By Andy Newbom published May 5, 2014

How to Create Visual Content with this Simple, Dirt Cheap Tool

canva-visual-content-hotThis post was co-written by Nick Kellet, Co-Founder of List.ly.

As digital marketing begins to mature, an interesting trend is emerging.

Over the last decade, the digital industry has primarily focused on optimizing the consumption experience. For example, content networks like YouTube, Vimeo, SlideShare, and Soundcloud have become well established in our culture, and users are now highly familiar with how to upload content to these platforms and share that content on their blogs, websites, and social media pages so others can view and enjoy it.

Today, focus is shifting to making the authoring experience easier, including ways to remove the barriers to creating engaging, high-quality visual content

Out with the old

Historically, the best visual content had to be created by highly skilled professionals. Image design required the use of massively complex suites of tools that had virtually unlimited options and features, but steep learning curves. This was great for the most imaginative of visual artists, but for the rest of us design mortals, the concept of unfettered freedom often paralyzed our productivity: There were just too many options, too many tools to master, and too many possible directions we could go in. Inevitably, we would get bogged down in the decision process and fail to move into the actual creation phase.

In with the new

Thankfully, a new class of tools is emerging that offers a simpler, leaner approach to creating visual content. While these tools still enable marketers to design compelling and powerful visual content, they streamline the creation process and set tighter parameters so creators don’t get as overwhelmed.

A tool that we’re particularly fond of — and that typifies this lean approach of guided simplicity — is Canva. This tool has stripped away the complexity and narrowed the feature sets of traditional design tools to bring quality design capabilities to more of us content marketing professionals while lowering the barrier to their use.

Good design matters

Canva is an online image creation tool that allows users to easily create almost any type of image, graphic, or icon. (The company must be doing something right: Guy Kawasaki just signed on as its chief evangelist.)

While this tool isn’t perfect, it represents a significant shift in the way marketers can address their need to engage audiences with visual content.

Creating with Canva

Canva is a simplified and streamlined, online-only image creation tool that gives even non-designers the ability to quickly and easily create simple yet attractive images. It follows the lean approach we mentioned above by paring users’ choices down to only the most necessary options and tools. However, it also gives them access to hundreds of pre-made samples, icons, clip-art, photos, and text design templates to keep the creativity high even as it reduces the complexity.

For example, content marketers can start creating an image by selecting a pre-made template and changing the words, fonts (limited options), colors, and even the icons and backgrounds.

start new design-canva templates

Although you can start with a blank slate, we recommend using the templates, as these let you take advantage of the strong designs made by the Canva team. The color palettes, fonts, and layout of each one works delightfully well together — which will help make any content marketer look like a design pro. Users can also incorporate custom hex colors, photos, and logos into Canva’s templates, so your creations will look consistent with the branding elements you use for all your content marketing efforts.

For example, for a recent blog post I wrote, I wanted to create a custom header image to use in my promotion efforts. I chose one of Canva’s Facebook header templates since it matched my dimensions well enough, and then changed the text, the photo inside the screen, and the colors to match my usual branding. I added a logo as a finishing touch, and voila! It only took about 15 minutes from start to finish, yet it aligned with the article subject perfectly and added value to the content much more than a generic stock photo would have:

computer image-script marketing emails

I also use Canva to illustrate key concepts I discuss in the conversation-starter content I publish on my blog:

airplane images-you had to be there

Working with Canva

Here is a walk-through of how I used Canva to create the graphic for this article — in about 15 minutes.

I started with Canva’s “Blog Graphic” template (800px W x 1200px H)

design choices-blog graphic highlighted

The next screen features a blank canvas and a menu of pre-made templates and design guides:

layout choices

I chose the “Hot or Not?” template because I liked the simplicity, the social media references, and the basic layout. However, I did not particularly love the colors or the background. Luckily with Canva those are super simple to change.

Once you click on the template, it fills the canvas and looks like this:

hot or not template

Then, you can easily reposition elements; change text, colors, and backgrounds; add photos, logos, or other images; and otherwise go design-crazy.

I chose to make minimal changes, as I wanted the basic look but with a bit more customization. First, I powered up the background a bit with some fire. You may notice that this is a paid background choice, but it only costs $1 — more than reasonable —and you can purchase it directly through the Canva interface. All you do is click on the background and it auto-fills the background with the design you’ve chosen. There are tons of free options available in the system, and you can upload your own images as well, if you have something specific you want to use.

background image choices

I decided to modify the colors of the elements to match the Content Marketing Institute colors. To do this, simply click on an element, click the portion you want to modify, and make your change. The tool will auto-save your changes, but you can go back if you make a mistake.

color circles-choices

In this case I simply entered the CMI branded hex color code, then applied that color to each area I wanted to use it for. You can follow the same procedure to change the fonts and font colors.

color circles-hex color code

Of course you can also change the actual text of each area. Pro-tip: Take note of the original text length and size in order to ensure the design retains its original design constraints and integrity. Every once in awhile I can drastically modify the length or size of the text and have it still look good, but not very often (just one more reason why great designers rock).

And in under 15 minutes I had created a cover image for this post. It may not win any design awards, but it sure beats some generic stock photography. Tim Ash, CEO of Sitetuners.com gave me a fantastic piece of advice once: “Any image that doesn’t demonstrate your messaging or brand should be removed from your website. Don’t let generic stock photography ruin your content.”

More great examples 

Jay Acunzo, Director of Platform at NextView Ventures used Canva to create all the section headers for his portfolio of work on his website, Sorry for Marketing:

sorry for marketing-example

Canva also enabled him to build an eye-catching visual signature for his firm’s series of tweeted quotes for entrepreneurs:

example setup-design for tweeted quotes

Content marketing and social media consultant Erika Heald also shared some great examples of work she’s used Canva for, including a series of blog post images used to promote a client’s upcoming conference, and the social media images Redbooth uses to give followers’ comments a bit more pizzazz:

typewriter image-redbooth

So those are a few ways current users have taken advantage of Canva’s features. But will this lean tool give you the functionality you need for your content marketing projects? Take a look at our quick list of pros and cons, and decide for yourself: 

Conclusion

The simple, lean approach works. Less choice leads to more action and more creativity.

Canva provides a simplified yet rewarding experience that makes great visual content design accessible to more people.

You get more for less, but you aren’t the only beneficiary. Your audience will appreciate simple, well-designed content, too. When more people in your company can get creative, cool things happen. Your content will thank you, your audience will thank you and hopefully even professional designers will thank you.

Looking for more ways to maximize the impact of your content by adding great visuals? Try one of these 27+ Handy Tools for Better Visual Content Marketing.

Author: Andy Newbom

Craft beer and craft coffee viking. Big idea maker, integrated marketer and serial entrepreneur with 15 years of business, leadership, and marketing experience ranging from high-tech B2B to high-touch B2C. Writing about and practicing marketing strategy, big ideas, social media and content marketing. Stay connected with Andy on the web AndyNewbom.com, on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Other posts by Andy Newbom

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  • mdbdotcom

    Very informative post that would be even better with a link to Canva.com. Did I miss it?

    • Andy Newbom

      good catch! it got stripped out, but we added it!

  • Frederick Tubiermont

    great description of this exciting platform! May I add that if you create gorgeous square-shaped designs on Canva, you can make a mobile web app using those designs on http://adsy.me We’ve just released this mobile web app to create… mobile web apps. Try it out, it’s fun 😉

  • Rachel

    Thank you – this platform is great. Can’t wait to create some graphics!

  • Kemya Scott

    Oh this looks awesome! Thanks for sharing so much information, as I hadn’t heard of Canva. I’m going to give it a try!

  • http://printfirm.com/ Katherine Tattersfield

    You might want to include under the “Cons” that you can’t actually use Canva alone for professional printing, despite what the website implies. I wrote a detailed explanation of its limitations as far as print design is concerned. The main issue is the fact that you can’t use CMYK color mode in Canva.

    • Andy Newbom

      great insight. you can easily add a cons to the list.ly list! just click add! to ME it is a online only tool for digital graphics

      • http://printfirm.com/ Katherine Tattersfield

        Thanks, Andy. I believe you’re correct—Canva should be used for web graphics only. I wish they made that clear on their website—I fear unsuspecting users will be very disappointed in those business card templates.

  • http://jayacunzo.com/ Jay Acunzo

    Thanks for mentioning some of my work in this good sir! I <3 Canva. It's a borderline obsession at this point. Combine it with PowerPoint hack design skills and you're off to the races…

    • Andy Newbom

      In know that Nick loves haikudeck.com for simple/stylish decks.

  • http://www.it-sales-leads.com/ Barbara Mckinney

    Good to know that there are tools like Canva that we can use to easily create an elegant design. It’s an answer to the prayer of people who lack the knowledge in Photoshop and other designing tools. Thank you very much for sharing this article Andy!

  • http://trabantcoffee.com/ Tatiana Becker

    Very informative post. I liked it.

  • Upasna Kakroo

    Can’t wait to use this tool. Have been having trouble with the design aspect far too long. Thanks for sharing!

    Upasna at Someplace Else

  • Iris Kline Arih

    great thanks, I’ve been struggling with ppt for the presentations (speaches) but this app seem to be so much easier..

  • http://IMLeslieZ.com LeslieZ

    Thanks Andy for the heads up on Canva. I need all the help I can get when creating professional looking visual content for my blog.

    This is one aspect of my business I have a tendency to want to outsource but sometimes you just want a quick graphic for your blog post. It is nice to be able to do that on your own.

    I’ll go check it out!
    LeslieZ

  • BigcomDevloper

    Very nice post , For me content is king for any blog and any post, here you put great things together so I really impressed with you post.

  • Kamila Cholko

    I love this tool, thanks for that!

  • Tochka.lv

    Try http://sdew.com/css_logo_builder/ which is based on css3 only.