12 Free Graphic Design Tools For Authors

Free graphic design tools have had a huge impact on my business. One big change in my approach to self-publishing in the last few years has been recognizing the importance of branding. And doing something about it too, I guess. Because I was always somewhat aware of the role branding plays in marketing but really fell down in the execution.

Which is a nice way of saying my branding was awful.

That’s no slight on the designers who turned out excellent work for me. It was me who didn’t have a coherent vision of how branding should be parlayed across websites and social channels and email. I didn’t even know why that was so important.

These days my site looks more professional. The branding lines up with that of my books, social media, and newsletter. And I’m quite proud of it as I handle all of it myself. Well, almost – I still outsource book covers. But I do the rest. The funniest part is that I’m not remotely artistic in that sense. I couldn’t match colors if you paid me. And can’t draw a straight line with a ruler.

Unsurprisingly, that’s what used to hold me back. I just didn’t have the skills or the confidence to make graphics. Even if I was inclined to hire a designer for every single little job that routinely crops up – and when you start taking this seriously, there are quite a few of those – even throwing money at the problem would have been insufficient.

All that has changed. The tools available to us today are so sophisticated. Even design dullards like me can turn out professional looking graphics… with a little practice, it must be stressed. I didn’t develop phat skillz overnight. This isn’t some kind of one-click wotsit. You will need to invest some time to gain competency here.

Most of those tools are free. Your only excuse for not getting good at this is laziness… which is a pretty valid excuse – just ask my accountant, dietician, or parole officer.

And I’m not just talking about free Photoshop alternatives like Canva. Below we also have handy things like color pickers, color matchers, 3D cover generators, and tools which will crack open a book cover and allow you to pull out any of the layers or elements. Super handy stuff!

This is my branding-slash-design-slash-promo toolkit.


Out of all the Photoshop alternatives, Canva seems to be the most popular among authors, and what I use personally.

Canva is free, powerful, easy-to-use, and browser based too – meaning you can use it on the go. This has been a lifesaver for me when I had sudden need for promo graphics when on the move.

There’s a little bit of a learning curve with Canva, but nothing like Photoshop.

You don’t need training to produce professional-looking graphics with Canva. Just practice. I’m living proof!

Disclosure: these Canva links are affiliate links. But I only found out about Canva’s affiliate program the other day, and have been recommending Canva for years. I think you can safely call my recommendation organic!

Canva Issues & Changes

To be completely balanced, I have had customer service issues with Canva in the past. I don’t like their policy on paid elements, and they really didn’t react well when I aired those criticisms online. Not a great response, and I was unhappy enough to start looking for Canva alternatives. However those issues have been resolved. Canva made some really welcome changes to how subscriptions work, so it was ultimately a big positive.

For my money, Canva is the best online graphic design tool out there. Cool new features are being added all the time. I like it so much that I spring for the paid version every month.

There’s a more detailed breakdown of Canva Pro at the end of this post.

However, there are some interesting Canva alternatives these days which you might also want to check out.

Canva Alternatives: Book Brush

First up is one designed specifically for authors: Book Brush.

Book Brush seems pretty plugged in to the author community. The team does a lot of outreach and appear at conferences and the like, which means they have some cool author-specific features, like box-set cover generators.

Canva might be slicker and have more features, but fans of Book Brush tell me it is much easier to use for a total beginner, so keep that in mind.

The team also seem to be working hard all the time to launch new features, particularly author-specific ones. For example, the new video effects feature is really cool.

Like Canva, Book Brush has a free version and a paid version with additional features. You can check it out here.

There are other Photoshop alternatives like GIMP, which is free, and online Canva competitors like Stencil, which has free and paid versions. I picked up a lifetime license for Stencil from AppSumo a while back, but bounced off it and just want back to Canva.

My quick take is that Canva is really worth it if you want to invest a little time in getting good at it. That’s what I recommend.

But Book Brush might be more appealing if you want something simpler that might have less of a learning curve. You have options.

More Free Graphic Design Tools

Moving on from full-on graphic design programs, there are a whole bunch of handy, free tools which help me get the job done.

Coolers.co is a color scheme generator. Basically, you plug in your primary color, and it will suggest a bunch of matching colors for you to use. So simple and incredibly useful. Also has an iOS app and Photoshop integration, if that’s how you roll. I honestly don’t know how I did anything before I discovered this little bit of wizardry.

HTML Color Codes allows you to upload any image and pick out a color. It will give you a hex code for that exact shade and you can just drop that in Canva (or whatever you use) to get that exact color for your design. This has reduced 95% of the faff from my design life.

Tin Eye is the best reverse image search out there, which will help you determine if that image you have your eye on really is available for use. I say “help” deliberately. Be cautious in such things!

PSD Converter will crack open those Photoshop (.psd) files and allow you to extract whatever layer you wish. SO USEFUL.

3D Cover Creator is a pretty slick tool which seems far better than any of the others that I know of, with lots of options. Just download the file as a transparent PNG, and then upload it to Canva, pick your background, and you’ve got yourself a Facebook Ad. (See? Anyone really can do this! See this post for more involved instructions.)

Remove BG – thanks to Maggie Smith in the comments! This is a much better background remover tool than what I had originally recommended, and unlike many of its slick brethren, this is 100% free. Note: if you are a Canva Pro user like me, it now removes backgrounds with one-click ease.

SmallPDF – PDF to JPG converter might not be the most obvious choice here, but I need it for one very specific job: fixing blurry BookBub Ads. Sometimes Canva (and other programs) exports a blurry image at smaller sizes, an issue when it comes to BookBub Ads and the small, 300x250px format. Here’s my workaround: export the image as a Print-Ready PDF in Canva, convert it to a JPG using this tool, then reduce the size to 300x250px. That should kill your blurriness. (Note: I heard that Book Brush may have solved this problem in another way, but I don’t know the details – perhaps a Book Brush user can let us know in the comments).

ImageOptim handily solves a problem that all the above might create. Putting lots of fancy graphics on your website can slow it down, something you don’t want generally, but really, really don’t want for something like your newsletter sign-up page. This useful tool will reduce the size of all of your images to appropriate resolutions for web usage – and as a bonus it’s really quick and easy to use, so you can fly through a whole stack of images in no time. And it really does make a huge difference – see below for proof.

Canva Pro

As I said above, Canva is an awesome tool, and the free version will be probably be good enough for most of you.

While you can get very far with regular Canva, combined with all these other free graphic design tools, heavier users might want to spring for Canva Pro – which costs $12.95 a month.

Actually, you can get it for as little as $9.95 a month if you pay annually, but that’s still not nothing, so what do you get for that extra cost?

(BTW this screenshot of Canva Pro features was a whopping 758KB – which would have really slowed down page loading. Then I ran it through ImageOptim – which reduced it to a much more manageable 81KB. A huge reduction!)

Premium Features in Canva Pro

You can read the full feature set here but these premium features make Canva Pro worth it for me:

  • Magic Resizer – don’t tell Canva, but I’d pay just for this alone. Before Magic Resizer waltzed into my life, I would spend a decent amount of time making a nice Facebook graphic. Then I would have to build the whole thing from scratch again to make a BookBub graphic. And then again to make a Facebook Cover photo or whatever else I might need. Now, I click a couple of buttons and my promo image is magically resized into whatever format I want. Wonderful!
  • Custom Fonts – the selection of fonts in the free version is quite comprehensive, but that selection grows significantly in Canva Pro. Not only that, you can upload your own custom fonts too, like all these beautiful ones I buy from Set Sail Studios. This helps solve a problem: some don’t realize the importance of establishing their own branding and they will… piggyback on someone else’s. Using a bigger selection of fonts outside the defaults in Canva can prevent a lot of this copying.
  • More free elements – the selection of free photos and elements also expands significantly once you switch to the paid version. This also helps prevent some of the copying that can happen BTW.
  • Background remover – yes there are nifty free sites which do this anyway, but it’s super handy to be able to do it with one-click without leaving Canva.
  • Gifs! – the paid version lets you make gifs but I honestly haven’t tried this yet because I think if I go down that rabbit hole you will never see me again! But one day…

Your Favorite Free Graphic Design Tool?

What about you? Do you use any of these free graphic design tools? Any others you recommend? Let us know in the comments!

And if this bag of tools has whetted your appetite for more, then check out my monster guide to book cover design.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

48 Replies to “12 Free Graphic Design Tools For Authors”

  1. I was trained in photoshop. But dang it, they are PROUD of that thing, it’s more expensive than I can handle. I found Gimp and now Gimp 2 and I’ve used it for everything for a few years now. Your review of Canva Pro makes me think I’ll be learning that next because there are some things in there that will be handy to have.

    A great freebie is Techsmith Pro. It used to be called Jing, but they changed the name. It allows you to snatch an online image in a screen shot. I use it for everything online, from practice illustrations to copying that receipt I need to send in with a return order. If right-click/copy-paste won’t work, this little tool will. I pull the whole page and drop it in Gimp, highlight what I need, Crop to Selection and boom, there it is. Of course, never use this when it’s a copyright picture but for practice illustrations or total manipulation, picking up a hair color off of a model to move to an illustration, this is a great tool. Just make sure you aren’t putting it into a picture you’re publishing.

    Thanks for even more great information!

  2. I use Canva and Book Brush and love them both. The value of paid subscriptions are well worth every dollar spent. I couldn’t work without either or your great advice. Thanks David!

  3. I like Canva a lot but probably do need some tutorials on how to use it to its full capability. I’ve used BeFunky because it has preset templates for FB ad size etc, so I just pop my image into the template. I’ve paid for a month of the pro version (4.99) to get additional features, but for the most part, the free version is great. I’m pretty green so this has helped with small tasks so far. I did create a gorgeous logo with Canva and look forward to experimenting with it more, especially after your blog.

  4. Canva is good, but my favorite is Affinity Photo. It’s a PhotoShop superclone with some improvements, lots of interesting templates, and really good training. $49.95 for a license. Even better, it works seamlessly with Affinity Designer (a superclone of Illustrator) and Affinity Publisher, a robust alternative to InDesign. affinity.serif.com

  5. Adobe has Spark the same kind of tools that works very well AND comes with templates done by true artists you can use and adapt which reduce greatly the time you need to work on a graphic. For 9,99 / month for their Photograph package (same as Canva), you not only have Spark, but also Photoshop, Lightroom, XD and Camera Raw. I find Spark to be more robust that Canva and has the resize tools, etc. You also can use all of Adobe mobile apps for the tools from the package and get 20GB of storage on Creative Cloud. Of course we can move your creation seamlessly between those programs, which is one of Adobe strenght.

    I’m not profiting from this, don’t have an affiliate link to promote but for the same price, I think you get more bang for your buck, especially if you are also enjoy photography.

  6. David, great information as always! I was struggling with this fixing blurry BookBub Ads and tried your workaround (“export the image as a Print-Ready PDF in Canva, convert it to a JPG using this tool , then reduce the size to 300x250px”), except using pdftojpg.net rather than SmallPDF because I liked the UI better), and resized using picresize.com. I uploaded it to the BookBub ad creation page and it still looks blurry. Is eyeballing it in BB ad creator an accurate assessment of how it will look in the email? Thank you!

  7. I bought the lifetime version of Stencil and really love it. It doesn’t have as many templates as Canva, but it’s so much more user friendly, with easy resizing for different social media outlets, integration with WordPress, great photo library. I find between the paid version of Stencil and the free version of Canva, I have everything I need at the moment.

  8. I use MSPaint in place of HTML Color Codes. It does the same job, only without the upload. Of course, it gives me decimal values, not hex, but I can still work with that

  9. I have used Lunapic for some projects. I used it for a border on the photo on one of my book covers and it turned out extremely well. They offer borders, effects, filters and more. There is another one I haven’t actually used yet called InPixio where you can remove unwanted objects from photos, crop objects from one photo and add to another. I haven’t taken time to play with that one yet. I use ilovepdf.com to turn PDFs into Jpegs, merge PDFs and much more. They are all free. I signed up with Canva but couldn’t understand how it works so have never done anything with it.

  10. I absolutely love Irfanview for quick, basic image editing including resizing, cropping, converting between image types, and shrinking file sizes. Also extremely useful for bulk file renaming, even if they aren’t images! And 100%!

    For more complex stuff, I use CS 5.5 and 6, since I have a copy and I refuse to do Adobe’s cash grab of a subscription service.

    I also use Canva, but other than when doing simple graphics like social media plugs, I mostly stick to uploading images I got through DepositPhotos or another one where I know I have commercial usage, rather than paying for Canva’s library.

  11. I use HTML Color Codes all the time! Thank you (and Maggie) for introducing me to RemoveBG. What a godsend. I’ve spent hours trying to decipher PhotoShop tutorials about this. It works great!

    1. THANK YOU. I had used this before and loved it much more than LunaPic but couldn’t find it when writing this post in the sea of paid services. Appreciate it! I’ll update the post now.

  12. I’m still using Adobe CS 5.5 programs (InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator) on a Windows 7 laptop, but I know those days are probably numbered. Your suggestions, and the Affinity programs, look like great fallbacks for some of them. If you ever do an article on software for social media, take a look at Filmora. It’s not free, but at $90 it’s a great video editing program because it has the common aspect ratios already built-in – square for Instagram, portrait for TikTok, landscape for YouTube, and can be configured for anything.

  13. I use the Affinity line of graphic products (Affinity Photo, Affinity Designer, Affinity Publisher). They’re not free, but they’re so reasonably priced that they pay for themselves with just a few book sales. And without subscriptions. Plus when they go on sale you can save up to half off.

    With thanks,

  14. Pixlr X https://pixlr.com/x is the successor of the venerable, Flash-based Pixlr and Pixlr Express. It works fully in the cloud and it’s handy for quick basic editing jobs such image resizing and cropping.

    Google Squoosh is similar to ImageOptim but with a nicer user interface.

  15. Thanks for sharing these! I’m also a Canva fan and pay for Pro. I notice they’ve added a background remover now too. But I wasn’t aware of a lot of these things, and I love the HTML Color Codes thing in particular! I tried it this morning when I had to make some new graphics in Canva, and I love it. Makes things so much easier.

  16. I just listened to a fun podcast from SPA girls in Australia on Book Brush. Great info. Thanks, you are always helpful and funny when I need a lift! Canva is my go-to program. I worked as a graphic artist for many years, if you want a design keep it simple. Then it is easy. Make sure when you use Canva before you make any changes or fool around with your design, do the changes on a copy. I’ve made a copy of a copy of a copy etc. to compare one color change at a time. Save often!! Great recommendations, I’m trying to find a program that will drop out backgrounds, so I will try the one you mentioned.

    1. Well there is one new feature in Canva Pro you will love – Version History. It’s in beta so I can’t say how well it works yet but maybe it will prevent all those FINALfinalBookCoverFinalfinalFINAL(34).jpg files on our poor computers.

  17. Thanks Dave! I use Bookbrush and love it. I could lose days messing with this product when I should be doing proper work. I have dabbled with canva after being tortured by PS in a web design class. I liked it too, but prefer BookBrush, because I’m super-lazy

  18. Canva is definitely my go to, with Gimp for the complicated stuff. If you’ve not tried TinyPNG, it’s excellent for shrinking file size, too. I run all graphics destined for my website through it.

  19. I bought Design Wizard on an App Sumo special recently ($49 for lifetime access I think) and it does all the Canva Pro features (resizing, transparent background) without the ongoing cost. It’s just as easy to use as Canva ?

  20. So helpful. Thanks! Just starting with Canva. Where do you find the licensing terms around paid images and elements on the Canva site? I looked but couldn’t find.

    Thanks for the warning. I want to use one of their $1 paid images—but in view of your comment maybe not. Is there a workaround?

    1. The policy is here: https://support.canva.com/billing-and-plans/purchasing-from-canva-library/purchasing-premium-elements/

      The problem I ran into was I paid $1 for an element I really wanted to use, then it charged me multiple times when I copied that element into a new design (I was testing variations on the same ad with different colors). They seem to have fixed that now, but you’ll note references there to One-Time Use and Extended Use and so on – and you should peruse all that.

      Really though, the restrictions are such (and my experience has been such) that I just avoid paid elements completely these days and filter them out of my search. It’s too much hassle. If you look at the agreements themselves, the restrictions are quite full-on: https://about.canva.com/license-agreements/onetime/

    2. I don’t use anything from Canva for commercial use. I pay for everything I use for my books by purchasing from Deposit Photos. If you can buy one of their packs, their photos are pretty cheap, and they have vectors and such as well. Even the fonts I make sure are okay for commercial use. I don’t take anything for granted.

  21. Hi David – I’ve tried to figure out Canva – but I really haven’t been able to. Of course, I have limited patience. So, tell me what you’d recommend a newbie do who really wants to learn Canva. Youtube videos?

    1. I agree with David. At first I hated hated hated Canva. But once I got the hang of it, I love it. I pay for Pro, and I recommend it regularly. Make book covers for fun, or book promo graphics for your friends. 🙂

  22. I’ve been using GIMP for nearly all of my graphics stuff for quite a while now, and I’m very happy with it (despite the unfortunate name). Some of the features can be a bit tricky to get the hang of at first, but it’s well worth persevering.

  23. Thanks, David. I’m always on the prowl for free graphics sites and software.

    Have you found one for aging/anti-aging faces? That might be useful for a book that follows a character over several decades.

    1. I haven’t! I know there are some Snapchat filters or iOS apps that do stuff like that, so maybe a workaround to explore there, but don’t know of a desktop one.

  24. One I forgot! For basic image wrangling, like size reduction or quick screen-grabbing or cropping, I still use humble old Microsoft Paint, which is bundled free with Windows. (There are free online versions too.) There are roughly a trillion fancier tools out there, but this has such simple usability that I don’t think it has been bettered for those basic workaday tasks.

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