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. My book covers were great, for example, I just didn’t have a coherent vision across my titles which was then parlayed across websites and Twitter headers and email graphics for brand cohesion – or knew why that was so important.
These days my site looks more professional, and the branding lines up with that of my books, social channels, 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, and the funniest part about that 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, and 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 wouldn’t have been sufficient, unless I actually had a full sledding squad of designers chained in the basement.
All that has changed. The tools available to us today are so sophisticated that even 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.
Many of those tools are free so 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 while traveling and away from my own computer.
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 a few years, so I think you can safely call this recommendation organic.
I don’t think I’m alone in that, by the way, so if you also routinely recommend Canva to your audience, I recommend checking out the affiliate program here – which has flown strangely under the radar. It’s super easy to set up on affiliate account too, as they use the same Impact platform as AppSumo and other companies – so if you are already set up on that, it’s just a couple of clicks to get it all going for you.
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 and 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 and cool new features are being added all the time. I like it so much that I spring for the paid version every month – and still do so.
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.
Something like Canva might be slicker overall and have more complexity, 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 and will certainly get me to give Book Brush a proper trial this year.
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 I haven’t tried it yet.
At some point, I plan to do a more in-depth Canva/Book Brush/Stencil comparison, but 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 no 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.
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?
You can read the full feature set of Canva Pro here but let me highlight the features that – for me at least – make it easily worth the price:
- 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! Such a time-saver, and it has encouraged me to be more comprehensive in my branding too, making all my graphics match across various social channels.
- 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 rather prevalent problem. Some people don’t realize the importance of establishing your own branding, native to you and your books, and they will… piggyback on someone else’s branding, sometimes even copying every little detail of their Facebook or BookBub Ads. Using a bigger selection of fonts can prevent a lot of this copying. Although, errr, I just told you where I buy fonts from. MOVING ON.
- 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 and helps you establish more unique branding, which will be less likely to get diluted by competitors. I think you get access to 4m more elements in the paid version, so we are talking a significant expansion of the available selection here.
- 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.