Design is a great field to get started in because unlike many other creative industries reliant on digital tools you don’t need a powerhouse of a computer to get things rolling. Design software will run reasonably well on pretty much any piece of hardware made in the last few years. However, when it comes time to upgrade your hardware you’ll want to find something that will allow you to work as efficiently as possible.
I’ve been doing a lot of research on this subject lately as I’ve been looking to replace my aging MacBook Pro. People say that Macs are the go-to computers for designers, but it’s by no means a requirement, therefore I’ve decided to make my advice here generic enough to also apply to people who prefer Windows computers.
If there is one piece of your setup you don’t want to cheap out on it’s the display. You can get decent displays for under $200 but you should be very careful when shopping as many “budget displays” won’t have the features you need as a professional designer. You’ll want to make sure that you’re going to get the most accurate color reproduction, so a display with a 16.7 million color resolution is a necessity, so that’s one of the first specs you should check. You’ll also want to make sure you can connect to it over a standard like DisplayPort or HDMI.
You’ll need a display that is of a pretty decent size, I’d say 21“ at minimum. Basically, the larger the canvas the better off you will be. But it should also have decent pixel resolution as well, a 30” display at 1280x720 isn’t going to do you much good. The simplest way to determine if the display has a high enough resolution is to look at the PPI (pixels per inch). Something around the area of 100 PPI will yield ideal results, but if you really want to future-proof your display then look for something in the area of 4–5K resolution.
Design isn’t super processor-intensive. Any Intel i5 running at 2 GHz or more should do the job. However, most design software, including Adobe’s products, are designed to take advantage of multiple processor cores. While a dual core i5 is totally usable, you’ll get a boost in performance using a machine with a quad core i7.
If you’re not getting a 4K display and don’t use 3D in your design workflow an integrated graphics processor will do the job. You definitely don’t need a fancy graphics card for 2D design work, you just need something beefy enough to power the display you’ve chosen. If you’ve decided to go with a 4K display you’ll want a computer with a powerful enough dedicated GPU. The maximum output resolution is usually listed in the specs for the computer.
I have one simple rule for memory, also known as RAM (Random Access Memory); get as much as you can! If you plan on keeping your computer for a long time you should definitely invest in a full 16GB. With more RAM you’ll be able to work with larger graphics files more efficiently.
In most cases you’ll be able to upgrade RAM at a later date so it’s not totally critical to max it out when selecting build-to-order options. However if you’re buying a Mac be aware that some models have the RAM soldered into place which makes it impossible to upgrade later on wether on your own or by a technician.
Fortunately for us designers our jobs do not generally entail projects that eat up Gigabytes of data. However, projects build up over time and you should prepare for that. My personal solution for speed and storage is to run all my applications and current projects off my computer’s internal SSD (solid state drive) which has a total storage capacity of 256GB. When I’m done with files they are moved to an external traditional hard drive that gives me 1TB to work with.
If you prefer to keep everything together on a single drive getting a computer with a traditional spinning hard drive is the best option at the moment. If you don’t mind spending a little extra for some speed many manufacturers offer SSD options which are more expensive but will help tremendously when working with graphics, and even just general computer usage. Unlike traditional hard drives, SSDs have no moving parts which makes them more reliable, more power-efficient, and of course much faster.
Whatever your storage solution though, please remember to back up everything!
There are so many options for so many use-cases. There are a multitude of other factors in choosing a computer from wether you need portability, to your own personal preferences. As such I hesitate to give solid recommendations.
If you’re looking at a Mac I think Apple’s lineup of computers with retina displays are probably the most ideal for design work. The 27“ Retina iMac is probably your best bet as it offers everything from screen size and resolution, to ample RAM and storage options. If portability is your jam the 15” Retina MacBook Pro is also a great option for many of the same reasons despite the smaller screen. In the Windows world though anything with similar specs will do the trick as well, though I don’t know of any Windows notebooks with the screen resolution of the MacBook Pro.