Web design: A carpenter has his hammer and saw, a doctor her stethoscop e and thermometer, but what about the Web designer's tools?

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I was looking at watches in some posh shop the other day. These watches used the tools of different professions for the hour, minute and second hands. The doctor's watch had a little stethoscope, thermometer and tongue depressor, while the architect's watch used a drafting pen, a triangle and a ruler. I began to wonder what a Web designer's watch would look like. What tools are unique to our field? Well, we all use computers, of course - Web design with Aldis lamps was briefly attempted and quickly abandoned - but lots of professions use computers, even doctors and architects. It seemed kind of unfair.

Then it dawned on me: there are a lot of tools I use for Web design on the computer; we just call them programs. Not only the high-end stuff, such as Freehand, Photoshop and CyberStudio - which would be more like a dialysis machine for a doctor - but smaller, usually freeware or shareware programs.

Sure, they may not make for a keen watch, but I can't do my job without them. Here are some of my favourite tools.

Screen Ruler (Mac/Win)

http://www.kagi.com/microfox/

There are some ideas so obvious, so simple, and yet so brain-bitingly useful that you kick yourself for not having thought them up yourself. ScreenRuler is just such an invention. It places a ruler in the form of a long yellow graphic on your screen, which can then be used anywhere and at any time independent of other programs being run, and is indispensable for figuring out positioning in your browser window, from how far over you need to nudge a graphic to make it fit to how wide a table needs to be to accommodate your text.

Browser Safe Colour Palettes (Mac/Win)

http://www.lynda.com/files/CLUTS/

A few weeks back I told you about the browser safe colours (http://www.independent.co.uk/net/980203ne/story6.html). Lynda Wynman, who is credited with popularising this concept, has considerately placed copies of the colour palette for use in several different programs - Photoshop, Freehand, Paint Shop Pro, Illustrator - in one place for you to download. These colour lock-up tables (CLUT for short) can then be used with your graphics software to give you quick and easy access to the safe colours. Lynda's site is also definitely worth a look-see while you are there.

Pixel Spy (Mac)

http://shakti.cc.trincoll.edu/bhorling/pixelspy/

This is another obvious but amazing little device. When run, it will allow you to select any pixel on the screen and give you its colour in HEX, RGB, CMYK and a few others. It will also find the closest match from the list of browser-safe colours. This program is invaluable if you are always having to match colours in browser windows or between different programs.

PhotoGIF Filter (Mac/Win)

http://www.boxtopsoft.com/

Unlike the other programs in this list, this is not shareware or freeware. However, it did start out as shareware and really took off. It allows you to create very small GIF files that still look as good as the larger version. PhotoGIF Filter works by giving you direct control over the number and types of colours in the graphic as well as the amount of dithering. It can be used with most programs that support plug-ins, and you can download a trial version to test out before sinking your cash.

GIFBuilder (Mac)

http://iawww.epfl.ch/Staff/Yves.Piguet/ clip2gif-home/GifBuilder.html

There are far more complex and sophisticated programs on the market for creating animated GIFs, but you still can't beat GIFBuilder for putting together a nice, quick animation straight out of Photoshop. One of GIFBuilder's lesser-known but choicest features is the ability to take a layered Photoshop file and make each layer into an animation frame. And it's free!

GraphicConverter (Mac)

http://www.ots.utexas.edu/mac/pub-mac-graphics.html#graphicconverter- 25

This little program has saved my hide on more than one occasion. Although it is not nearly as sophisticated as Photoshop in terms of graphics editing, I have used GraphicConverter to open file formats and strangely encoded file types that sent its more sophisticated rival fleeing in panic. In addition, GraphicConverter can batch convert any number of graphic files from one file format type to another with great control.

These are a few of my favourite things. Have you got any tools you just can't turn the computer on without? Let me know, and I'll do an updated list in the near future.

mshadow@dircon.co.uk

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