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I’ll admit that before we started Brand Genie, the best designs I created were colorful Excel graphs in Powerpoint. So non-Millennial.

But today, everything has changed. We founded Brand Genie with the belief that good design—combined with technology—could create powerful results. And it does.

Over the last few years, I’ve had the good fortune of working with some of the best designers in the country. The creativity that flows from these genius types is fun to experience.

However, that’s not me—nor is it a skill of most small business owners.

That being said, I’ve picked up a few tips and tricks that have made my life much easier. We still hire the big-gun designers for major initiatives (totally worth it), but I can get far with these simple design tools—and you can, too.

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A view of the Canva interface.

1. Canva 

This is my new favorite.

Canva is a startup out of Australia that is growing like crazy. It’s free to use unless you choose some of their premium designs and then you pay a minimal fee (99 cents is typical).

Since you can’t use the same designs in different sized spaces, Canva has pre-loaded “art boards” that are created in the right sizes for popular applications like Facebook, Twitter and email headers.

The designs they suggest are simple but fresh, and you can easily upload your own logo and photos. The end result is quick, easy, and tough to mess up.

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A free image from Unsplash found searching the term “Zen.”

2. Unsplash 

Long gone are the days of heavy text—a picture is now worth thousands of words. Unsplash is a free photo site that offers the best of high quality, striking images from around the world.

Every day new photos are shared and you can get lost in flipping through the beauty of these images. If you’re short on time, try the search function. I find it’s getting better every day as more photos seem to be properly tagged.

For example, if your brand is “place of Zen”all about finding peace and stillness for your customers—search for “Zen,” or “quiet” and see what comes up.

Most of the Unsplash photos are landscape-type shots dotted with people. If you need high quality photos of people, especially in a particular action (riding a bike, in a hospital, and so on), you should check some of the other paid photo sites like iStock to supplement your Unsplash finds.

Another drawback of using the Unsplash photos (and most stock photos) is that you will see them other places. I’ve noticed several of my favorite Unsplash photos used in articles on Flipboard and other places around the Web.

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Image of Adobe Illustator interface via softwareinreview.com

3. Adobe Illustrator

O.K., this is one of the tools professional designers use, but regular people can use it, too.

The designers will cringe when I say this, but it really is quite similar to Powerpoint. It’s not free, but you can use the online version for $19.99 per month. You get two installations, so I have one on my laptop and another on my big desktop.

You can use Adobe Illustrator to create new designs that are much more sophisticated than Canva.

What I use it for is not original creation, but editing work that designers have already created. This is really handy.

When our customers create their logos for their small business branding packages and then need to make changes, I can now easily edit the work by opening up the file and changing colors, tag lines, font sizes, and so on. So, when a customer request comes in at odd hours and the designers aren’t available, I can handle it myself.

You can do the same: pay to have the original designs created, and then learn to edit the work yourself. For example, if you create a marketing brochure that includes pricing, or dates that change, you can make these changes yourself and stay current.

That’s it. Three powerful tools to turn you into a designer. You probably won’t replace your designer, but you will cut costs and work with new freedom as you edit your own marketing materials and create simple designs like Twitter posts, Facebook ads, and more compelling presentations.

Happy designing! 

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