By Joseph Kalinowski published November 11, 2015

Is Design Mostly Dead? DIY Platforms vs. Hiring a Pro


Just because I know how to use a hammer and nails doesn’t mean I can build myself a house. Sure, I may be able to craft a perfectly adequate birdhouse, but definitely not a house where my family would live.

As a professional graphic designer, I bring out my hammer-and-nails quip when I get frustrated by the proliferation of images gaining steam with the recent tech trend of do-it-yourself design platforms. With drag-and-drop artwork and a multitude of pre-loaded fonts and templates, someone with little to no design skill can create a piece of artwork.

Obviously, these are great tools for content marketers who may not have the budget or time to bring in a designer for a project. But I harken back to a quote from CMI’s Chief Strategist Robert Rose, “A chainsaw in my hands has a very different purpose and effect than a chainsaw in a professional’s hands.”

There’s something missing from many of these DIY-created images. What is it?

Allow me to quote the “mostly dead” Westley from one of the CMI staff’s favorite films – The Princess Bride (yes, we quote it quite often): “True love.”

True love, in the sense of what designers bring to their visual creation in the form of creativity, hierarchy, design rules, and attention to detail that gives their design a bigger impact over others clogging the audience’s news feeds.

Learn the rules

To their credit, DIY design platforms offer an abundance of blogs and tutorials on how to use their tools. Many of their posts focus on the do’s and don’ts of graphic design – the design rules to follow (or not to break). But, one thing I have learned in my years in the profession is that while design evolves and you need to learn though trial and error, good design is always grounded in the rules. I still (hazily) recall my college days, sitting in all of those design courses where we would endlessly critique the positive use of negative space, proper font treatments, and the dreaded trapped white space. We studied the color wheel for hours. We learned proportion and hierarchy.

For most of us, those lessons became inherent rules that we now follow from the start of a project. Allow me to show you an example of DIY artwork where the creator didn’t understand some of the basic design rules:


I pulled this example from a blog dedicated to the ease of use of DIY design programs. To me, it’s obvious that the blogger who created this particular graphic didn’t understand (or follow) some of the rules, including:

  • Colors: I counted four. They are not particularly bad, but the way they are used seems disjointed.
  • Fonts: I counted four. That’s way too many for such a piece, especially when used so randomly.
  • Hierarchy: There is little use of hierarchy in this piece. It seems that everything carries the same weight and it’s causing my eyes to bounce all over the page searching for the pertinent information. Notice how the number 26 and the month of May are larger than the event name? The date isn’t what’s most important.

It’s a common mistake – DIYers are often so enchanted by the bells and whistles that they use too many of them and lose sight of the concept of the design.

It reminds me of the man in the Johnny Cash song, One Piece at a Time, who works at a Cadillac plant and steals one part every day for 30 years. He finally builds the “Cadillac,” but it looks nothing like a Cadillac. The man got so caught up in collecting the parts, he failed to recognize that he would have parts from 30 years and could never create a cohesive Cadillac model.

Taking the content from the example, I did a little revamp on it to show you the difference in use of fonts, color, and hierarchy.


See the difference? The reason I did this was to show you that ease of use doesn’t always guarantee best results, but following the rules of design does. Among the improvements:

  • Colors: I kept the same colors as the original, but notice how I used the light orange and aqua colors in more of an accent role?
  • Fonts: I went from their use of four to using two. The unique difference in the weights of the fonts eliminates the need for any more typefaces.
  • Hierarchy: Notice that the predominant image is the event name? The accompanying treble clef artwork is now tucked behind the name as an enhancement for the headline to make the viewer realize within seconds that this is a musical event. Also, notice that some of the copy has been trimmed and now it is basically the pertinent info, placed in a pattern that the eye can easily skim.

Get a critique

If your budget doesn’t allow for a complete concept-to-design project, consider getting a critique or hiring a designer to consult. If you really enjoy using your DIY platforms, but are maybe second-guessing some of your design decisions, a designer may be able to guide you in the right direction while allowing you to do the work.

At CMI, I am fortunate to work with a team that is pretty savvy when it comes to visual content. With that being said, I completely trust members of my team to occasionally pursue their own visuals, as I know that they have an eye for design. I often look at my job as a visual facilitator. For example, Clare McDermott, editor of Chief Content Officer magazine, has a keen sense for design. She knows what she likes, she appreciates great design, but she relies on the creative team to translate and expand on her fantastic ideas for the layouts of the magazine.

Here’s another example of a blogger creating a great visual on his own but calling on a pro for critique. Blogger and friend Buddy Scalera recently wrote a post, Conflict Is Story. He makes reference to zombies and found some great royalty-free artwork of a lady during a zombie walk that he wanted to use. Buddy needed to create a header image for the post so he used that image with a headline:


Buddy’s original example

After designing it, he reached out to me for my thoughts and I shared a few ideas. Instead of recreating the art himself, he asked me to take a stab at it.


Professionally revised example

Here’s how I reviewed and revised the image:

Challenge 1: The image background was distracting. The random people walking around took away from the fear-striking look of the zombie girl. The lines of the building masonry led my eye all over the place.

Solution 1: I cropped the image to remove the background and let zombie girl make direct eye contact with the viewer.

Challenge 2: The headline was competing with the image.

Solution 2: I placed the headline in its own block of color – a color sampled from the deep red blood on the zombie’s neck. I also matched the word “conflict” and subhead to the orange highlights in the zombie’s hair.

I picked an irreverent font for the headline and tilted it slightly to pull the viewers’ eyes back to the zombie.

Challenge 3: The blog site information was barely visible in the right bottom corner.

Solution 3: I featured Buddy’s name and website prominently, which is particularly important if the image is being shared on social channels.

Think about a pro

So you have a project in mind that will need some visual content. You ask, “Do I do it myself with one of the DIY platforms or do I call in a designer for the assist?”

Remember, hiring a professional designer for your visuals is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Consider these scenarios:

  • Involve a professional designer in a large-scale project or series of posts where you want a cohesive brand look that not only stands out in a crowd but is easily understood by viewers.
  • Hire a professional designer to create visual templates for frequency tactics (i.e., blog post headers) that can be easily updated by your team.
  • Consult with a professional designer to review your portfolio of visuals and make suggestions that can be incorporated on a DIY basis or as your budget grows to accommodate professional services.

In our ultra-connected world, especially in the content community, I’ll bet that if you ask, someone knows a designer who can help. If you are having some issues, take a look at sites like, a community of freelancers who share their complete bios, skills, designs, and hourly rates.


Have fun storming the castle

Sure, there is definitely a place for the DIY design platforms in content marketing but, as a designer, I implore you to study up on your design rules before taking the leap and creating your own artwork. It’s so simple to fall into the world of easily recognizable, frequently used templates, and clip art, hoping to stand out and look unique. But, in actuality, these efforts really just get lost in news feeds.

Yes, some content marketers still may want to use the DIY platforms like a magic pill bought from Miracle Max. But you know it takes the combination of both the magic of the pill and that true love brought by a designer to really differentiate your visuals. Otherwise, the idea of standing out in the crowd? Inconceivable!

Want to learn more about visual content, get all the latest insight, tips, and more? Visit CMI’s visual content topic hub.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Joseph Kalinowski

JK is the Creative Director for Content Marketing Institute. He has worked as an art director for 16 years in both the advertising and publishing industries. His role at CMI is to assist with the ideation and creation of projects and to work with the CMI staff to ensure they achieve our goals. Follow JK on Twitter @jkkalinowski.

Other posts by Joseph Kalinowski

  • Erika Heald

    I’m with you on this, JK! As much as I love using DIY platforms, nothing compares to collaborating with a designer.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks Erika!

  • Robert Rose

    Fantastic Post! Loved this so much….. as an “amateur” – I truly appreciate the professional eye and talent – and (as you put it) love…. Most every time I look smart in words – it’s because of a great editor. Most every time I look smart visually it’s because of a great designer (usually you).

    There’s a wonderful Spielberg quote that goes: “When I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it’s you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.”

    Good stuff JK!

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks Robert. You were so much of an inspiration for this article and I am so very lucky to collaborate with you on so many projects. Hazaaah!

  • Camille Stauffer

    JK, I loved this article! I am not a designer, but a technical content developer with a vision… and, so often, I am happy to hand over my thoughts to a designer and let them work their magic. It’s a joy to see what comes out from the other side – because if I were to do it myself, it’d be less delightful. I appreciate your recommendation to leverage the DIY platforms, but consult a designer. That’s great advice when budget might not allow full involvement – I will take that bit with me as I think that’s something I can sell to ensure we deliver quality content… even when we are being challenged to DIY our visuals with these readily available tools. Great, timely article for me!

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks Camille! It’s great to have the vision and be able to convey your thoughts to a designer. Sometimes frustration arises between content creators when you know what you want, but the designer isn’t “nailing it.” As I stated in the article, Clare (our CCO editor) has a true gift of vision, and is pretty exceptional at conveying her thoughts. I have complimented her so many times in the past because she made tour collaborative projects so much easier and helped make my design so much better!

      • Camille Stauffer

        I’ve been lucky to work with some designers that make my visions far better than I could have ever imagined… I agree, though, being able to communicate the details to inspire their work is especially important!

  • Chris Agro – Agrotising, Inc.

    As a Graphic Designer for 3 decades in business for myself I agree with this article. The sad thing is, many people do not “see” the difference. I hope articles like this one will go far in educating others to the value in hiring a professional designer, whether they personally see the difference or not.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks Chris. I am sure there are so many out there that disagree with you and I, but I was hoping to change some minds with this post. Thank you so much for the support!

  • network9

    Love it! You said it perfectly, and your redesigns were just great. I hope those who think they can DIY their website and materials take note.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Many thanks!

  • Greg Strandberg

    Good ideas. I’ve spent about $2,000 this year going back and redoing sub-par and shoddy designs on my own work. I have no one to blame for that but myself as I cut corners and looked for shortcuts all during 2013 and into 2014.

    Trust me, do it right the first time.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thanks Greg. Kudos to you for trying the DIY route. Sometimes, as you noted, you may have to go back to the drawing board and maybe call in a pro, but as a benefit, you did take a crack at it yourself. You can come out of it with a knowledge of the DIY programs, but also taking a look at the redesigns/redos compared to your original work and perhaps glean some info from there to use in the future. Again, thanks for the support!

  • Sam Silberberg

    These design principals also stand true to product creation. You may have a brilliant idea and some amazing developers but if the interface doesn’t resonate with the consumer, will anyone use the product? Here are a few examples of what why designers are so important to product.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Very true Sam!

  • Donal McCarthy

    The hammer and nails, build a house and chainsaw analogies are not good. No-one ever died as a result of a badly-designed marcom graphic.
    In the same way that we don’t hire professional writers to write every blog post (ahem), DIY is a reality that is here to stay.
    In saying that, I really enjoyed this post and the little bit of advice I gleaned from it. There is definitely a content market for someone to provide graphic design DIY guidelines and advice and pick up the bigger jobs on the way.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Sorry you didn’t like my attempt at snark with my analogies Donal… I’ll leave that to the pros. : )

  • Dirk

    There are a lot DIY tutorials out there, why not learn from it instead of pouring those cash out, when in the end, you just aren’t satisfied with the results of hiring someone to do the job.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Good point Dirk, and as I pointed out in the post (as did you) there are a ton of of tutorials that can teach you a lot. Let me answer your question with a question, if I may: Are you hiring the right designer if you are not satisfied with their results? A good designer will work with you to grasp the concept, provided you initial layouts for approval and get you both on the path to creative a piece of visual content that you are happy with.

      • Dirk

        Pretty hard to find some who can get along with what we can think. It’s like finding the other half of our brains. I did hire some, some are good, some bad. But I’d rather learn my own ways.

  • Ashley Taylor Anderson

    This was such a great article! Design is an art form just like storytelling, one that takes passion, skill, and training. Working at Ceros, I see every day the difference between what skilled, inspired designers create with our platform and what people with no design skills or little inspiration create. Having a powerful tool doesn’t replace the need for “twue wuv.”

    P.S. The Princess Bride is one of my all-time favorite books and movies. “That word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  • Karen Spencer

    Hi there! You have described, very clearly, something that as a designer with more than 25 years experience I have been trying to explain for some time. Professional designers are trained AND talented. Advertising is very much the same now as it was 30 years ago—there are just different channels today. There is always a target audience. The brand image, creative concept, and a relevant message require serious consideration. Your analogies about the hammer and the chain saw are perfect. And you took the time to redesign (properly) the DYI attempts. Thank you for explaining this so clearly!

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      My pleasure Karen! Thank you for the kind words regarding the post and I am honored to represent the thoughts of a fellow designer. You know all too well the importance of consideration and time we (as designers) put into projects. Plus, you nailed it with the three topics that you mentioned: Image, Concept & Message… the “holy trinity” of design!

  • ClareMcD

    Wow. First … how can I adequately thank you for such a nice compliment? This made my day, Joe. Second, this article is getting bookmarked. You hit the nail on the head (pun intended) describing the value a great designer brings to a visual project. All the DIY tools are awesome, but they give content creators a false sense of security about design principles. Your before/after projects perfectly demonstrate why. Third, I love it when during brainstorming you say, “Wouldn’t it be cool if …” You have a way of riffing on cool/strange/oddball/creative ideas and getting us all to a better place. 🙂

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Many thanks Clare! Nothing better than all of those brainstorming conversations our team has. Collaboration is key… and I am so incredibly grateful that I have such a great staff that supports some of the “oddball” ideas, but also encourages them!

  • rogercparker

    Dear Joe:
    I had high expectations for this piece when I saw your name at the top…and you certainly delivered!

    There’s not that many fine designers who are equally fine “explainers.” Your before and after “Conflict Is Story” example is masterful. Not only for the horizontal division of space, but also the subtle “JK” touches like the way the “C” in Conflict” slightly overlaps the image.

    Day in and day out, your graphics add both interest consistency to the CMI blog, especially the way you build on a limited color palette.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Many thanks Roger, I’m glad I was able to deliver for you! The topic of this post has been the topic of many discussions amongst many of my design cohorts since DIYs started making a splash a while back. I also appreciate your keen eye when it comes to noticing the small “JK” touches (can you tell that I love what I do?)! I truly appreciate all of your support for my (and my team’s) work throughout the CMI brand.

  • Wolff

    What is your recommendation: Which is the best DIY-platform at the moment?

  • Jayne Bodell

    I have found this to be true. I love using Canva for my blog graphics but often flounder because I don’t have a graphic design background. I have read a few books, but have come to the conclusion that I really need to take a class. It’s much more difficult than it looks. Thanks for the great article.

    • Joseph Kalinowski

      Thank for taking a look Jayne. If you are looking for taking a course in design techniques or design skills, our friends at LinkedIn are now partnering with who offer some great basic to advanced level courses. Good luck and thanks again!

      • Jayne Bodell

        Thanks for the info. Sorry it took so long to check back.

  • Dirk

    Exactly, and if there is something to be agreed with the concepts on both sides – it has to be the patience at work there.

  • Bruce The Blog

    This is what we preach to clients about web development and allied areas like PPC. DIY now, pay later for your hidebound amateurism. BTW, it’s “hark back.” If using hearken (or harken), “back” is redundant.