Primer: DIY Graphic Design

With Spring right around the corner, now is the time to start preparing marketing materials. Graphic design is a complicated subject, but it's now easier than ever for the small business owner to create beautiful graphics without training. Photoshop is no longer a requirement. There are plenty of great (free) online design tools like Canva, DesignBold and Stencil that will help you design like a pro.

But before you dive in and start designing your next great work, here are a few things to keep in mind.

1. Plan Your Content First

Content and design go hand in hand and ideally they complement one another. But does it really matter how good something looks if it doesn’t actually say anything? 

Know Your Purpose

The first step in any good design work is planning your content. Ask yourself, “what is the purpose of this piece?” Are you trying to inform you customers? What do you want them to know? More importantly, what do you want them to do?

Knowing what you want to accomplish with your marketing materials is the first step to creating a beautiful design. Start with a purpose, develop an outline, then write your content before you start designing.

It’s also helpful from a time management perspective to select the photos that you’d like to use first. If the piece is for print, make sure that you’re using high resolution images.

Keep It Simple

While it might make you feel good, using complex words and sentences won’t impress anyone. The best copywriting is at a 7th to 8th grade reading level. Keep your sentences and paragraphs short and avoid flowery language. In brochures especially, use lists to your advantage.

Readable is a great tool that will test the readability of your writing. You can copy and paste a web link, or paste your text into the tool. Using the analysis, make adjustments to improve your writing. 

2. Choose a Color Palette

Color is a major part of design. It’s important to develop a cohesive look for your brand. Ideally, you’ll start with one color (perhaps the primary color from your logo) and develop a palette around that.

Color Calculator is a great tool if you have a specific color you want to start with. To use this tool, start with a base color. Select from the color wheel and use the scale on the side to adjust the shade or enter a specific hex code (the value of a color).

Next, you'll select a harmony, which refers to the way the colors are balanced.

  • Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. They work well when used selectively to call attention to something specific. 
  • Analogous colors are adjacent to one another in the color wheel and can be very aesthetically pleasing. Generally speaking, you’ll select one as the dominant color and use the other two as accents. 
  • Split Complementary is a combination of the first two harmonies. Here, opposing colors are combined with an adjacent color. This is a great choice for novice designers. 
  • The triad harmony combines colors that are evenly space in the color wheel. As in the analogous harmony, you want to select one dominant color and use the other two as accents. 
  • A tetradic harmony combines two complementary pairs of colors. This combination creates a broader palette for designers to work with. As with the other harmonies, it’s a good practice to select one dominant color and use the others as accents.

Once you have your colors selected, hit Get Results and the Color Calculator will provide you with the color information to use in your design piece. 


Photo Inspiration

Another great way to build a color palette is from a photo. These tools are among my favorite. Simply upload a photo and get a matching color palette. Easy peasy.

Canva's Color Palette Generator Tool is fun and easy to use.

Canva's Color Palette Generator Tool is fun and easy to use.

Chase the Rainbow

And if you’d rather just get lost in the wonderful world of color, you might enjoy Design Seeds which is a color almanac that lets you search by color, season or category.

3. Get the Right Type

Typography is a key element to great graphic design. Choosing fonts and matching them up takes some skill. Luckily tools like Canva make it easy by pairing fonts for you. If you want to break out of that mold and express your own creativity, here are some tips:

  • Stick with two or three fonts at the most
  • Contrast fonts to make your headlines stand out from your copy
  • Choose readable fonts for copy text
  • Vary font weight to draw attention to important information
  • Text should be in high contrast from the background so it’s easy to read

Serif vs. Sans Serif

Serif fonts are traditionally used in printed text while sans serif fonts are used for web copy. Each has its own place and the two pair well together. It's a good design practice to select one for your headline and one for your copy. While serif fonts may be the traditional choice for print text, don't rule out sans fonts. Sans serif offers a fresh, modern look and is easier to read in smaller sizes.  

But whatever you do, make sure that you avoid decorative fonts for your main copy. Leave those for the headlines only. 

Need Some Help?

Font Pair is a great tool that will help you pair up Google Fonts and find attractive font combinations.


4. Give Me Space

White space isn’t necessarily white and it’s definitely not blank space. 

It’s important that you have plenty of space around the various elements in your design. White space gives your reader’s eyes a place to rest and when used properly, it will also direct them to the important pieces of information.

White space isn’t just for aesthetics, though. Studies show that the proper use of margins and white space between lines of text increase comprehension, focus and interaction. So embrace the space my friends. 


5. Don’t Forget to Proof Read

Editing is a special skill. To avoid that face palm moment when you realize you wrote there instead of their, I recommend you have someone else take a look at your design before you go to print. 

Editing Tips

If you’re reviewing your own work, it’s best that you don’t edit right away. After you’ve completed your design, step away from it for a day or two and then pick it back up. You’re much more likely to catch mistakes this way. It’s also a good idea to print the piece out and review a hard copy. 

Another trick that copywriters use is reading the piece out loud. You’d be amazed what your brain will automatically correct. If you read something out loud, you’re more likely to recognize the areas that could be improved. 


Get to Work!

Now go forth and design great things! I know you’ve got the talent. And I’d love to see what you’re working on. Connect with me at or on Facebook and Instagram.

Jamie Tiralla