When you’re bootstrapping a startup, managing a blog or marketing your brand it’s difficult and expensive to hire a designer every time you need incredibly designed digital assets. So how do you get great design assets without hiring someone? Well, you have 2 options. You could learn how to design well then drop a bunch of money some Adobe software (not likely a good option), or you could use a free graphic design software system like Canva.

Canva Dashboard

What is Canva?

Canva is a free graphic design software tool that is available on the web. It’s used for creating beautiful, contemporary looking graphics. This includes everything from infographics, logos, blog post images, book covers, social media images, and any other graphic you may need. Canva comes with many pre-designed templates that you can start with or you can create your own.

Another one of my favorite features in Canva is the typography handling. Not only do they include a great library of fonts, but they also offer wonderfully balanced typesets. You can choose a typeset that “feels” like the graphic you need and you’re able to update the text to match your theme. You can choose from old vintage styles, contemporary styles and everything in between.

But that’s just one of the many great features. Let’s dive in.

To get started you need to create an account with Canva. It’s free to sign up and you can use Facebook and Twitter authentication to sign up quickly. The majority of the designs you’re able to create are completely free. I’ve been using it for about 2 years now and have (luckily) gotten by without spending a dime. That said, some of the graphics are premium (stock photos, special graphics, etc.) but each asset is only a dollar. Pretty affordable.

Note – I am not an affiliate of Canva. I’m not getting anything for this post. As usual, this is just my honest opinion.

Head over to Canva.com for your free graphic design software account

Once you’re logged in you’ll see that there are categories of templates to help you get started in the “Create a Design” area. You can click on one of the graphics to open a category, or you can click use “Custom Dimensions”.

Many great templates to help you get started

Notice that they’ve done a lot of work for you already. If you are creating graphics for social media platforms you have to stay within the preset sizes for graphics. Facebook has specific dimensions for the Cover Image. Same for the Twitter Header. Canva includes templates for those dimensions. They even have templates for ads sizes for each of the most popular digital advertising platforms.

Canva - Twitter Header Template

For this example I’m going to create a new Twitter Header image for my twitter account. I click on the Twitter Header template. I’m redirected to a new page that has the template in place. They even mark where the Twitter profile image will overlap the Header image. This extra guide will ensure that you don’t place important text in a location that will be covered by your profile image.

Notice that on the far left there is a column of additional buttons including Search, Layout, Elements, Text, etc. Each of these icons display assets that can be added to your design. Again, many are free but some are premium and cost money. Let’s break down each of these sections.

Search Section

Canva Search Section

The search tool allows you to search for a term and review all existing assets related to that term. For instance, if I search for “ecommerce” I’m presented with many photos of people using their computer to buy things. When you use the Search Section you are searching within each of the other sections. They system will return options from Layouts, Backgrounds, Elements, etc. When you dive into each of the additional sections you’ll find that the search bar remains at the top of the window. When you use search within another section you will only receive results associated with that section.

Layouts Section

The layouts section includes many layout designs with a variety of styles and themes. This is a great place to start if you are in a hurry. Notice the quality of these designs. This is a great tool for quickly creating beautiful graphics for free. You’ll notice that there are many layout designs that you can start with. Many of them are free but some cost a dollar.

Elements Section

The element section is broken into categories including grids, icons, illustrations, shapes, frames, lines, photos, charts and Canva logos (in case you want to show some love). These elements are a way to add texture and iconography to your design. These types of elements are great for telling your story. There seems to be an endless number of free elements. Imagine what you can do with all these assets. You can tell almost any story with this art.

Text Section

As I mentioned before the text section is one of my favorite features. It includes simple headlines and text as well as pre-formatted typesets in a variety of styles. If you click on any of the headers or lines of text this will add the text to your design. Then you able to alter that text by changing the font, color, size, dimension, etc. My favorite is the pre-formatted typesets. Canva has done a great job of providing a variety of typeset styles to match the theme of your design. These text layouts can add a lot of character to your design. Some of the best assets on websites today includes a large beautiful image and perfectly set type. I imagine that some of these typesets could even be used for logos.

Background Section

The background section includes a collection of background textures and images. The Background section is focused on the background texture. For instance, if you want an “aged paper” look or a “steel surface” look, you’ll find them here. If you are looking for a great photo background it might be best to go to the Elements > Photography section. That area seems to have better photo options.

Upload Section

You have the option to upload your own images or graphics. This is great for uploading your logo or photos from your own library. It’s free to upload those graphics.

Sidenote – free stock photo sites

If you are looking for free stock images take a look at unsplash.com and pexels.com. These are my go-to sites when I need really high quality and unique free photos.

Adding assets to your design

When you find an asset that you like, simply click it and it will be added to your design. Then you can update the dimensions and alter the asset. For my example I’ve added a photo of a woman holding a camera. I resized the image to fit onto the Twitter Header. When I click on the photo a new widget appears that includes a few additional tools. If I click on “Filter” I can immediately add a photo filter to change the feeling of the image. I can choose from a selection of preset filters or I can manually change the brightness and contrast. If I click the Advanced Options button I’m presented with even more options for editing the photo. This is not unlike Photoshop. Notice on the far right of the widget there is a down arrow. Clicking that down arrow offers additional options like transparency and the ability to “flip” the image.

Canva Photo Filtering

Once the image is ready, I switch over to the Text section. I find a typeset that I like and I click on it. Again, if I click on the text I’m presented with a widget for additional alterations. I change the color of the text to white and adjust the dimensions of the text area. I don’t care for the additional line of text under my name, so I simply delete that line of text. I do want another line of text though, so I go back to the Text section and find another typeset to add. I line it up under my name, change the color and the font size. The Twitter Header is starting to look pretty good.

Canva - altering text

I think the text needs a line to help separate my name and the word “photography” so I go to the Elements section and click on the “Lines” section. When I click on a horizontal line it’s added to the canvas. I relocate the line and make it white. I don’t care for it once I see it on the canvas so I click the trash can symbol and delete the line. I choose another line and it’s perfect.

Notice that some shortcuts are available like Command+Z for going back, Command+C for copy and Command+V for paste. I use these shortcuts while I’m working within Canva.

Once the art is complete

Canva - Saving

Once I’m happy with the design I click the Download button in the upper right. This presents a few options. I just need this for a Twitter Header so I click “Download for the web”. This immediately saves the final graphic to my Downloads folder.

Creating multiple graphics

canva - duplicating image

Notice that to the right of your art there is a Copy icon. If I click that icon the current design will be duplicated. This is a great feature for so many different use cases. Let’s imagine I was making a series of campaign Facebook ads. Each ad would be the same size and could potentially use the same graphics with different content. This feature would allow you to create multiple “artboards” with the same template. In another case I could use the Copy tool to save multiple versions of the same graphic. In a sense, you’re creating a “history”. Perhaps I create one graphic and I like it, but I think it could be better. By copying the graphic I can begin working on a second one without losing the first. Then once I’m done I can use the Download feature to download all the graphics to my machine and decide on which one is best.

Saving the template

Canva - saving template

Once you are done working on the templates you can change the name of the template and this will save to your account. This feature is outstanding for bloggers or marketing directors. They can create one template that is the starting place for many assets like Blog Post images or Facebook ads. Each time they need a new one, they can open this template and pick up where they left off.

Conclusion

For many reasons, Canva is a terrific free graphic design software system. Taking the time to learn this system can allow non-designers to create beautiful assets for their digital properties and it can even function as an additional toolbox for really talented designers that are in a rush. Now that I’ve been using it for years I couldn’t imagine getting by without it.


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