When you start out as a business owner or freelancer, you tend to wear a lot of hats. You’ve got to be the sales person, the accounting person, the HR person, and a lot of times, the designer. Depending on your skills and abilities, you may decide to pass off that role to another designer down the road, or you may continue to design your own materials once you see that you CAN actually do it yourself, without it looking DIY or homemade. I’m a firm believer that anyone can learn to be their own designer for their business, and learn to do it well. Once you learn the valuable skill of becoming your own designer, you’ll finally be able to create your own projects on your own timeline, and not depend on anyone else’s schedule or style to move your business forward.
In this ultimate guide, I’m breaking down what types of projects may pop up in your business, what type of software to use to create your designs, where + how to get quality design assets like fonts, photos, and other artwork, how to get inspiration and ideas when you’re feeling stumped, how to work smarter + faster by using workflows, templates, and automation tools, and more. Let’s dive in!
Things that you might need to design for your business
It doesn’t take long as a freelancer, business owner, or side hustler to realize that there are A LOT of things that pop up everyday in your business that you need a designer for. An Instagram graphic today, a quick checklist tomorrow, a notecard for that event, or a media kit for that potential partner. The list can seem never-ending – and when you’re hiring out your design work, that list adds up. Here’s a quick overview of some common design projects that might pop up in your business (and keep scrolling for a link to a more detailed list):
online collateral — social media graphics, blog / website graphics, email headers, promo graphics, online course materials
digital products or downloads — ebooks, PDFs, guides, workbooks, checklists, printable, planners, webinar slides, cheatsheets, opt-in freebies, content upgrades
physical collateral / promotions — business cards, postcards, thank you cards, signs, notecards, letterhead, etc., live event materials
internal materials — catalogs, sales sheets, contracts/invoice, quotes, pricing guides, media kits, resumes, portfolios
Other helpful resources related to some of these specific design projects that might pop up:
Best places to get downloadable design assets
This is a really common question I see floating around Facebook groups and in circles of creative entrepreneurs — where are the best places for things like fonts, stock photos, illustrations, icons, patterns, mockups, etc. More resources are popping up everyday, but here are links to some of my favorite ones that provide quality assets:
fonts / typefaces
Google Fonts — free, good quality, huge selection
Adobe Fonts (formerly Adobe Typekit) — included with an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, great quality, big selection
Creative Market — pricing varies depending on the font designer, variety of unique fonts
Font Squirrel — free, decent quality, smaller selection
Lost Type — pricing varies, very good quality, very unique, smaller selection
Font Spring — pricing varies, very good quality, huge selection, a lot of classics + complete families
For help on choosing fonts for your design project, pairing fonts, and a quick guide to typography in general, check out this post: How to choose typefaces like a pro.
photos + textures
Unsplash — free stock photos submitted by tons of different talented photographers, these photos are very high quality, very unique, their selection is constantly being added to, and I use these a lot!
Social Squares or SC Stockshop — both owned by Shay Cochrane, she offers two great ways to access quality stock photos, one is a monthly membership (includes photos by other photographers) and the other is for purchasing photos individually or from a collection (only Shay’s photography)
Creative Market — pricing varies depending on the photographer, have a wide variety of photo styles
Death to Stock Photo — free stock photos when you join their email list (initially and recurring), but they also have a paid plan; their free emailed ones are great to stock away for future projects and they always are super unique styles that you don’t see everywhere else
illustrations, patterns, icons, brushes, mockups, etc.
Creative Market — my go-to place for these kinds of design assets, they have such a huge variety!
Etsy — another great place to find affordable assets like illustration sets, patterns, textures, and brushes (quality can be iffy with some shops, so just be sure to read the descriptions carefully and ask the shop owner questions if you need clarification)
FlatIcon — huge library of both free + paid icons for just about everything you could think of
Graphic Burger — I haven’t personally used this one, but it looks like they have an interesting assortment of assets like mockups, icons, backgrounds, some other unexpected things
Licensing on design assets
This can be a big sticking point for a lot of designers or DIY-ers when it comes to using design assets. Most assets will include some kind of restriction from the artist on how the asset that you’re downloading can be used. This section will be short + sweet from me because here’s the bottom line: when in doubt, ask the artist. If you’re purchasing things from Creative Market, here is their page that explains the different licenses that are offered with most assets. You’ll notice when you go to purchase an asset from their site that the price depends on the license you choose, and ultimately how you plan to use the asset (for personal work, for paid client work, in something that will be distributed, shared, etc.). Other sites like Unsplash just ask you to attribute the photographer when you use their photo (though most photos don’t require it, it’s just a courtesy). Always, always, always, always check with the artist or designer (or read the allowed uses if it comes with a license) who created the asset before you use their artwork in something for a client or something that will be sent to other people. It only takes a few minutes, and you’ll know you’re in the clear to move forward. Same goes with fonts, especially if you’re using it for a client project and you need to send the client the font files — check with the font designer or their license agreement before sharing files with your client (or really, before even choosing fonts — you’d hate for them to choose a font that can’t be used for licensing reasons).
Best design software to use
If you’ve been around my corner of the Internet at all, you know that I love me some Adobe InDesign! I talk a lot about this program on my blog (see links below for helpful resources!) and in my video trainings + tutorials. But let’s chat about all your options, because when it comes to design software, you certainly have options. Here’s the most common design apps + software options you’ll find out there:
Adobe InDesign — it can tackle every single design project from that list at the beginning of this post; you don’t need to learn 3 different programs, just this one will do the trick 😉
ideal for any project that combines text or imagery
it really shines on projects that have multiple pages or use a lot of text
it includes tons of automation features to help work faster and avoid duplicate work
results in much smaller file sizes that every other program listed (whether it’s a PDF, JPG, PNG or others)
lets you save templates and formatting and settings to re-use later and keep everything on-brand and consistent
it does require a paid monthly subscription to access this program, but it starts at just $20/month, which is obviously way less than you would ever pay a designer
Obviously, InDesign is my top choice among these software + design app options, but I know it can be really intimidating for someone who’s not familiar with it or feels like it’s more than they need. But I’d love to show you what the inside of the program is like, how it works, and what tools you’ll use most often. Click below to watch a full video tutorial of how I use InDesign to create a PDF worksheet and matching promo image from start to finish so you can see exactly how not scary InDesign really is… promise 😉
Adobe Illustrator — great for vector graphics like logos, illustrations, icons, and patterns; not great for working with photos (slows the program waaaaaay down and makes the file sizes very large), not many automation features to help you speed up your work, and not very user-friendly when you start having multiple pages or big areas of text; require a paid monthly subscription to access the program.
Adobe Photoshop — great for photo editing + retouching, 3D effects, and shading; not good for text formatting at all, very few automation features to help you work faster, exports very large file sizes, even when layers are flattened (especially PDFs – please don’t design a PDF in Photoshop, I bet you!); require a paid monthly subscription to access this program.
Canva — great for beginners or someone who doesn’t consider themselves creative, exports medium-sized files and very limiting in what types of files you can export, not very user-friendly when you start having multiple pages or big areas of text, requires Internet access to use and access your files, and a paid account when you want to save assets or access more design features; Canva is a great starting point for a lot of DIY-designers, but eventually you will outgrow it.
Google Slides or Powerpoint — great for very simple slideshow presentations, but not a good idea to use this program for anything else (like PDFs or social graphics, it’s just not what it was made for); very limiting in lot of ways — very few file type options when exporting, only very basic design features + formatting options, and no way to save assets or automate your design process at all
Microsoft Word or Apple Pages — great for word processing, but not a good idea to use this program for anything else (like PDFs or social graphics, it’s just not what it was made for); very limiting in lot of ways — very few file type options when exporting, only very basic design features + formatting options, and no way to save assets or automate your design process at all
Other helpful resources related to Adobe InDesign (my top choice!) that can help you learn it quickly:
Where to find design inspiration + ideas
Another common question I get — where do you find design inspiration and ideas? This is tricky, because inspiration comes to everyone differently and it can be a hard thing to teach someone. It’s not really a thing you learn how to do, it’s just something you train yourself to notice. With that said, here are some of my go-to places:
Pinterest — An obvious place for inspiration for a lot of people. I’ve found it’s less helpful to actually search for the type of project you’re creating (like typing in “website design” or “logo design”), but rather to just scroll through your feed, or find someone’s profile who is inspiring to you and look through their boards.
Go outside your project — Again, I find inspiration comes more easily when I’m looking at other types of projects than the one I’m actually working on. For example, I find a lot of layout ideas from websites that I can incorporate into a page layout in a PDF guide (or vice versa). So don’t just seek out a specific kind of project, look at design techniques used in other mediums and see brainstorm on how it could translate to your specific project.
Go outside your industry — Similarly, I like to look at other industries all together, especially fashion, architecture, interior design, film, and even food. If you’re not sure what to look for, start with color. Interesting color palettes are all around us, you just have to pay attention and take note of them. Snap a photo on your phone, and bring it into InDesign or Photoshop and pull out the colors you like from it to create a palette. Or use the color picking tool in Instagram stories to save colors from a photo or a screenshot (no need to post the story, just draw some blobs of the colors you liked from your image and save that as a screenshot. Other ideas to keep your eye out for in these other industries — interesting shapes and how they interact with each other or unique textures or patterns (either manmade or in nature).
Finding inspiration vs. copying what you see
There can be a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism. It’s a gray area that a lot of creative entrepreneurs are afraid to go near. With sooooo many different designs and imagery flashing in front of us everyday, it's not hard to come across designs or layouts that show eerily similar aesthetics. When you're just starting out, it's easy to look to successful brands online and try to emulate their style or ideas. But try to refrain – because there's a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, and you don't want to be on the wrong side of it.
Rather, when you’re creating new designs or graphics for your business, it's super important to make your work stand out from the crowd and not look like someone else's. Not only is this ethical, but it's also just smart. You don't want to blend in, right? By the same token, you work hard on your own business and you want others to respect that. Show that same respect for your competitors, and honor the work they’ve done by being original in your own space.
After many years in the online business arena and as a designer, I’ve found a few ways to help you spot the difference between inspiration and plagiarism, if you're noticing that line getting blurred. I outline them in this post here, so check it out.
Staying on-brand vs. experimenting with trends
I got this question via Instagram as I was writing this post, and I think it’s a great topic to include. My friend Ana asked, how can you look on trend and still have a distinct brand? This can sometimes be the great dilemma of all designers — we want to create timeless designs, but maaaaan that gold foil technique would be fun to play with. No offense, gold foil lovers, but this is my go-to example when talking about design trends. We all remember when gold foil came on the scene and people were slapping it on e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. I don’t think there is anything wrong with gold foil, but I do think it’s a fad that won’t last forever and will eventually date your designs.
BUT — I do think there is still a place inside a brand to experiment with fads like this. When it comes to your actual business branding and messaging — that should stay distinct, consistent, and timeless. But the way your branding is applied to different mediums can be an experimentation. For example, I love to experiment with social media graphics. They’re short-lived, they get buried in a feed after just a few days, so if I want to incorporate some design fads that aren’t necessarily part of my “official branding” (something like gold foil) then that’s okay. Same goes for other date/time-specific things like live events, trade shows, workshops, webinars, etc. But graphics that will have longevity in your brand (like your logo, website, actual products, offerings, or resources that you plan to stick around for a long time), that’s where you want to keep your brand consistent, distinct, and avoid the fads.
Other helpful resources for topics like finding design inspiration and following design trends:
Automating your design process to save time
The more you design things for your business, the more you realize how much of the process can feel like duplicate work. You’re pulling from the same color palette, re-using similar shapes and layouts, formatting your text the same and using the same combos of typefaces and sizing. There can be a lot of duplicate work in the design process, especially when you’re being intentional with your branding and keeping it consistent. The best way to help you automate your design process and have less of this duplicate work is to utilize a software that lets you SAVE some of these settings to re-use later. If you look back at the list of software earlier in this post, there’s one main program that offers features to help you save time like this: Adobe InDesign. Here are some of my favorite ways InDesign can help you automate your design process:
Master pages — Master pages are like mini templates you can create and use throughout your document for pages that have repeated content on them, like a page number, footer, background elements, etc. Especially for projects that have multiple pages, master pages will be your new best friend and save you LOADS of time. Check out this post for an introduction + video tutorial on how to use master pages in InDesign.
Styles (character, paragraph, objects, and tables) — Styles are a collection of settings or formatting that you can save together and reapply to something else with literally just one click. Text styles can be applied to a word, a line of text, or an entire paragraph, and they save settings like font, weight, size, spacing, color, etc. Object styles can be applied to a shape or a drawn object of any kind, and they save settings like fill color, stroke color, stroke weight, opacity, drop shadows, etc. And table styles can be used when working with tables and cells to create charts with consistent coloring, sizing, and styling.
Default color swatches + fonts — Within InDesign you can save color swatches (can be grouped together in folders for easier organizing) as well as set a default font (including sizing + spacing) to always be ready to go every time you open the program. This lets you start each project with a few things already in place so you can save those extra few steps right from the beginning.
Liquid layouts + saving page sizes — Lastly, InDesign lets you save page sizes + dimensions to pull from (like Instagram post sizing, Instagram story sizing, webinar slide size, etc.). Plus, the InDesign tool called liquid layouts lets you quickly change the dimensions + proportions of a fully-designed page into another size without much extra work. For example, if you have a full letter size file (8.5 x 11 in), and you want to create a half letter version of the same design (8.5 x 5.5), this tool can change your page size + simultaneously adjust your content proportionately with one click. While it almost sounds too good to be true, in some ways it is. This tools isn’t fool proof, and it can certainly be finicky based on the type of content you have on your page. BUT, despite the extra finagling it does take to get your content back in place at the new size, it still saves you a lot of time vs. recreating the design from scratch at the new size.
Using pre-designed templates to give you a head start
Another way designers can speed up their process is to start with a pre-designed template. This obviously lets you skip a lot of the creative side of the design process, but it can be a great tool for a beginner designer to get a feel for a new program (like InDesign) or a seasoned designer skip a few steps and save a lot of time 😉 My favorite place to get pre-designed templates is Creative Market, especially my pals at the Station Seven shop (their designs are so beautiful + easy to adjust for your own branding!). You can find pre-designed templates for just about anything — promo graphics, social media graphics, PDF layouts, ebooks, webinar slides, business cards, notecards, resumes, even logos. When using pre-designed templates, there’s a few things to look out for:
file type — Make sure the template is provided in the file type you need for the program you’re using.
design style — Obviously, make sure the design fits with what you’re looking for and that it has enough elements for you to work with and make your own customizations if you want extra flexibility.
licensing + usage — When purchase a template from a site like Creative Market or from another designer’s shop, the same rules apply about licensing that we covered earlier: check with the designer’s rules on how you can use the file. And when in doubt, just reach out and ask them about your specific situation.
WHOA. Ok, that was a lot. I wanted this post to be “the ultimate guide,” and at over 4,000 words I think we got there 😉 I hope these resources are helpful to you as you’re learning how to become your own designer for your business or just looking for more inspiration and ideas as a freelance designer. Feel free to leave a comment about which topic in this post was most helpful, or if you have something to add to the list!
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