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These design tools will help any journalist make better graphics

Practice doesn’t make perfect in design – but it certainly can improve your work over time. But where do you start if you don’t have funds for software or a background in design? 

Dozens of free tools offer both templates and tutorials to help journalists produce infographics, stock photos, social cards, fliers and brochures, even if they have no design training or visual storytelling experience. Journalism Institute Senior Director Beth Francesco shared the following tools, as well as design foundations and exercises, during a program this week titled “Design hacks: How to create visuals when it’s not usually your job.”

Before you use one of the free programs below to start designing, review these seven basic design principles so you can use them effectively. Here are a few other rules of thumb to keep in mind.

  • Think about where the graphic is going to live once it is finished. Is it going on social (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook)? Will it be packaged with a story on your organization’s CMS? Is it bound for print? Know the dimensions each format requires and take that into consideration.
  • Text should be readable for people scanning on phones, tablets or desktop. 
    • Stick to short words and phrases.
    • Use type that is no less than 9 pts.
    • Your readers are all ages and abilities – don’t make things difficult for them. 
    • Don’t use any more words than necessary. Try eliminating three words. Then another three. 
    • Avoid bad breaks (split verbs, hyphenated words, phrases).
  • Remember that for social and web, you can use share text or supplemental text to get across points not made in your visual. Don’t crowd your image.
  • Too many different fonts (bold, italics, underlined) or colors can be a distraction or cause confusion for the reader. 
  • Don’t put type on a news photo, it covers up vital visual information. 

With all of the following tools, review site licensing and credit requirements: Some don’t allow commercial or political use; others have more open policies. Explore several sites, then get familiar with the terms/use of the one or two that seem to best suit your needs.

Free design tools

Free tools for photos, vector images and illustrations

Free photo editors 

View the presentation and slides here. Have a design question? Contact Beth at [email protected] or @bethfrancesco.

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