How does someone with no formal graphic design training wind up creating a wildly popular graphic design app?
Christopher is the CEO and co-founder of Snappa, an incredibly easy graphic design tool that allows anyone (but especially marketers) to create beautiful ads and illustrations for the web. Users start with templates or blank canvases, then point and click to make things like blog images, banner ads, social media posts, and email graphics come to life.
We’re big fans of Snappa at Leadpages. So I got Christopher on the phone the other day to learn about the Snappa story and seek out his advice for marketers who find themselves in the position he was in before founding Snappa. As a marketer, he knew that adding high-quality imagery to tweets, ads, and articles could easily double the success of any given piece of content. But most design software options he researched were “trying to cater more to designers,” he recalled. As someone who, like most of us, had never been to design school, he wasn’t thrilled about swallowing the price and learning curve of Photoshop or one of its competitors.
Some people might have given up and reached for MS Paint at that point, but Christopher saw an opportunity. With Marc Chouinard as his co-founder and CTO, he created Snappa. Soon after, they hired a graphic designer to create artist-approved templates for assets ranging from LinkedIn ads to Pinterest pins.
The result was a simple (and, I can personally attest, very fun) tool that, Christopher said, is geared for “people like myself who want to create good-looking stuff but who aren’t trying to become designers.”
That includes everyone from marketers and social media managers on corporate teams to jack-of-all-trades solopreneurs. Snappa has also increasingly been taken up by influential bloggers such as Sujan Patel and companies including SEMRush, which has used it to create on-the-fly graphics for its popular Twitter chats.
Even if you don’t need any technical design skills to use a tool like Snappa, you’ll still get better results with your marketing images if you learn to develop an eye for good design. With that in mind, Christopher gave me his top 9 beginner-friendly design rules to live by. As a non-designer myself, I put some of them into action using Snappa to create the examples you’ll see below.
1. Keep it simple
“If you look at modern design—Apple’s a great example—it’s very simple and very clean,” Christopher said.
Assuming your brand isn’t yet iconic, simplicity can serve as a sort of shortcut to credibility. For instance, if you were looking for reliable fitness advice, would you be more inclined to click on this …
… or this?
“Not too much text, not too many icons all over the place” is Christopher’s recipe for a graphic that’s clickable instead of confusing. This rule applies even to the core pages of your website: “If you have a splash page, it doesn’t need to have a carousel of all kinds of images,” he recommended. “You want something really clear and straight to the point and tailored.”
The next time you create an image, look at every element, and ask yourself: do I really need that?
2. Use contrasting colors
Contrast “makes it easy and pleasurable to read” your design, Christopher said. If you do nothing else, it’s crucial to make sure that the text on your images is immediately legible: dark text on light backgrounds or vice versa.
This can be tricky when you’re working with a background photo that has both dark and light areas. You could carefully place your text around different elements of the photo, but there is an easier option: use a translucent overlay (as in the first image above). This way, you get the contrast of a solid background with the visual interest and branding potential of a photo background.
3. Limit yourself to one or two fonts
If you’re using Snappa or another design tool, you probably have access to dozens—even hundreds—of fonts. It can be tempting to use a new font for every part of your text but put them all together and your image is likely to have a chaotic feel.
Instead, choose (at most) a pair of fonts. In fact, to really tie all your visual assets together, you may want to put in a little work ahead of time to find a couple of fonts to call your own, and then use them on everything you create. “Make sure you have a font that represents your business,” Christopher recommended. “So if you’re going for something very luxurious, you might want to use a cursive font.”
Sticking to just two fonts—both of them a bit laid-back and beachy, just like the business they’re promoting—brings unity to this somewhat complex image.
One font might really be all you need if you consider Christopher’s fourth rule of thumb.
4. Use varying font sizes for added emphasis
A single font can have a totally different (but still complementary) feel at headline size than it does in 12-point. Rather than go all out with font and color changes for the most important parts of the text in your image, try a simple size change for emphasis first.
Using two sizes of the same font can direct the eye to the most important parts of your image.
Another way to transform a font while keeping it on brand is to apply different effects. If you’re searching for font or two that says “you,” make sure to check out how it looks in its bold and italic forms as well.
5. Strategically select your color palette
As with fonts, restraint pays off when you’re selecting colors. Two or three hues are often plenty in a small space such as a banner ad.
Which colors to use? Your logo and brand colors are an obvious starting point. But technology can be your friend here as well. A number of online resources have popped up just to help you figure out which colors go together. Here are a few to start with:
- ColourLovers: a collaborative repository of color palettes, many inspired by photographs, fabric patterns, and other eye candy
- Coolors: a random color-scheme generator that gives you 5 coordinating colors at a time—ideal for inspiration if you’re starting from scratch
- Color Combos: a resource including a color combo library, a color combo tester, and even blog posts suggesting starting points for different marketing cases
Once you’ve found a set of colors that work well together and for your brand, make sure to write down the hex codes (they’ll look like #7ABA7A) and store them somewhere on your computer. Then, you can just copy and paste them into any design tool you use.
6. Use white space to your advantage
This isn’t to say that space actually has to be white (though the literal-minded application of this principle has certainly paid off for Apple). It can be a solid color, a pattern, or even a subtle photo image.
Think of white space as structural support for the most important elements of your image. If the space between your headline and your icon gets too narrow, its strength is reduced. It can’t effectively position the headline or the icon to catch viewers’ attention.
In line with Rule #1, consider removing extra elements to add white space. Or, as an experiment, try dragging different elements to different parts of your canvas and watch how your center of attention shifts. You may find that, oddly enough, blocks of white space make everything more dynamic.
7. Add icons to support your message
When people are scrolling quickly through social media or clicking through sites where your display ads appear, they’re unlikely to concentrate on the text in your image unless something else grabs their attention first. Use icons to draw eyes to the richer information of your headline and help people instantly understand what your page, post, or offer is about.
An icon can be easier to understand than a photo or a multicolor illustration, especially if you use color strategically to tie it to the text.
Christopher gave an example: “Say you’re writing a blog post about improving your email open rate. Adding an icon of, say, an envelope to your image is a great way to reinforce the message of the blog post. At Snappa we have quite a variety of icons, from business to leisure travel.”
Don’t be afraid to go for the obvious icon in cases like these. A subtle visual pun or a tiny, intricate image is likely to sail right past most of your audience online, so make sure it’s immediately apparent what your icon has to do with your message.
8. Think about who you’re designing for
“Know the goals of the image and who the audience is,” Christopher recommended. Not only do different social platforms have different audiences, but even the same audience often turns to different channels for different kinds of information. Consider the following kinds of imagery for these social media platforms:
- Facebook: Facebook is a great platform when you’re making announcements and publicizing events, since users are already using it to view their friends’ major updates and accept event invitations. It’s also a fairly text-friendly medium, and good for reaching a very broad audience (since nearly every demographic uses it). Customize the Open Graph tags for your blog posts or landing pages with WordPress or Leadpages (now possible with the new drag-and-drop builder) to choose a special image that will appear when you share the link.
Consider designing a special image just to appear when someone shares your landing page link on Facebook.
- Twitter: Even more than on other channels, images you share on Twitter need to make an instant impact. A bold headline and a simple icon are often enough to get your message out on this fast-moving platform.
- LinkedIn: “Statistics, facts, and interesting bits of information” are great fits for LinkedIn ads and posts, Christopher said. This is where business-minded people go when they’re looking for ways to get ahead, so power is more important than beauty here.
- Instagram: Text-heavy ads aren’t a good fit for this visual-first platform, but inspirational quotes set in attractive text with a beautiful background photo (ideally but not necessarily one you’ve taken yourself) could work well.
- Pinterest: A DIY, arts-and-crafts spirit pervades Pinterest. Even if that doesn’t entirely reflect your niche, you’ll want to prioritize visual content over text or promotional offers in this space. A nicely designed image from a helpful blog post could be the perfect compromise.
9. Let form follow function
Finally, rather than trying to fit graphics you’ve already created into odd-shaped spaces, start by researching the ideal image dimensions for whatever platform you’re using. In the same place where you’ve stored your color palette hex codes, make a list of the preferred dimensions for any channel you regularly use. You’ll end up with an image that truly fits into its surroundings.
Snappa customers have it easy: they can start with canvases designed for nearly any online marketing scenario you can imagine (or choose their own dimensions). And it’s going to get even easier soon.
“The biggest thing we’re going to be working on is image resizing,” Christopher said when I asked what was next on the company’s agenda. “So if you’re designing an image for Facebook and you want to share the same thing on Twitter, you can automatically convert it to different platforms.”
What’s been the most valuable design tip you’ve ever received? Share it in the comments!