6 Time-Tested Applications for Freelance Web Designers

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February 07, 2011

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

WDD Staff

WDD staff are proud to be able to bring you this daily blog about web design and development. If there's something you think we should be talking about let us know @DesignerDepot.

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