So you want a Mac for your graphic design work. But which one is right for you? We’ve gone through Apple’s range and figured out the best machine for certain types of designers, but first want to cover some general tips you should be mindful of when buying a new Mac. Here’s the lowdown on the best Macs for creative and design work.
Below we will guide you through why Macs are great for graphic design, we’ll examine the different components (RAM, graphics and storage) and will offer advice about the ideal specifications for a designers Mac.
We will then round up the different Macs Apple sells based on their suitability for the various types of design work – and include the best money off deals right now so that you don’t have to pay full price!
Why designers prefer Macs
Back in the early years Macs were at the forefront of the desktop publishing revolution, bettering PC rivals when it came to colour accuracy and typography. The differences between macOS and Windows are less pronounced these days and file compatibility is typically strong when using suites available on both systems, such as Adobe’s Creative Cloud. Nonetheless, the Mac still finds favour with the majority of designers.
This is down to several factors: reliability; excellent niche apps only available for Mac (such as Sketch); tradition, and, frankly, Macs looking a lot nicer than PCs. (Designers aren’t shallow, but they do like style!)
What designers need from a Mac
The further you go back in time, the more defined and focused creative roles were. But these days, a designer may work across many fields. That’s not to say there aren’t still people solely working up magazine layouts in InDesign, but the modern designer is just as likely to be delving into illustration, interface design, and 3D, all of which can be particularly demanding and processor intensive tasks.
The extremely rapid shift towards digital further complicates matters. A decade ago, perfect colour reproduction might have been the main concern for a designer when it came to buying new kit. But today, designers are increasingly likely to be working on screen-based design with their work may be destined to be viewed on displays of all shapes and sizes. With this in mind the choice of display can be of great importance to a designer, who may be drawn to 5K or even 6K displays.
The nature of employment may also require them to be more mobile, so where historically many designers opted for a Mac Pro or iMac, now the MacBook Pro and a secondary display might appeal.
Two things that haven’t really changed over the years is the tendency for design applications to be RAM-hungry, and for the majority of design projects to require a fairly hefty amount of storage. In both cases, you need to be careful, because Apple now largely considers Macs sealed units so, in most cases, you can no longer later add extra RAM or storage so you might need to configure at the time of purchase.
With all that in mind we’ll start off by running through our recommendations in terms of processor speed and cores, RAM, graphics, storage, display quality and ports.
As we mentioned above, design applications tend to be RAM-hungry and, since the RAM insider most Macs can’t be updated at a later date, we’d advise that you choose the most RAM available when you buy your Mac. Apple offers the option to upgrade RAM in most models at point of purchase so it’s good practice to choose the most RAM you can afford.
There are some Macs that do offer the possibility of updating the RAM later – the 27in iMac, for example, has a hatch at the back of the display that can be opened and new RAM added. The RAM in the Mac Pro and the 2018 Mac mini can also be updated. If you want to save money you could purchase the RAM from a third party rather than Apple – but do bear in mind that you will void your warranty if you add it yourself. Read our guide to replacing RAM in your Mac for advice.
The RAM in the new M1 Macs that Apple introduced in November 2020 can not be upgraded, because it is an integrated part of the M1 chip. This set up does have some benefits: the memory, the CPU and the GPU are all on the same chip and this speeds up the transmission of data and improves performance. This means that 8GB RAM in a M1 Mac isn’t really comparable to 8GB RAM in an Intel Mac – so you could conceivably find that even if your current Intel Mac struggles with 8GB RAM a M1 Mac wouldn’t.
However, we would still recommend updating to 16GB at point of purchase, just because you won’t be able to later. It’s also worth noting that the RAM in the M1 Macs is limited to 16GB, while older Intel Macs can take much more RAM – up to 128GB RAM in the case of the 27in iMac or an astonishing 1.5TB in the Mac Pro).
Which ever Mac you buy our advice is to order as much RAM as you can afford when you buy your Mac, even if Apple’s pricing for this is akin to being mugged.
Chances are that as a graphic designer you can dealing with lots of huge files. You’ll likely be looking for the Mac with the biggest SSD you can find – and it’s worth upgrading at point of sale because, as with RAM, you can’t upgrade the SSD at a later date.
Some designers may be disappointed that Apple no longer sells Macs with Fusion Drives – which combined an SSD with a large hard drive. We think it was a good move by Apple, but of course it does mean that you get less storage for your money (entry-level iMacs used to ship with 1TB drives for example).
However, there are considerable benefits to solid state storage: they are much faster at accessing the data and they are less likely to get damaged.
If you want more storage you can at least use external drives for housing weighty folders and archives.
With the arrival of the M1 Macs in November 2020 the question of which processor should I buy is more complicated than ever. The M1 chip (aka SoC, or system on chip) is the first Apple’s silicon processor to replace Intel processors, which have been used by the company since 2006/7. Apple has said it will transition the whole range of Macs to its own ARM-based chips by the middle of 2022.
Right now the only Macs to offer Apple’s own processors are the MacBook Air, two Mac mini models and two MacBook Pro models. Apple’s started off with the entry-level Macs, but that doesn’t mean they should be ruled out for design work. The M1 Macs are proving not only to be much much faster than the Intel processors they replaced, they are beating many of the Intel processors in what used to be considered the more powerful Macs. For example, the M1 MacBook Air beat the 16in MacBook Pro’s geekbench score when we tested it! Read our review of the M1 MacBook Air.
The M1 Macs all ship with 8-cores CPUs. Other Macs generally offer four, eight, or ten-cores, although there is a dual-core iMac (but we’d advise you to avoid that) and the Mac Pro goes up to 28-cores. The average user probably doesn’t need more than four cores, but designers would be advised to look for six or more cores.
The reason why more cores are better is because each core can look after certain jobs, or jobs can be split between the different cores. Essentially the more cores you have the more things can be done at once. That’s assuming the applications you are using are written to take advantage of multiple cores, but in the case of graphic design apps and anything used by creatives and designers this is likely to be the case.
If you work in graphic design you will benefit from a good graphics card – ideally one with its own memory. This is why many designers are drawn to the iMac or the 16in MacBook Pro: these Mac options offer discrete graphics options that are superior to the integrated Intel graphics that were used in the pre-M1 Macs and still feature in some Macs.
The M1 Macs offer a different graphics option: the GPU, the CPU the RAM are all integrated onto the same system on chip (SoC) so the GPU and CPU can exchange information quickly and the RAM can be shared efficiently – Apple refers to its Unified Memory Architecture which makes this possible. This makes the graphics in the M1 Mac far superior to the integrated Intel graphics (as we’ve seen in our tests).
The Apple graphics solution isn’t quite able to compete on the same level as the AMD discrete graphics, but it’s not far off. In our tests the 8-core GPU in the M1 MacBook Pro scored significantly better than the 2.0GHz Intel MacBook Pro, with Intel graphics, sure it couldn’t catch the graphics processor in the 16in MacBook Pro, but it didn’t do too badly.
Right now the M1 Mac GPU options consist of a 8-core GPU or a 7-core GPU, but it’s rumoured that Apple is working on producing a GPU with up to 32-cores.
We touched on this earlier, but design has become more complicated of late from a displays standpoint. Once, you’d have wanted a high-end matte display from a company like Eizo, with almost perfect colour reproduction.
Some traditional graphic designers reel when confronted by the glossy displays found on an iMac (although it has to be said that these displays aren’t as glossy as they were a few generations ago).
But things aren’t so simple. Many designers work primarily on projects intended entirely for screen, including digital magazines, websites, and app interfaces. High-res displays are a further consideration.
Apple’s mobile devices all boast Retina displays, and nearly all of its desktops do too – only the entry-level 21in iMac lacks one, so avoid that. Apple also offers various screen technologies such as True Tone (which adjusts the colours to suit the ambient light), Wide colour (P3) and up to 500 nits brightness.
You must consider whether your role will primarily entail creating content for such displays, and buy a Mac accordingly.
Other factors to consider are the screen size and ergonomics. There are various screen sizes to choose from: the largest being the 27in iMac with its 5K display. But don’t discredit the MacBook Pro with its 13in display, because you could simply plug in a second display when you are at your desk and benefit from 30in or more. For advice about which screen to buy, we recommend our guide to the best Mac monitors and displays. We also have this guide to using a second screen with your Mac. And one that’s explains how to use two or more displays with the M1 Mac.
Speaking of using additional displays with the M1 Mac, this is an annoying limitation of the M1 MacBooks: they can only support one additional display. This is a problem if your work set up includes more than two displays.
Older Macs are able to support more than one additional display. If you will be working with more than one display you may prefer to consider the Mac mini – the M1 version supports a 6K and a 4K display; and the 2018 model supports up to three 4K displays, or one 5K display and one 4K display. Alternatively, the 27in iMac supports one additional 5K external display or
two 4K external displays.
The 16in MacBook Pro on the other hand supports two 6K displays or four 4K displays.
Ports is another important consideration when deciding which Mac is best for your needs.
Mac laptops tend to be limited to two or four Thunderbolt/USB ports. We explain how the different standards of Thunderbolt and USB compare here: Thunderbolt 4 vs Thunderbolt 3 vs USB 4.
iMacs offer more ports including Thuderbolt, the old USB-A, Gigabit Ethernet and even an SDXD card slot. The Mac mini offers an HDMI port in addition.
Of course you aren’t limited to the ports available on the Mac – you could buy a separate docking station, such as one of these USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 docking stations.
Desktop vs laptop Mac
What kind of designer are you when it comes to the jobs you do? Are you the type that never leaves the office, in which case a desktop system might suit? Are you a roving freelancer, augmenting a different in-house team on a month-to-month basis? If so, you probably don’t want to be lugging a 27in iMac around on a train.
Often, notebooks are seen as the best compromise because they provide flexibility. Even if you only rarely visit clients or work away from an office, you can take a portable Mac with you. But they’re also more expensive than broadly equivalent desktops.
For example, a 2019 16in MacBook Pro with 2.6GHz 6-core i5 with Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz; 512GB SSD; 16GB RAM; AMD Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB; and 2560 x 1600 resolution costs a whopping £2,399/$2,399.
That’s £400/$400 more than the priciest 27in iMac with 3.8GHz 8-Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 5.0GHz; 512GB Storage; 8GB RAM; Radeon Pro 5300 with 4GB and Retina 5K Display, which costs £1,999/$1,999.
You don’t have to pay that much for a Mac of course, and the new M1 MacBook Pro could represent an excellent option at £1,299/$1,299 for the 8-core CPU, 8-core GPU, 256GB SSD model.
Another Mac to consider is the Mac mini. It weighs more than a laptop, but with its small form-factor it could be considered portable. You’d just need a screen to plug into at your various working locations. It’s also the cheapest Mac you can buy: the M1 Mac mini offers 8‑Core CPU and 8‑Core GPU, 256GB SSD and only costs £699/$699.
But now let’s get down to business: the best Macs for specific kinds of designers…
Best Mac for print design
Once you get beyond business cards and tiny flyers, print projects tend to benefit from a large canvas on which to design. If you’re working on magazines, you want to be able to have a double-page spread before your eyes, as close to full-size as possible. When designing larger fare, you don’t want to be navigating it on a tiny notebook display.
You don’t get bigger than the 27in 5K iMac, which boasts a screen resolution up to 5120 x 2880. Some designers might still be a bit sniffy about the glossy display, but those in modern iMacs are vastly improved over previous generations, and can be successfully colour-calibrated if you’re not happy with what you get out of the box.
Any of the existing models will do the job for print design. You can upgrade various components, but the £1,799/$1,799 model should be fine. Luckily RAM can be upgraded at a later date.
Here’s the best deal on the 3.1GHz 6-core, 10th-gen, 2020 iMac (Normally £1,799 / $1,799/ AU$2,799). For more iMac deals read: Best iMac deals.
Best Mac for web design
The best Mac for web design is the 13in M1 MacBook Pro.
Web design canvases now vary wildly (in the sense responsive sites must support anything from a watch face up to a massive telly), but so to do work environments. While it’s undoubtedly advantageous for web designers to have a big display, it’s even more important to be mobile, in order to take on new jobs at a moment’s notice.
A M1 MacBook Air (reviewed here: M1 MacBook Air) would be sufficient for web design tasks, but if you’ve got the money, go for the MacBook Pro. The high-res Retina screens on both devices will give you a good impression of how your work will look on mobile devices and modern notebooks. Both laptops are light (although the 13in MacBook Pro at 1.4kg is a tad heavier than the 1.29kg Air).
The only thing letting the M1 versions of these laptops down is that they now only support one additional display. The Intel Mac laptops can support two additional displays so may be worth considering if that’s something you need.
The other difference between the two Mac laptops is that only the MacBook Pro offers the Touch Bar, which adds some useful shortcuts.
You could choose the 16in MacBook Pro with its bigger display, but the price is a lot higher than the 13in so if you don’t need the extra oomph then you might not be able to justify it.
Here’s the best deal on the 2020 M1 MacBook Pro Deals (RRP: £1,299/$1,299). For more MacBook Pro deals read: Best MacBook Pro deals.
Best Mac for interface design
The best Mac for interface design is again the 27in iMac.
Interface design can of course encompass web design, but with this option we’re thinking more in terms of apps. Many designers these days are creating interfaces for iPad, iPhone and Android apps, along with content for smart televisions and games consoles.
The ideal Mac here would give you a 1:1 impression of what you’re designing, at full size. The 27in 5K iMac’s 5120 x 2880 display just about manages that, even enabling you to squeeze in an iPad Pro interface in portrait (2048 x 2732).
A cheaper alternative would be the 21.5in 4K iMac (from £1,299/$1,299), which boasts a resolution of 4096 x 2304 – enough for an iPad Air display in either orientation or a 12.9in iPad Pro in landscape mode. With the 21.5in model, be mindful that you cannot upgrade the RAM at a later date, so we recommend you start with 16GB.
We included the best 27in iMac deal right now above, but if you are curious here’s the best deal on the 3.6GHz quad-core iMac (from £1,299/$1,299/AU$1,999):
Best Mac for 3D design
The best Mac for 3D design work is the iMac Pro.
The iMac Pro is colossally expensive. At its cheapest, with no added extras, you’re talking £4,999/$4,999. But for certain kinds of work – notably high-end 3D design – you need all the power you can get, and the iMac Pro has that in spades with its 3.0GHz 10-core Intel Xeon W processor (at the base price – you can spec up to a maximum of 18 cores if you’re made of money) and at least 32GB, and a maximum of 128GB, of RAM.
You get 1TB (or more) of SSD storage and a stunning 27in 5K display (the same as on the larger current iMac). It’s also exclusively in Space Grey.
The only thing to keep in mind is that the iMac Pro is overdue an update: the current model was launched in 2017 and it’s not been updated since.
There’s also the Mac Pro, which arrived at the end of 2019, but it’s price is astronomical and it’s probably not suited to the majority of designers. Find out more about the new Mac Pro here.
Here’s the best deal on the iMac Pro (RRP: £4,999/$4,999). Note that a number of outlets have deals on the 8-core model that Apple has discontinued. Read our iMac Pro review.
For example, Currys/PC World has that model on offer for £3,299, which is an astonishing £1,600 off!
Best Mac for designers on a budget
The best Mac for designers on a budget is the Mac mini.
Realistically, any modern Mac is broadly suitable for the majority of design work – it’s just that less powerful machines will slow you down. Any Mac is also an investment in your career, but if you’re just starting and really can’t afford to splash out on the more expensive fare recommended elsewhere, a Mac mini will do.
The 2020 M1 Mac mini will set you back £799/$799 but for your money you are getting a pretty powerful machine. You can then add a perfectly decent third-party display from the likes of Dell for one to two hundred more.
Here are the best deals on the M1 Mac mini (RRP: £799/$799).
There are far too many specific accessories to recommend in a feature like this, and so we’re going to offer some general tips.
Regardless of the Mac you buy, ergonomics should be a priority. Designers tend to burn the midnight oil, and that can wreck your back and neck if you don’t have a decent working position.
Get a good chair, and ensure your eye meets a point roughly a third of the way down your display. If using a notebook, do not sit hunched over it for hours; consider buying a separate display, keyboard and pointer device when working in an office.
Alternate input devices are worth checking out. Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2 is fine for the occasional bit of doodling, but really you want a stylus-based tablet system for drawing.
Even the smaller consumer-oriented Wacom tablets are fine as a starting point – an A6 will be small enough to use alongside a keyboard, and can also double as a general pointing device, enabling you to ‘snap’ the cursor across a large display (rather than mouse or trackpad ‘scrubbing’). For illustrators, though, a larger tablet will be more beneficial in terms of precision and responsiveness.