Useful Tools: Online graphic design sites

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Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on do-it-yourself online graphic design tools.

It isn’t usually possible or necessary for community organisations to hire graphic designers for everything they produce. Although important documents are best handled by a professional, smaller-scale projects like social media banners, some posters, blog posts, presentations and newsletters can be produced by untrained people using some of the great new tools now available online. Most of these are free for the basic package. Here we’ll take a look at some of the most popular tools.


Canva is an online graphic-design tool that uses templates and a drag-and-drop interface to allow people with no graphic design training to produce professional-looking graphics. It’s free if you use your own images or any of Canva’s free images, fonts and other design elements, or you can purchase upgraded elements for US$1 each and pay for your design when you download it. Designs can be downloaded as PNG, JPG or PDF files.

Templates include banners and posts for a variety of social networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest), infographics, posters, brochures, letterhead, book covers and many more. The templates are particularly useful for social media as they already fit the various social networks’ specified dimensions, so you won’t have to spend time resizing them.

Canva is integrated with stock photos, photo filters, icons and shapes, and fonts. It is one of a growing number of fully integrated online design tools, and is one of the most popular due to its user-friendly interface. It also recently launched an app so you can design on the go.

Adobe Spark

Adobe Spark is the latest edition to the Adobe Creative Cloud stable, and is a free online tool that aims to compete with Canva. It’s broken into three sections: Spark Post, Spark Page (formerly Adobe Slate) and Spark Video. Spark Post creates social media graphics; Spark Page produces photo essays for the web; and Spark Video produces animated videos using graphics and photos.

A major difference between Adobe Spark and Canva is where the final files are stored. Canva lets the user download a high-quality copy of their design, which they can then use however they want. In contrast, Adobe Spark designs are all stored on Adobe’s servers—they can be shared on websites or social media, but the viewer is always redirected to an Adobe site.

Adobe Spark is also designed for use on iPhones and iPads (it’s not yet available for Android devices). Spark Post, Spark Page and Spark Video each have their own apps.

Adobe Photoshop Sketch

Adobe Photoshop Sketch is an iOS app that lets you create drawings directly onto your phone or tablet and then export them to Photoshop or Illustrator. Designed for artists, it gives more freedom than tools like Canva or Spark. It also supports styluses and other drawing hardware.


The Gnu Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is free, open-source, high-end image editing software. It is a free alternative to expensive image editing software like Adobe Photoshop and can be used for photo retouching, image authoring and image composition. However, its complexity is on par with Photoshop and similar software, so it probably isn’t the best choice for someone with no graphic design experience, or who isn’t prepared to put in the time to learn some of the nuances.


Prezi is online presentation software that integrates motion, animation and graphics, and is part of a growing number of visual storytelling tools. Rather than designing a presentation around a series of slides, like Microsoft PowerPoint, Prezi uses a limitless zoomable canvas to allow the user to develop flowcharts and other graphics and show the relationships between various kinds of data. It has been praised for overhauling the concept of the presentation and as a cure for ‘death by PowerPoint’, but some viewers may find the motion-heavy style nauseating. It’s available as a 14-day free trial, after which the user must sign up to a plan.

These tools can make it much easier to meet the day-to-day design requirements of your organisation, but remember, for rebranding or any significant projects it’s always best to hire a professional.

Why your organisation needs a style guide

Many organisations, especially those involved in the media or publishing industries, have a ‘house style’—a way of writing that is particular to that organisation and is set out in their style guide. The style guide’s purpose is not to determine what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’, but rather to serve as a reference point if there is any confusion and to ensure consistency across the organisation’s brand. Your style guide will lay out how to articulate the brand voice you decided was appropriate for your audience during your strategic planning.

There are two types of style guides. Visual style guides are aids for designers and contain things like your brand’s colours, font, logos and templates. Content style guides contain details of your organisation’s preferred spelling, terminology, voice, and word usage. Style guides can range in length from a few pages to an entire book; for example, the Australian Government’s Style manual for authors, editors and printers, which is the basis for all Australian government writing, is over 500 pages long and is extremely comprehensive.

As well as providing consistency across your organisation, style guides are also useful if you’re working with a freelance editor. Providing your editor with a style guide will speed up the process and ensure their edits are consistent with your brand.

Your style guide is a living document, so it should be updated regularly to take new usages into account. It should be easily accessible within your organisation, whether it’s produced in hard copy, published on your website or stored in a shared drive.

Visual style guide

Visual style guides set out all the elements related to your brand’s appearance, presentation and design. This allows you to ensure consistency across all your publicity material, whether physical or online, even if you’re working with different designers. Your visual style guide may include:

  • Logo size and placement (and how not to use the logo)
  • Colour palette (including hex codes/RGB for web use and CMYK/Pantone for printing)
  • Fonts (for headings and body text)
  • Any iconography or patterns that your organisation uses in its design
  • Photography style (including examples for reference)
  • Graphics style (including examples for reference)
  • Web-specific elements (such as navigation buttons or error pages)
  • Content templates.

Creating a visual style guide is a specialised skill, so it’s best to work with a graphic designer on this. Your designer can prepare a style guide as part of working with you on your overall branding, including designing your logo. If your organisation is likely to produce a lot of publicity material, a visual style guide is vital to ensuring brand consistency. The quickest way to appear unprofessional is to have a variety of fonts, colours and styles across your brand.

Content style guide

Style guides for written content contain details of the way your organisation expects its content to be written. These may include:

  • The version of English spelling that your organisation uses (e.g. American, British, Australian, Canadian)
  • Which dictionary/thesaurus should be used to check spelling or usage (e.g. Merriam-Webster, Oxford, Macquarie)
  • Preferred spelling of words commonly used by your organisation (e.g. Asia-Pacific not Asia Pacific)
  • Use of inclusive language
  • Any specific points of grammar, such as active voice
  • Specialised punctuation, including the use of bullet points or numbered lists, and the organisation’s preferred use of hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes (but not punctuation that should be commonly understood, like the correct use of apostrophes)
  • Formatting
  • Accepted acronyms and abbreviations (which ones are acceptable without spelling them out in full)
  • Terminology (how organisation-specific terminology should be explained)
  • Words that should be avoided
  • Capital letters (especially if there are organisation-specific proper nouns)
  • Headings
  • Numbers and measurement
  • Tone and register (casual, informal, formal)
  • Brand voice
  • Reading level
  • Phrases
  • Methods of citation
  • Any stylistic devices unique to the organisation.

Style guides can be structured in different ways, but the main thing is that they have to be easy to navigate. They’re not designed to be read cover-to-cover; rather, your writers will use them as a resource that they dip in and out of. For this reason, they need to have a clear table of contents and ideally an index as well. If you’re publishing it online, the contents page should be hyperlinked to the relevant sections.

The other important thing to note is that you don’t have to develop a guide completely from scratch. There are a number of comprehensive commercial style guides, such as The Chicago Manual of Style (which is over 1000 pages long) that you can use as the basis for your organisation’s style guide. Think of the contents of your style guide as being in addition to the comprehensive guide, rather than repeating things from it. For example, most Australian government departments have their own departmental style guides based on the official government Style manual for authors, editors and printers. The convention is to first consult the departmental guide and, if it doesn’t contain specific guidance, to then consult the Style manual. This way, you’re prioritising your brand-specific style, but can still give your writers general guidance through the use of a commercial style manual. Many of these manuals, such as Chicago, now also have extensive online support. Developing your style guide this way will also allow you to keep it short (ideally no more than five pages), meaning that it is more likely to be used.

When developing your style guide, make sure you consult the people who will actually be using it—your writers and editors. They’ll be able to tell you if there are different usages in the organisation and help you select the most appropriate. Have a plan in place to regularly review and update the style guide, and a method for keeping track of possible changes in the interim. Your style guide is a living document and will need to adapt to evolving language, such as words going in and out of fashion or changing in meaning. This is especially true in organisations that deal with technology or media, where language changes fast.


Working with freelancers

Photo credit: IntelFreePress via / CC BY

Many community groups and small nonprofits are operating on very tight budgets and are forced to do a lot of the day-to-day work themselves. But every now and again you’ll probably find yourself in a situation where you need to hire a professional to help you.

If you decide that you need to hire a professional writer, editor, designer or photographer, the chances are they’ll be a freelancer. They may be working as a sole trader or as a limited liability company, but either way you’ll be engaging a small business.

So how do you go about finding a freelance professional?

  • Word of mouth. Most freelancers get at least some, if not the majority, of their work through word of mouth, so start by asking around. Like tradespeople, a good freelancer will get recommended.
  • Industry bodies. Industry bodies, such as your local Society of Editors (or equivalent), usually have freelance registers. Going through an industry body will ensure the person you hire has the necessary training and experience.
  • E-work sites. Many ‘e-work’ sites have popped up in recent years. Just a word of warning—you get what you pay for. You may find that you can get your work done cheaply through these sites, but this will often come at the cost of quality. If you’re not prepared to offer a fair price, you’ll find that highly skilled professionals won’t respond to your ad. In fact, many established freelancers don’t use these sites as they already get enough work through other means. These sites also run on commission, meaning that, unlike hiring a freelancer directly, not all your fee will go to the person who does the work.

Working with freelancers

Before you start working with a freelancer, there are a few things to bear in mind that will help keep the relationship running smoothly.

  • Don’t ever ask a freelancer to work for ‘exposure’. Would you ask your local restaurant to give you your meal for free in exchange for ‘exposure’? No? Then why would you ask it of a creative professional? By doing this you also risk developing a reputation as a time-waster client—established freelancers won’t work with you and they’ll tell their networks. And apart from anything else, it’s just plain exploitative.
  • Freelancers are small businesses. This means they have to cover the costs of everything usually borne by employers, such as tax and retirement fund payments, out of the fees they charge. So while a quote might seem high to you, remember that anywhere up to 50 per cent of it (depending on the freelancer’s financial arrangements) goes straight to the government. It also means that time is money, so don’t ask for a face-to-face meeting unless you’re prepared to have travel time built into the quote. Go for email, phone or Skype instead.
  • Have a realistic budget. You get what you pay for, and what you’re paying for is the years of experience that established freelancers have behind them. The cost will vary according to the size of your project, the market in your location and the turnaround time, but it’s safe to say that $50 or $100 won’t cut it unless the job is very small.
  • Know what you want and write it down clearly. Freelancers of all stripes do their best work when they’re properly briefed. The quote you receive should outline the scope of the project, and for anything beyond that you may be charged extra. So knowing what you want will help you avoid ‘scope creep’ and will save you money.
  • Give them plenty of time. Rush jobs are always more expensive. Also, many experienced freelancers are booked up weeks or months in advance, so do some planning and enquire early.
  • Make sure you understand and adhere to the terms and conditions. Many freelancers will have terms and conditions listed that you agree to by accepting a quote. Make sure you understand and adhere to these—especially regarding payment and intellectual property—and if you don’t like them, don’t accept the quote. Some freelancers may also get you to sign a contract, depending on their business and the size of your project.
  • Pay on time. This is huge. Many established freelancers ask for full or partial upfront payment, and this is done for a very good reason—many clients don’t pay on time and freelancers have to pay their bills in the meantime. You are responsible for your organisation’s cash flow, not the freelancer, so if you don’t have the money to hire someone, don’t. You may be charged late fees if you fail to pay within the terms of the invoice, or in extreme cases you may be referred to a debt collection agency. In addition, many freelancers—especially graphic designers and photographers—won’t release the final product to you until the final payment has been received, and if you use the product without paying for it under these circumstances you’re violating their intellectual property and could leave yourself open to legal action. So make everyone’s lives easier and pay on time.
  • Be flexible and easy to work with. All freelancers get the occasional client from hell, and they usually only work with them once. Don’t be that person. This means keeping communication open and recognising that the freelancer will probably need to fit you around other projects, so stick to agreed deadlines and keep your expectations reasonable.

Rapid changes to the workforce mean that more and more people are choosing to work for themselves. A good relationship with a freelancer can be of enormous benefit to your organisation, and a relatively small investment in something like professional graphic design can have huge payoffs in terms of your organisation’s professionalism and ability to reach its audience. And, as I never tire of saying, a little planning goes a long way!

Useful Tools: Free stock media sites

Every month I’ll be highlighting a free or low-cost tool that community groups and not-for-profits can use to improve their marketing and communications. This month’s focus is on free stock photo, illustration, font, music, and sound effects sites.

There are many websites where you can find free stock photos, illustrations, fonts, music and sound effects. However, the caveat to this is you get what you pay for. Although some sites provide high-quality media, others—particularly free stock photo sites—are of considerably lower quality than media that you pay for, both in terms of composition and resolution. However, many paid stock media sites now offer deals where you can purchase media individually rather than needing a subscription.

Most free stock media is licensed under Creative Commons, so you’ll need to make sure you adhere to the terms of the license when you use it. If you’re getting historical content from libraries, also make sure that you’re free to use it.

Some of the most popular free (and paid) stock media sites are detailed below, along with databases for historical images. However, there are literally hundreds of sites out there, so it’s worth conducting your own search as well.

Free sites


Flickr is a photo-sharing site where users can upload their own photos. It also has a section called The Commons, which collates photos from public archives around the world and is a great source of historical photos. Flickr users can choose different kinds of licenses when they upload their photos. When you conduct a keyword search on Flickr, in the top left corner there is a drop-down box where you can select to display only photos with a particular license (e.g. commercial use allowed). When you click on a particular photo you’ll also be able to see the terms of the license and can check if it suits your purposes.

Image Finder

Image Finder was originally started as a search engine for Creative Commons images on Flickr, but it has now expanded to search and display Creative Commons images from various stock photo sites. Unlike other stock photo sites, where you download the images directly, Image Finder sends you to the author’s own site to download high-resolution versions.


Like Image Finder, Foter is a search engine of Creative Commons images, but it is also a public domain database where users can upload their own images. The interface is clean and user-friendly, and the license attributes of each image are easy to find.


Pixabay is one of the most popular free stock media sites due to its large size and accessibility. All its media is licensed under Creative Commons and can be used for any purpose, including commercial use, without attribution. As well as photos, it contains illustrations, vector graphics and videos.

Free Music Archive

The Free Music Archive is a database of public domain and Creative Commons-licenced music, curated by genre. It also contains a handy FAQ section that details the various licenses for its content. is a collection of free sound effects for use in videos or other projects. The sound effects are free for all uses, including commercial use, as long as they’re integrated into projects (i.e. they can’t be on-sold by themselves).

Public domain archives and databases


Trove is the National Library of Australia’s digitised content platform. It brings together Australian-related content from archives, libraries and research and cultural institutions across the country, including photos, objects, newspapers, maps, music, sound and video, government papers, diaries and letters, and archived websites. It’s a great source of historical photos of Australia.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress in the US has a fantastic online collection of historical photographs and other documents, including newspapers, maps, films and sound recordings.

Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution has around 3000 images under public domain usage on its Flickr page.

British Library

The British Library has an extensive digital collection, although it’s not as user-friendly as Trove or the Library of Congress sites. However, many of its images are available on the British Library Flickr page and are in the public domain in most countries.

Paid sites


iStock is a paid stock photo site run by Getty Images, which is a major player in news photography. It contains photos, illustrations, vector graphics, video and audio. You can buy content through either a monthly subscription or through ‘credits’, which give you a certain number of images. However, it’s quite expensive.


Shutterstock is a paid stock photo site similar to iStock in quality and pricing. It contains photos, illustrations, vector graphics, video footage and sound recordings.