10 tools for startups who can't yet afford to hire a designer

It’s a common issue for startups. You’ve all banded together, passionate about your business idea and determined to make it work. But there’s one problem: none of you is trained designers.

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Unfortunately for you, in 2017, good design is key to the success of any startup. However brilliant your idea or superlative your tech skills, you’re going to need some beautiful visuals to sell it to potential partners, clients and investors.

So what’s a cash-strapped startup to do? In this post, we’ll round up some of the tools that can help you ‘cheat’ a little.

There's no substitute for hiring a pro designer, of course. But hopefully, they’ll provide a temporary fix that helps get you to the stage where you're financially able to do so.

1. Free icons: Noun Project

Whether you’re designing a business card, stationery, a website homepage or an app mockup, good quality icons are key to giving your branding a professional look. And thankfully there’s a handy place to find a ton of great icons for free.

Dedicated to 'creating, sharing and celebrating the world’s visual language’, the Noun Project lets you search its database of hundreds of thousands of professionally designed icons. And they’re all free to download and use under Creative Commons Attribution (as long as you properly credit the creator).

2. Free stock photos: Pexel

Need stock photography? All photos on Pexels are licensed under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license. This means they’re entirely free to be used for any legal purpose, including commercial use.

You can modify, copy and distribute the photos without asking for permission, and even attribution isn’t required. The only restriction is that identifiable people may not appear in a bad light or in a way that they may find offensive unless they give their consent.

3. Free UI assets: PSDDD

Need to design a user interface? PSDDD is a great place to find free assets to help you, including web and mobile UI kits, wireframe templates, UX and style guide templates, icon sets, fonts, and mockup templates. It scours Dribbble, the online ‘show and tell’ community for designers, for reliable, high-quality resources and brings them together in one space.

4. Simple graphic design: Canva

If you’re not a trained designer, you might find software like Photoshop or Illustrator a little intimidating. After all, you don’t want to spend your days trying to follow YouTube tutorials on how to use their myriad features; you want to be working on your business plan.

Canva could be your salvation. Describing itself as “Amazingly Simple Graphic Design Software”, it lets you create both print and web designs easily, using a simple drag-and-drop interface. And the best news is, it’s free.

5. Simple image editing: Pixlr

If you want to make some simple edits to images, Photoshop can be overkill, both in terms of learning curve and cost. Thankfully, you can probably do everything you need in Pixlr, which is simpler to use, and free. While its interface is similar to Photoshop’s, the software is all based in the web browser, so you don’t have to download anything, and it includes some quite powerful features, including blending modes, masks, layer styles, curves and levels.

6. Simple typography: WhatTheFont

Lack of experience in choosing fonts? It’s sometimes possible to cheat a little, by taking inspiration from the fonts others have used in their designs. And if you find a font you like, it’s easy to find out what it is using the free web app WhatTheFont. If it can’t find the exact font you need, it will point you to the closest equivalent, which may work just as well.

7. Simple website building: Squarespace

If you don’t know about web design, building a website can seem like a daunting task. But Squarespace makes it easy. Explicitly aimed at creatives, Squarespace allows anyone to create a quality site fast; you don’t need any coding knowledge to use it. So it’s perfect for the startup sphere where “Launch fast and often” is commonly the key to success. While you do have to pay to use Squarespace, the figures involved are ludicrously small compared with the cost of hiring a web designer. There’s also a free trial option, so you can try before you buy.

8. Simple app prototyping: Invision

These days, if you’re trying to sell an app idea to investors, you don’t necessarily need the finished app, but you do need a prototype to show how it will work when fully developed. Thankfully, there are a ton of tools for this, and our favourite is Invision. Click and drag to transform your static designs into fully interactive prototypes with this free prototyping service, which is used by the likes of Disney, IBM, Apple and Verizon.

9. Help with UX workflows: UX Archive

Not sure how your app should work? Struggling with settling on the right user flows? The web is full of UX pattern libraries, which bring together the user flows of successful apps to inspire and inform your own. Our favourite is the UX Archive, which groups together user flows according to tasks such as ‘Getting directions’, ‘Booking’ and ‘Logging in’.

10. When all else fails: 99 Designs

Sometimes you need a designer to design something for you. But if you still don’t have the cash to bring in a full-time designer, then 99 Designs can provide a cheap way of getting a bespoke logo, T-shirt or website designed for you. It’s a design contest site, which means you submit a brief and choose the value of your prize. Then creatives around the world submit their entries to the contest. You then pick a winner who gets the prize.

For logo design, the cheapest price is £229, and 99 Designs says you can expect to have 30 designs to choose from. Of course, you get what you pay for, and the quality is unlikely to match what a pro designer would produce. But it is at least an option if you’re unable to either design something yourself or pay for a professional.


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