The Tools: Software.

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25th September 2023
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8 min read

This was something I'd been thinking about after seeing Anson Cheung's Hardware Guide. I decided to drop this in today instead of a future date because I spent a good portion of the week before last dunking on rendering tools.

As is the convention, I'll do a series of these just to set the scene of what my work space looks like. Software to start, then hardware, and then some analogue tools because I'm a big fan of those. Do keep in mind however that tools do not maketh the designer, the designer uses the tools to maketh.

I've been working for myself in the design space now for a couple of years. This has given me plenty of opportunity to pick and choose what I'd like in my software selection, and to tweak and tune as my preferences change. It's honestly not a long list, so let's get into what I use, why I use it, and how I use it.

Design.

I've been using Solidworks since 1999. I wouldn't consider myself a Solidworks guru by any means, but have done some pretty gnarly things with it*. I use Solidworks every one or two days, though I may use it solid or not at all for a couple of weeks at a time. I use it for all the reasons you would expect; prototype design and production models, or for models to drop into Keyshot.

Why am I still using 2020? Well, having had first hand experience with the costs and update cycles of Solidworks, I made a deliberate decision not to continue maintenance of the licence once it expired. I just didn't see the value in paying maintenance. The improvements year on year are minor, and I have no compulsion to stay on the latest version for interoperability. I've used 2020 long enough now that if I had to buy a new licence, I would probably break even. The longer I continue to use 2020, well that's money in my pocket.

As I've mentioned on LinkedIn, I've been familiar with Keyshot for a long time, but never really rolled my sleeves up and learnt it until I had to. I've had a blast learning how to use it, and would consider myself competent.

I opted for the 'for Solidworks' version of the license at the time because it saved about a third of the cost of a seat over the full version. The only trade off being a limit to what file types you could import. In practice, this hasn't been a real problem. Much like Solidworks, I didn't continue with the maintenance on the license once it expired. I suspect this is one reason why Keyshot moved to subscription (not me personally ofc, but many people staying on a single version).

This one might divide a lot of people. As you likely know, Industrial Design (and most creative fields) are heavily entrenched in the Adobe ecosystem. That is the sole reason Adobe was able to switch to Creative Cloud and begin extorting their users. I've used Illustrator and Photoshop since time immemorial, but when it's my own money being siphoned out of my pocket, I'm not going to follow along without taking a critical look at the cost/benefit. The Affinity suite is a perpetual license, and to buy all three of them outright costs less than six months of an Illustrator seat. Aside from this, the Adobe CC is an absolute resource hog. It has loads of services sitting in the background and the apps take a long time to load. I'm not sad I don't have any Adobe products on my machine.

The Affinity suite is a delight to use. They load fast, and the workflow and keyboard shortcuts are all very familiar. Affinity does handle layers differently, which takes a little time to understand, but they're very powerful once you get the hang of it. The ability to add pixel layers to vector artworks is awesome. The only issue I've had that puts a chink in my workflow is the inability to export DXF directly out of Designer. To work around this I pass an SVG through an old version of Inkscape. It only takes a minute and works well. Not once in two years have I wanted to go back to Adobe CC.

Resolve is an extremely powerful bit of kit, and I don't use it anywhere near to its capabilities. I mostly use it to compile rendered animation frames as it can handle transparency. This allows me to overlay several frames for more complex effects. I've also used it more recently to do UI motion graphics, which I've then fed back into Keyshot to create animations with moving UIs.

PureRef is a fantastic tool for collecting and arranging images into mood and empathy boards. It's very lightweight, fast and intuitive to use. I often use it early on in the design process to collect images for inspiration and context. PureRef works on an infinite canvas, so I usually use a single file per project, and just group images by purpose.

I put Blender into this list, but to be honest I don't really know how to use it (as much as I want to). I mostly use it for file conversion, but I do use it sometimes to work with rigged models that I then export into Solidworks before passing to Keyshot.

Documentation.

This one is probably a bit self-explanatory. Outside of creative fields, Office is king. I use it mostly when doing verification and quality management documentation.

Typora is my go-to for writing now. It's primarily a markdown writing app, with lots of powerful features under the bonnet. It's been designed for focus, and the appearance of it can be infinitely customised. I've also taught myself basic markdown which means that any formatting I create in Typora will copy and paste directly into WordPress. I also have a separate md file I use as a scratchpad for writing LinkedIn posts.

When I said I've kept my machine Adobe-free, I meant it.

I use Workflowy currently to manage my task lists. Like Typora, it's very simple on the surface but has a lot of powerful features should you choose to use them. One thing that puts Workflowy above the others like Obsidian and Notion for me is that if you wish to keep it for simple list making, it maintains that simple minimalist design that helps you focus. I'm currently still using the free tier, but would happily pay for it if I needed the extra capacity. Highly recommended.

Utilities.

I've listened to music as I work for almost my whole working life. MP3 players for a long time, then streaming services once they kicked off. Spotify told me at one point I listened to more music than 95% of listeners.

This one also may appear obvious, but I pay for a subscription to Zoom. On several occasions I've set up meetings with clients or to network with people and our chats have been cut short by Zoom's free tier time limit. Not a good look when you're trying to leave an impression. Video calls are my main form of collaboration, so to pony up for the subscription was a no-brainer. The added advantage is that clients can rely on you to set up a meeting, knowing they don't have to worry about it. That goes doubly for startups that are mindful of their spending and may not have a subscription. It all helps for a more seamless interaction, which in turn makes you look more professional. I've found Zoom to be superior to MS Teams and Google Meet.

You're probably wondering what on Earth this is. It's an amazing utility I use to add extra functionality to my keyboards and keypads. I'll go more into this in the hardware article, but AutoHotKey allows me to convert inputs from my keypads into any automation I wish. It makes many things much faster with a little bit of setup.

Any one who operates inside of a quality management system knows the importance of backups. I've used Goodsync for many years to do backups and manage cloud-based copies. It has extremely powerful filtering and sync tools. I used it to automatically create multiple backups of all my work and admin stuff.

For being last on the list, I use these two things a lot. I 3D print a tonne of stuff over the course of a project, and even for my own projects, so these two bits of software get a workout. I've switched to PrusaSlicer recently over Cura just for a bit of a change and to see how it performs on my printer. So far I've been happy with the results. Chitubox unfortunately I have to use with the resin printer I have...

Future Tweaks.

For now I've settled into a groove and don't see myself changing too much unless something comes up that forces me to change. I just want to keep getting better at what I do use. I can, however, foresee one or more of the packages I use pushing me to upgrade for one reason or another.

I have been considering teaching myself Rhino, as a large part of the ID community uses this and it can do some things in 3D that Solidworks can't. At present that would only be a self-improvement project, more than something in need.

That's It!

I'd be keen to hear your thoughts on what I use, or what you use instead. Send me an email or connect with me on LinkedIn.

* I created a bone screw once with a constantly varying thread form. The design table was so complex, the Smith+Nephew engineers had to send it back for edits because they couldn't do it themselves.


I'm writing every week on the topics of design, medtech, and my journey in it. If you'd like to follow along, feel free to either subscribe to the newsletter or give me a follow on LinkedIn. Stay tuned for a deep dive on my hardware items next.

Tagged: consulting · design · design studio · software