Great design is all around us, silently running the companies and experiences we touch every day.
Love your iPhone? Design.
Feeling like a boss in your Escalade? Design.
Blown away by Amazon Prime’s delivery speed? Design.
Good design can help you save time and money, and allow you to grow past your competition.
Any small business can benefit from good design, but if several areas of your operation need attention, it can be hard to know where to start. Thankfully, you don’t need a mountain of cash, a CMO, or an advanced degree to move the needle in the right direction.
Design is accessible to everyone, so I wanted to share some cost-effective design tools and techniques that you can use to make design improvements across all aspects of your business.
Create a Style Guide
If your business’s visual aesthetic is all over the place, make a style guide before you get started on any design changes.
Style guides (sometimes known as brand standards) are the rules of the road for your company’s brand. Having them established allows anyone—you, a vendor, your employees—to understand how to create new assets for your company.
Did you ever get a design back that seemed inspired by an psychedelic experience? Brand standards prevent such folly and save you precious time.
Style guides needn’t be complicated. A clear, concise, and easily accessible set of design guidelines is what you should aim for. If you’re getting started on a style guide for your business, you can use this collection of popular style and brand guides to inspire and guide the process.
Frontify’s Style Guide is an online app that walks you through the process of creating and maintaining a style guide for your business. Best of all, the service is free.
Hire Pros on a Project Basis
Have you ever tried installing a ceiling fan? At the surface, the task seems extremely straightforward. You can even find some “great” YouTube video tutorials to help with the project. Turns out, it’s not so easy!
Design is no different. We appreciate good design, because it’s all around us. But this appreciation doesn’t always translate to proficiency in the task of design. When a project is complex, or you simply lack design experience, it’s time to bring in a professional. Aside from their raw talent, a professional designer can see the unforeseen and know how to get the project done quickly, without wasting time or money.
“But Russ! Aren’t professionals expensive and hard to find? I am just a small business with an intern budget…”
Not so fast. Technology has played a huge part in making good design accessible to all. It’s never been easier (or more affordable) to find and hire a professional designer for a single project, for a price that fits your budget.
My favorite site to find top-notch talent is Crew.co. Acting like a designer-client match making service, Crew helps you find you the perfect designer for your project. Their service is especially helpful if you’ve never hired a professional designer before; Crew makes the process foolproof, managing each step of the project with their escrow based project management system.
Be aware that you don’t always need to limit your professional help to graphic designers. I once hired an amazing industrial designer on Upwork to help me create a kid’s product. Similarly, Dribbble is an excellent source for connecting with illustrators, typographers, animators, art directors, and a range of other design specialists.
Use Online Apps for Small Design Tweaks
A wave of online services and DIY tools has emerged to serve the nuanced needs of any small business. These tools are handy for tackling smaller design projects that don’t call for the expertise of a pro.
The online tools you'll need will vary depending on the design needs of your business, but here are two user-friendly design tools I recommend every entrepreneur keep on hand:
Pablo: Created by the Buffer team, this free tool helps you create and re-size images for all social media platforms.
Canva: This drag-and-drop app lives up to its tagline “Amazingly simple graphic design.” Use it to make simple design tweaks, or create original print and online design assets for your business. From menus to postcards, business cards, and social images—Canva can handle it.
Up Your Logo Game
Your logo is often one of the first touch points a client will have with your brand. First impressions count, and if that first impression makes people cringe, it’s time to do something about it.
Good logo design doesn’t need to involve expensive designers or a long, complicated branding project. Start with an online logo maker. They are fast, simple, and affordable.
Remember, your brand will evolve and undergo several upgrades during its life cycle. When you’re re-designing your logo or another aspect of your business’s design, the main thing is to ensure that every change you make to your business’s brand is relevant to your target audience and contributes to your business goals. One day you may need to take on a large-scale branding overhaul. But for now, even a thoughtful DIY design improvement will be better than that sweet 2004 logo you’re currently rocking.
Start Projects with Stock Content
I’m going to irk the Design Establishment with this recommendation, but there are many reasons to start your next design project with stock design content. Whether you’re in a rush, or perhaps you’re not sure where to start, using good quality stock content is an efficient, affordable way to get your project up and running.
For graphic design and digital content, I love Envato Market. They have everything from $49 Wordpress themes to $5 vector illustrations.
Say No to Bad Photography
The world of beautiful, free photography has come a long way; gone are the days of cheesy stock photos and kitsch clip art.
While there’s no shortage of great stock photography sites, my current favorite is the 100% free Unsplash (also made by Crew). The photos are cool, hip, and really well done. Make sure you download Bench’s photo pack from Unsplash, and check out Made With Unsplash, an ongoing collection of different marketing and design work using Unsplash’s free stock photos. It makes for great inspiration.
Other free stock image resources you’ll want to bookmark include:
- Death to the Stock Photo
- Designers Pics
- New Old Stock
- Paul Jarvis - Free Photo Pack
- Negative Space
- Startup Stock Photos
- Kaboom Pics
- Fancy Crave
Take the First Step
The most expensive design decision you can make is to never get started on your next design project. Whether it’s updating your social media graphics or embarking on a redesign of your homepage, use the tools above and invest some time in elevating your small business design.