Caution: Free Graphic Design Programs—How Much Are They Actually Costing You?

DIY projects: we've all tried them. They feel great when they're easy, straightforward and go as planned—like painting a bedroom, hanging a picture, or switching out kitchen cabinet handles.

Sometimes, folks like to tackle other kinds of DIY projects, like creating their own logo, website, social media graphics, print materials, and more… even without the proper training, talent or consultation. That's when design programs and software like Canva and PicMonkey seemingly come in handy. These programs are designed to be so simple that anyone can use them—so what’s the harm?

To DIY or not to DIY?

Let’s be honest about home-improvement DIY projects: When they involve the depths of plumbing, electrical, structural, or our home's foundation, we can quickly get in over our heads. A lot of times, we end up calling in a professional to bail us out. They come in and we show them the hole in the wall and the YouTube tutorial video that made it look so easy to fix. The professional shakes their head and informs us that we just caused a $3,000 problem that would have cost $100 in labor and a $50 part. There goes all that extra cash!

The same can happen with online graphic design programs; we think that we can handle the design work and create a beautiful finished product, but end up just creating a total trainwreck. So, where do we draw the line between the need for DIY and professional work?

These free services pose a lot of limitations that put a strain on your brand.

Your visual brand is a lot like a house—a house whose structure and layout is built upon existing visual systems that keep it an enjoyable place for your guests to visit. Nobody wants their house looking like a hot mess when guests walk in the door. The same principle should apply to your standards when presenting your visual identity to your audience.

Take this example.

Let's pretend you own a business that sells cleaning equipment to public schools. You're running on a tight marketing budget, but need to have some marketing materials made, like graphics for your social media channels, your website, digital ads, and print pieces like business cards and newspaper ads. To save money, you decide to utilize a free (or low-cost) online graphic design program to create these assets yourself rather than consulting with a professional marketing or design firm. Shouldn't be too difficult… let's find out.

Choosing an image.

You create an account and begin designing a Facebook cover graphic. You'd like the graphic to include an image of cleaning supplies, your logo and your tagline. You begin to browse the website's catalog of photos, but find that all they have are a bunch of generic stock images of people eating at hip cafés and large cityscapes… but no images of cleaning supplies. You're forced to settle for an image of an attractive girl wiping down a table at a café… close enough, right? Hmmm…

Choosing a font.

Now that you've settled for an image, it's time to choose your font. Darn, this site doesn't have the font used on your current branded assets. You decide to go with Arial font since it's the closest thing to what your company uses elsewhere. That'll do, yeah? Again, hmmm…

Voila! You're done.

Hooray! You've finished, downloaded and saved your new Facebook cover photo that was completely free and only took you 30 minutes to create! You upload the photo to your Facebook page and realize that it looks nothing like any of your other company assets. Ugh. Well, better than spending a bunch of money for a professional design firm to create the graphic for you, right?


Using free, limited graphic design programs can create inconsistencies in your brand's communication & visual identity.

Let's revisit the house-guest analogy. Just as returning guests should expect to be familiar with the look and feel of your home, the same rings true for your returning clients. Utilizing simplified graphic design software without consulting a professional design team or an experienced freelance designer runs a significant risk of visually alienating your audience to your curated brand.

When your audience visits your Facebook and sees graphics with strange images and text in a random font that doesn’t look or feel like your website, your brand and its perceived quality goes down a notch. That loosely related, generic stock photo with Arial font may look hip but probably screams, “I’m a shaky start-up!” to your audience rather than reflecting the well-established company you really are—causing you to miss out on potential business opportunities. Ouch.

The investment in professionally made, on-brand assets and/or consultation doesn't sound too daunting now, does it? 

Leave the design work to the professionals.

Free, DIY graphic design programs can be attractively cheap and quick, but beware that they can make your company look the same way—diminishing perceived quality to both potential and existing customers. As we've explained before, your brand is a lifelong commitment—it will only give back to you just as much as what you give to it. Investing in professional designers and marketers may cost more upfront, but will pay off for your company in the long run—literally.

Working on a tight budget?

Don't assume you're totally out of luck. As your Brand Marketing Ally, TIS can work with you to make sure your marketing materials stay on-brand and within-budget. We can also work with you to create a Brand Standards Guide and branded design elements so your brand is always consistently represented in the marketplace. Give us a shout to set up a consultation!