunch!

Like most web workers, I’m an app addict. I snatch apps for my Mac, iPhone and iPad daily. I love digging in the details of each user interface and looking for something that can maximize my efficiency. However, the vast majority of the apps I install sit idly and eventually wind up in the trash.

It’s not often that an app works its way into my daily routine. This short list discusses the apps that have made the cut. These apps have proven valuable over the course of my freelance web design career.

Other truly great and popular apps exist. I may not personally use them, but they deserve consideration nonetheless. This is why I’ve added several “notable alternatives” for each app covered below.


1. Project Management: Basecamp

Basecamp by 37 Signals is an incredibly popular web app that allows users to manage projects and collaborate with teammates in the office and around the world.

I use Basecamp when assembling a mini-team of freelancers to collaborate on a project. Unlike some web designers, I choose not to invite my clients into Basecamp. I prefer to keep things simple for them and stick to email and phone communication rather than introduce a new method.

With my co-workers, on the other hand (sub-contractors, business partners, etc.), Basecamp is the perfect app to keep track of project collaboration materials: briefs, long email exchanges, screenshots, URLs, to-do lists, bug tracking and so on.

One advantage to using Basecamp over other project management apps is its popularity. Most, if not all, of my co-workers have used Basecamp before, and some even have their own accounts that easily link up to mine. It’s quick to get up and running.

Notable alternatives to Basecamp:


2. Personal To-Do List: Things

So many to-do list apps are out there that everyone’s personal choice seems to be different. I’ve tried them all and always come back to Things for Mac by Cultured Code.

I use Things to manage my personal list of upcoming tasks, whereas I use Basecamp to manage to-do lists between my collaborators.

Things is my private list; I set its interface and features to keep track of big-picture stuff: deadlines for multiple projects, reminders to follow up with new business leads and so on. Things provides an organized overview of all tasks and groups these tasks according to the projects they are a part of.

Beautifully designed mobile versions of this app are available for the iPhone and iPad, and they can sync over a Wi-Fi network. Unfortunately, you can’t sync wirelessly over the air, meaning you can’t sync lists away from home. I haven’t found this to be a problem because I do 95% of my work at my home office.

Notable alternatives to Things:


3. Communication: Gmail and Google Apps

Gmail might be the single most useful app in my arsenal. Like millions of others, I’ve been hooked for years.

What I really love about Gmail is that it allows me to use Google Apps for my domain email addresses (@casjam.com and @themejam.com). I can easily separate my personal communication from the communication for my two businesses, all while using the awesome set of features that Gmail offers.

I’m a Gmail power user. I use the search function daily; it’s fast, accurate and consistent. I actually email things to myself with keyword-crafted subject lines, so that I can search for them later.

I take full advantage of labels and stars to sort and file important emails. “Canned Responses,” a Gmail Labs feature, has helped me set up email templates to provide customer support for common inquiries.

A few useful third-party add-ons for Gmail are worth mentioning:

  • Boomerang allows you to schedule emails to be sent later.
  • Sparrow turns Gmail into a beautiful desktop for Mac users.


4. Coding: Panic Coda

The text editor is very near and dear to the heart of the web developer. My app of choice is Coda for Mac by Panic.

After years of working with HomeSite, Dreamweaver, Eclipse and others, I found Coda and have stuck with it. The clean and unobtrusive interface had me at first sight. Many apps add unnecessary buttons and features in all corners of the screen. Panic has crafted an absolutely stunning interface that strikes a balance between utility and space.

Two features of Coda are worth mentioning. “Clips” allows you to predefine code snippets, along with personalized keyboard shortcuts. This really lets you adapt Coda to your style and workflow. The other key feature is the built-in FTP, which automatically syncs files in different locations to the server. No more navigating through different folders every time you want to bulk upload your CSS, JavaScript and images.

Notable alternatives:


5. Invoicing: FreshBooks

It would be great if I was able to spend all of my time in the creation process, designing and coding websites, but at the end of the day, I’m a business owner. Luckily, FreshBooks has had me covered since day one.

FreshBooks is a web application that covers the crucial mechanics of running a freelance business. Its functions include invoicing, bookkeeping, time-tracking, expense-tracking and reporting business performance.

Three years ago, as a first-time business owner who never went to business school, I discovered that FreshBooks could make it easy for me to get my business up and running. It’s incredibly easy to use, and the cleanly designed invoices represent my business professionally.

Notable alternatives:


6. Online Back-Up: Dropbox

Any seasoned web developer is familiar with the slogan, “Back-up, back-up and back-up again.” You can never been too careful with your back-up systems. For rock-solid assurance that I’ll never lose my or my client’s files, Dropbox has had my back for years.

Dropbox syncs your files to the cloud and lets you share files between multiple computers seamlessly. The first rule when designing the ideal back-up system is to make one of your back-ups an off-site location (somewhere other than the building you work in). The cloud is as off-site as it gets.

The second rule is to perform back-ups as often as possible. Dropbox backs up your files as soon as you hit “Save.” The third rule is to have a method of reverting to previous versions of documents. Dropbox has you covered: using its web interface, you can view and restore past versions of any file!

Using Dropbox, you can share a folder with a co-worker anywhere in the world.

Notable alternatives:

Brian Casel is a web designer and the founder of CasJam Media. He’s the creator of the Clean Slate WordPress theme. Brian loves to connect with fellow web workers on Twitter: @CasJam.

Please share your own all-time favorite apps-those that have proven valuable to you and your business. Share tips with the rest of us on how to get the most out of the tools you use

  • http://www.clickwebdesign.com.au Chris

    I’ve used Basecamp for some of our small business websites and can say is great for working with a team of freelancers. It documents the design process and gives freelancers flexibility and easy communication. I would recommend it if there will be long term use. Agree that its best to leave the client to email and phone, so the freelancers can do their thing while maintaining one point of contact.

  • http://www.webguide4u.com Vivek Parmar

    Coding and dropbox are the best one when it comes to testing and saving it for future use. I do not think that others are too important as compared to these two (only personal opinion)

  • Alex

    Some alternatives

    Harvest for time-tracking and invoicing
    Omnifocus for ToDo list
    BBEdit for simple code editing and Eclipse for full IDE
    Meebo for communication

    The rest I fully agree with!

  • http://www.mrbendig.com Rainer Bendig

    You missed “UltraEdit” as an alternative to Coda :)

  • Tobi

    As an alternative to FreshBooks i can recommend billomat.
    It’s a german platform to create and manage invoices. The free plans goes up to 25 customers and 5 invoices per month.
    I’m using it since i started my own small business while i’m studying at the college. It’s perfect to my use.

  • http://www.kokushta.com Gjergji Kokushta

    Since you mentioned Coda editor (Mac App) the most near to it is WeBuilder / http://www.blumentals.net/webuilder/ (Win App) or a free alternative BlueFish / http://bluefish.openoffice.nl/ .

    As for invoice system you missed out CurdBee / http://curdbee.com/ You get lots of features for free and some more in paid version.

  • http://www.diamonddev.com Alex K.

    For my part, i prefer Aptana for Coding, it’s just so much cleaner, easier and adaptable… i tried coda but its just not my workflow…

  • http://twitter.com/z0r z0r

    Coding: Espresso

    • MattN

      I agree I tried Coda but just didn’t like it. I’ve been using Espresso since the Mac Heist bundle and it may not be perfect but it’s my favorite.

      • http://casjam.com/blog Brian

        I tried switching from Coda to Espresso once. It was only about a week before I retreated back to my beloved Coda :)

        I must say espresso has a very nice interface though. It’s just the keyboard shortcuts I couldn’t get used to.

  • http://aaronlaibson.com Aaron

    Great article but you realize the blurred contents in your screenshots for Gmail and Things are still perfectly legible, right?

  • http://gameloo.info gofree

    Thanks for all these. I have to stop to say this as per introducing to what I need.

  • http://blakerdesign.com Niki Blaker

    How could you leave out Harvest! I couldn’t do my job without it.

    • http://casjam.com/blog Brian

      I (sometimes) use the time tracker that is built into FreshBooks. However, I changed from billing by the hour to quoting per project a long time ago, so time tracking is less of a concern for me (though I do track time for some things).

      • hcabbos

        I agree with Niki, Harvest all the way. Harvest isn’t pinned down to time tracking. You can invoice per project. I love the Estimates feature for taking quotes from unapproved to approved state.

  • http://www.fldtrace.com Lucian

    Gmail is really great. Don’t forget to install the Undo feature which can save you most of times when you see misspellings in the email you just sent or you said something you want to correct..

    • http://casjam.com/blog Brian

      Yes! The undo feature is awesome. Another GMail labs favorite: Automagically recognize when you forgot to attach a file.

  • http://daniel-rauber.de Daniel

    How about .mite (http://mite.yo.lk/)? It’s a really great and powerful time tracking service!

  • http://www.code-pal.com Sumeet Chawla

    Cool list of apps.. though some of them are very famous anyhow. I would like to add a very small tool which web developers can use to speed up their process of creating web pages.

    With this tool, you can convert raw data to list/option elements, or even navigation bars!

    • http://casjam.com/blog Brian

      Looks interesting… though I really like the code completion features in Coda, which kind of accomplish the same thing to an extent.

      • http://www.code-pal.com Sumeet Chawla

        True that some of the features are supported in Coda. But these are like side features. The main advantage of the tool and the reason I created it, is to convert long list of words to list elements. For example, in one of my projects, I had to insert all the country names in a select box. Writing them manually, one by one, would waste a lot of my time. So I wrote a C program to parse the text file containing all the country names, ignore the leading numbers (1,2,3.. etc) and generating a list of country names, wrapped with the option tag.

        Afterwards, I ported the code to an online tool to share it with everyone :) With this tool, including a list of more than 100+ items in a select box takes just 3 seconds :)

        You can see a demo of the example I said above: http://www.youtube.com/user/codepaltube#p/u/0/49MP-n3YITY

  • http://molbal.co.cc Bálint Molnár

    For coding, I use ‘Programmer’s notepad’, as an alternative to Notepad++ :)

  • http://www.cblu.net Paolo Certo

    X4todo: project management, time tracking, todo list and invoicing
    Gmail: communication
    Jedit: coding

  • http://www.savthecoder.com SavTheCoder

    Coding: NetBeans

  • Rawrs

    Espresso is far superior to Coda.

    (Also… not terribly happy about the pop-up ad for that design company or whatever as I was reading this. Don’t mind ads on the side or in the middle of articles, but pop-ups — even when light-boxed are just low IMO.)

  • http://bee-software.net/ Dave

    I use Coda & Dropbox, for invoicing I use Busy Bee Invoicing: http://bee-software.net/invoice-software/

  • http://www.freeoutsourcing.net Roy W.

    Freshbooks is great. It is clean, nothing fancy, but it does exactly what I expect it to do. It is what software is supposed to be — intuitive and useful. We also use Worksnaps (http://www.worksnaps.net) to track out employee’s time and work, then import it into Freshbooks for invoicing. Works great.

    For coding, I would vote for Aptana or Eclipse. Better for development for a team. Just my opinion.

  • http://www.graphiclux.com Matthew Lux

    For Project Management and Invoicing put together I use Project Bubble. This application is easy to use and pretty well priced.

  • http://www.prabhakarbhat.com Prabhakar Bhat

    I use Netbeans for coding, and very happy with it.

  • http://www.website-designers.co.nz/ Pen

    Fantastic article – I am already hooked on ‘Things’ and ‘Fresh Books’ – and that’s just after reading your post. Many thanks for your helpful info :)

  • Norman

    For invoices and time-tracking I prefer:
    – GrandTotal (Invoices from mediaatelier)
    – TimeLog (time-tracker from mediaatelier) or mite (which works together with TimeLog.

    The great thing about these two apps is, that they work together. The time you tracked with TimeLog can go in an Invoice with just a few clicks.

  • http://www.thibaud.be thibaud

    Coding: Sublime text

  • http://www.cronsync.com Jakob

    For time tracking and Invoicing:


    cronsync is a web based time tracking and invoicing that has a intelligent rights management for permanent and external staff, such as freelancers.

    Flexible time tracking settings, easily adjustable to your company’s and clients’ needs.

    Real time project control, based on facts. Dashboard with project status and profitability, hours, internal and external hourly rates and expenses.

    Invoices are automatically generated based on time tracking and project data. You choose what level of invoice detail you want to grant your client.

    On the website you will find a video tour and an online demo.

    We have launched cronsync this year. I look forward to your feedback!

    Best, Jakob

  • http://www.wolf21.com/ Patrick LeMay

    I think Dropbox is really helpful. This list is complete and useful. I think Harvest should also have been included in this.

  • http://www.sonnydesign.com sonnyd

    Aptana is also an alternative to panic Coda for coding. really useful list you have in here.

  • http://www.drivvedwebbyra.se Fredrik

    Personal To-Do List: Things!!! THX!! for that one!!

  • http://www.myintervals.com john

    These are all great apps and well-tested as you suggest. I also recommend checking out Intervals, an online app that does time tracking, task management, and other project management related stuff.

  • http://awesome.hu/ adikahorvath

    Notepad++ for developing

  • http://www.bestpsdtohtml.com Andrew

    We have been using Invoicera (http://www.invoicera.com) for invoicing and time tracking.

    For project management we use Basecamp and for client approval of artwrok and design we use ProofHQ (http://www.proofhq.com).

  • http://a6media.com Ken Briscoe

    Great post. I use all but Coda. Makes me feel pretty good..

  • http://www.haus.lt piter

    Dropbox is nice, i work only with

  • http://www.jamesferguson.co.uk James Ferguson

    Great post! Both Things and Coda are great apps I couldn’t live without.

  • http://www.vekta.co.uk Vekta

    A great list and I’ll be trying these out. It’s so easy to get bogged down with things that take you away from being creative and hopefully these will help free more time up.

  • Sarah Brenner

    I love Things and Dropbox, I use them everyday :)

  • http://managewith.us Andy Shora

    For collaborative task management, try http://managewith.us

    You can see live changes made by your team, and there’s no sign-up required!



  • http://www.clevelandnorml.org Ben

    Great post! I have to say I like Omnifocus more than Things. It allows syncing via MobileMe, WebDAV and over Wifi. It’s less of a pretty interface but is more powerful with tools making it easy to ad events/tasks and information directly from another program. I have learning disabilities (memory, EDD), run two nonprofits and am a full time student, I couldn’t do it without Omnifocus.

  • http://www.edmundrobinson.net edmund

    For windows i usually use PHP Designer, its not free but its one of the best IDE’s i’ve used. Haven’t come across a mac equivalent with custom class and function auto complete with parameter tool tips