5 free & easy-to-use design tools for small business owners

As a small business owner, chances are you wear a lot of hats. And chances are that one of those is your own marketing and social media manager. And the chances are that means you’re always working to create strong visuals.

It’s no secret that strong visuals play a big role in marketing your business. Strong visuals can make your audience feel you and understand you. Strong visuals keep people around to find out more, and keep them coming back.

But it can be hard to know where to start! There’s so much advice out there. From YouTube tutorials to email newsletters full of tips. It’s a lot to sift through and it can be confusing, frustrating and feel never ending.  

That’s where this list steps in. I spend a lot of time researching ways for clients to implement their brand identity into everyday visuals. These are a few of my favourite ways. These are free and easy to use tools that anyone can work with to create visuals for their business. They’re all simple and easy to navigate, allowing you to get on with putting other hats on.

But before we go further…

I truly believe that hiring a graphic designer to create unique and purpose driven visuals is important. Without a doubt. And I do think you need to be cautious if you’re not a designer and you’re creating visuals. Because if you don’t know much about colour, type and layout, you could unknowingly create something that isn’t representative of who your business is, and that could have real consequences (see my post on brands.) That’s one of the reasons why graphic designers are so crucial. Not because we have Photoshop on our computers, but because we know how to design with a purpose and strategy - to create feelings and change people’s perceptions.

All of that said, I understand there are moments that these tools may be helpful. Especially if…

a. you’re cash strapped, and new to this game.

If you’ve just started a side-hustle or a small business, you may not be at a place where it makes sense to work with a designer financially and also just because you’re still figuring out your business. But I bet you still want it to look legitimate and a bit more polished to attract people.

b. you’re working to implement a brand identity a designer has already made for you.

You’ve invested in a new Brand Identity and it’s been handed over to you - yay! You still have the daily upkeep. If you produce a lot of content, that means Instagram and Pinterest posts that fit within your style guide. These tools will help you to take what you need forward in implementing your brand.

So if that’s where you are at, great! Own it! And hopefully this handy list of my favourite free tools will get you creating bad ass marketing materials in no time.

1. Adobe Spark

Adobe Spark describes itself as a ‘free online and mobile graphic design app.’ And, that’ exactly what it is. If you want get in there and get your hands dirty making some Pinterest posts or Facebook Banners, do it. It’s free, all you need to do is create an Adobe account. And if you need a bit of help getting used to using it, Adobe made a free video tutorial.

A nice thing about this app, is that it come with the posts all at the correct size for each social media platform or page you need to create. There are also lots of templates to choose from. You can then go in and using that template change the colours and fonts to represent you more. Or, if you already have a visual in mind that you want to create, go in and delete the template on a post. Then start layering from scratch with images and shapes and more. If there’s anything I’m a fan of, it’s having a play around. You’ll create lots of stuff you don’t like, but you might make one that you love!

For my clients, I like to drop designed posts into this app and save them as projects. After that the client can go in and update the text in the post with a blogpost title, or new information. It’s then free to download that post, and you’re good to go!

2. Canva

Canva is very similar to Adobe Spark. Scratch that, Adobe Spark is very similar to Canva. Canva came around the scene in 2012, there’s a whole How I Built This episode about it. Regardless, using this app, you can also create free graphics and download them for use. It’s easy to use software and if you type it into Youtube you’ll find loads of tutorials on this well loved application.

I personally prefer using Adobe Spark, probably because I use Adobe applications daily. HOWEVER! I think Canva has much better design templates for you start with compared to Adobe Spark. The designs are definitely more on trend visually. Which is kind of like a double edged sword, because you may come out too cookie-cutter, looking more like other businesses, but you also may be able to create professional looking visuals quicker… Again, I’d say, get in there, have a play, and see what happens.

3. Google Fonts

If you’re going to keep your visuals consistent, but aren’t ready to invest in brand design, keeping the same fonts or at least font styles across the board will really help! And I’d recommend choosing from Google Fonts, let me tell you why!

Google Fonts are free, there are tons of them, and you can use them across print materials, your social media designs and on your website. Top tip: choose one font that you use for your headings, and a separate font for the body of text. Use this across everything.

4. Unfold

If you want to make some Instagram Stories on the go, Unfold is the mobile app for you. Stories are only growing in importance, they keep you live and the top of someone’s grid on Instagram. If you’re out and about, you may not want to sit down and design a post on Canva or Adobe Spark, and this lets you create cool layouts, add text and then save it to your phone. You can even create multi-page stories in the app, and then download that whole story to your phone.

Once you get it into your stories, you can then add whatever you’d like from the Instagram app onto it, and, voilà!

5.InShot

InShot is another mobile app, meaning you can whip this one out on your bus journey home and hop off with a cool Instagram post. It’s really useful, I love it for collages. You can upload multiple images, and then there are lots of interesting layout options you can apply. It's also ideal for videos.

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There are so many apps and design tools out there that it’s hard to know what to choose. As a designer, I think all of these are brilliant. I can personally vouch for them, as I’ve used them all myself.

Remember, the more you play around with them, the more you’ll know if they are right for you! Creating visuals should be fun, so open up that app, and just give it a go!

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