Free and Essential Tools for Academic Escape Artists

The secret weapons in my journey from professor to instructional designer*

Chris J Richardson, PhD
5 min readFeb 12, 2022


A new location, a new job, and lots of new tools to share (see Coolors below for more details on this image).

Previously, I shared my journey from Chair of Communication Studies at a small liberal arts college to Senior Instructional Designer at a wonderful training company. I’ve also highlighted the skills required to make such career changes. Here, I reveal the free tools that may aid your escape from the ivory tower too.

Considering a career in instructional design or a related field? You’re probably aware of Learning Management Systems (LMSs) and programs like Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate. Here, however, I focus on tools that will dramatically improve your life outside academe if all you’re used to are the more traditional (*cough — Microsoft Office — cough*) offerings.

Talk data with Tableau

No matter your title, all organizations strive to be data-driven. Much of the time, Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets will suffice for crunching numbers. But if you want to impress colleagues with innovative charts or graphs, I recommend learning more about Tableau. It is relatively easy to get started, though I suggest following tutorials rather than figuring it out on your own. Tableau Public is free — but keep in mind that your data will be public. This tier is a great place to practice and work on public data. Just avoid sharing confidential information there.

Recently, I helped a friend and author create an interactive map of interviews she’d conducted for her new book Murder in Our Midst.

Free Tableau resources —

Design with Figma

If you’re not a visual designer, you may not have heard of Figma. You may not need it either (technically speaking). But it’s a great product to be aware of, even if you’re not using it on a daily basis. Figma allows you to quickly generate designs and visual concepts without worrying about the backend technologies. Like many contemporary tools for designers, it provides rich templates and great learning resources.

This is a Team meeting agenda I designed using one of Figma’s many templates.

Free Figma Resources —

Automate with Calendly

Calendly allows you to sync your professional (or personal) calendar(s) and share a link with others to avoid the back and forth of determining a convenient time for everyone to talk. You can set up a basic meeting outline that people can choose, or look into more advanced options like sending out reminders, agendas, and additional information prior to your meeting. It’s a perfect way to automate what is probably the most tedious part of working remotely.

Sharing a simple URL allows people to schedule times when I’m available without forcing us to email back and forth to compare schedules.

Free Calendly resources —

Share with Slack

Slack lets you work with teams and share content in a much cleaner way than filling inboxes with messages and attachments. It’s very practical and convenient for conversing asynchronously with different groups. While I use this throughout the day at work, I also use it for discussions with professional groups on Slack like Devlin Peck, xAPI, and many others.

Slack has the best asynchronous user experience I’ve seen yet.

Free Slack resources —

Create with CodePen

Whether you’re a Web3 aficionado or someone who has only a vague comprehension of HTML, CodePen is a great place to learn and play without much setup. There are millions of projects you can explore and learn from as well as regular challenges, newsletters, and podcasts from the company. If you’re trying to improve your understanding of web technologies, this is a perfect sandbox.

Here’s a quick sketch I did of my dog Rupert using just HTML and CSS.

Free CodePen resources-

Collaborate with Miro

Death by PowerPoint is no joke — there have literally been deaths. An excellent alternative to clicking through bullet points to share information or collaborate with others is the infinite canvas of Miro. The company offers great training that takes only a few hours to become a power user. But anyone can explore a Miro board and quickly get the gist of this subtle yet powerful interface. It may not be obvious how great Miro is, however, until you begin collaborating with others and watching doodles, brainstorming sessions, and full-fledged presentations come to life in real-time.

This is one of many templates that make collaboration easy to start on Miro.

Free Miro resources —

Paint with Coolors

If you’re making web pages or applications — or just designing a handout or presentation — Coolors can quickly improve your color schemes. I especially like the ability to import photos to establish a palette. I recently took this photo in La Jolla, uploaded it, and will now use the colors it identified for my website relaunch next month.

I recently took a photo at sunset in La Jolla and created my new website palette at the same time!

Free Coolors resources —

How about you?

I would love to hear what tools you use to make work more seamless and daily activities richer. Please share your ideas and experiences. And if I can be of any help to those contemplating a similar move from academe to the “real world,” please don’t hesitate to reach out. It’s a choice I fully endorse after one year of dramatically improved living.

^Bonus suggestionReady Player Me creates 3D avatars with a photo. It’s a nice option when you’re tired of using the same webcam photo of you at your desk. If you’re into computer animation, it’s also easily exported into all the major interfaces — but that will have to wait for another post.

*These are my opinions. I have no affiliation with any of these products or services.



Chris J Richardson, PhD

Instructional designer. Web developer. Writer. Recovering academic.