20 Tools for Startups Who Can’t Afford Design Teams

In the beginning, there was you, and your laptop. As entrepreneurs, we’ve all been there: nurturing a larger-than-life vision of what our app/product should be and struggling to convey that to the masses. Because you don’t strike up on your own with a design team on hand, you do it in the risky, lonely waters of a rented desk in a shared office space.

Sure, you can get design on tap from the numerous freelance networks out there like Upwork, but if a shot in the dark or, really, a coin toss, is not something you’re willing to risk, that kind of glut available there is not an appealing option.

So, ditch your training wheels, say adieu to any learning curves, just dive into design with these 20 tools for marketers and entrepreneurs alike!

Freepik

This aggregator is a comprehensive choice for the average Joe moonlighting as a designer in training. Run and populated by a team of designers, developers and other digital professionals in Spain, the site is your go-to place for finding icons, vectors and even photos – everything you’d need to patch together into a site or/and app.

Freepik

Use it in conjunction with Pexels, Pixabay or whichever of the tens of more robust free stock photo providers out there and you’re in business.

Pricing: Though the site’s resource base is free (for up to 60 downloads a day, for personal and commercial use), you’ll be expected to correctly attribute the files you use to Freepik.

Pablo

Buffer’s little helper for socially-engaged startups (meaning yours, if you’re smart) is a free online tool that allows you to share visual quotes to all of your social networks in one fell swoop. Link it with the popular social sharing tool Buffer and you’re good to go.

Pablo

Pablo automates your design process by providing both quotes and pictures – all that’s left for you to do is mix and match to fit your purpose. If you want to wield even more power, and are willing to “sacrifice” a few seconds for it, Pablo lets you add your own background image for the quote you’re aiming to share with your followers and fans, then adjust its contrast and even add a blur effect for extra pizzazz.

Pricing: Pablo is free to use.

Pexels

Good design doesn’t only consist of graphics, it also includes high-quality images that can be a cachet of quality. But finding these eye-popping hi-res images for your blog/site can be hard in this copyright-saturated world of ours, so, unless you’re planning on winging it and risk smearing your image even before you’ve built it properly, Pexels is the way to go.

Pexels

It offers up a wealth of photos that are covered by the Creative Commons Zero (CC0) license, meaning you can use, modify and distribute them for personal as well as commercial purposes, without needing to link back or to attribute them in any way.

Pricing: Pexels is free to use, though it will prompt you to donate whatever spare change you can via PayPal on download. Considering the money will go to improving its hosting capacity, is the least you can do.

Instapage

A leader among landing page builders, with over 250,000 users worldwide, the Instapage platform is a complete easy-bake oven for pages you might want to add to your website.

Whether they be signup forms or contest info pages, Instapage has a large number of versions you can try out till you find the best fit. Once you’ve settled on one, all that’s left is customizing it with your brand logo and your message, as well as any images and/or fonts that will make your image pop.

Instapage

You can even A/B test and tweak your pages, with studies conducted by the Instapage team (and others) showing that staying on top of conversions for each variation will improve your numbers by a considerable margin.

Pricing: Instapage offers a free plan which won’t include a mobile-responsive version of your page (and, as we know, that’s frowned upon by Google Search), and a few other features that are available on the other, paid plans.

So you’re better off choosing between the Basic ($29 /month), Professional ($79 /month), and Unlimited ($179 /month) plans, which will offer a lot of bang for your buck. The paid route will also keep you from getting locked out of your dashboard (the home of your stats!) when the page reaches the 100-visitor limit on free.

WhatTheFont! and font repositories

If you’re a newbie without any design skills to your name, you can mimic a designer’s eye by snatching up the fonts used on pages you come by online – that’s where WhatTheFont comes in. It’s a free-to-use tool that lets you pop an image into the uploader and churns out the font used within.

Your image should consist of no more than 50 characters, as widely spaced out as possible, and there are a few other tips on choosing the best image to load into the program. Once you get the font name, search for it in FontSquirrel, Google Fonts or 1001 fonts.

Pricing: WhatTheFont and other font repositories online are free, but be sure to check that the font you download is also free for commercial use.

Redraw.io

If you’ve got some design chops, a desire to get on the groundfloor of mobile themes and 10 minutes on your hands, you should check out Redraw.io. This theming platform lets you build mobile themes for any Android phone and monetize like a whole pro team of mobile designers.

Redraw.io

Best of all, there’s no code required and even with minimal design skills, you can still make a windfall on the app stores. If you’re not into theming, you should nonetheless remember that most of your visitors will be steering clear of your website and looking instead for a mobile version or a mobile app, so get on that ASAP! .

If you’ve already got a website and want an app, you can use the “instant appification” tool DWNLD.

Pricing: You can use Redraw.io to make skins/themes free of charge while you can build an app with DWNLD for free – with mandatory ads of which you forfeit the revenue – or for $15 per month, where you have access to more metrics and you get to keep 90% of the ad revenue, should you choose to enable them. (Disclosure: I’m co-founder of T-Me Studios, which makes Redraw.io.)

Adobe Color CC

Formerly known as Kuler, this is the tool to have if you’re colorblind, color-challenged or just can’t be bothered to create a color scheme from scratch.

The idea behind it is to use the color wheel to pick the best four colors for your site, blog or a particular page, graphic image, infographic, you name it, that go together with your chosen one color to a tee, based on the rule you select in the upper left side of the screen.

Adobe Color CC

Or, if you’re hard-pressed for time, the tool also comes with an exhaustive “Explore” tab that lets you browse through, copy, edit and save to your library other users’ read-made schemes.

The other great thing about this handy tool by Adobe is it gives you the ability to import your new theme to Illustrator, Photoshop and/or InDesign. You’ll need an Adobe account to make the best use of your themes, so if you’ve already signed up for one, you’re good to go.

Pricing: Adobe Color CC is free to use (and ditto for the Adobe account).

Coolors.co

The finest color generator around with paint chips so wonderfully large a blind bat could see them, Coolors also boasts a browsing feature, much like Adobe Color CC above (though they do boast “the largest color schemes collection,” in their Instagram bio).

Complete with HEX codes (generated or that you can put in yourself), adjustable color components and toggles for brightness, temp, hue and saturation, it really is, like “a slot machine for harmony.

Coolors

If you’re going to do some reverse engineering – i.e., some color scheme online grabbed your eye and you’re trying to get the exact codes to punch into your own website with ease – pretty much all photo editors can fix you up and there are a bunch of sites online (plus an iOS app called Quolor) that could provide that color picker functionality.

Pricing: Coolors is free to use.

Design Seeds

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Design Seeds, whose owner is pretty adamant about how much she disapproves of color generators like Coolors. As she explains it, it takes talent and an artist’s eye to really get an expressive, emotion-inducing palette.

But if you’re not an artist with an eagle eye trained over decades, you can still use Design Seeds to get inspiration and attendant HEX codes for your brand image.

Design Seeds

Each of the swatches you see on the site are “individually mixed” by the artist in Illustrator, and posted side by side with the photo they inspired/were inspired by after last touches are added in Photoshop.

A lot of painstaking tinkering comes into this site, so make your choice of palette wisely, be mindful of the artist’s work!

Pricing: Design Seeds is free to browse through, and the owner does freelance on the side, so you can turn to her in a pinch (and at a cost).

Pixlr

In case you’re not about to shell out for Adobe’s monthly fee or put down a lump sum for a software you won’t be using that often past the point of building a logo and some other graphics for your startup image, Pixlr is a free online Photoshop alternative to consider.

With a clean UI and a user experience not that different from what we get from Photoshop, this editor stands out as it can be counted on to manipulate any photo or design into a work of art without headache or much in the way of skill.

Pixlr

You’re even able to save your creation as TIFF, among other popular formats, which will prove a valuable move in time, when you get a design team on board and they’ll need the high-quality file to tinker with your it further.

Pricing: Pixlr is free to use, as is the mobile version, though that’s nothing to write home about yet.

BeFunky

BeFunky is an online editor that takes tools even further than Pixlr, rolling the power of a collage maker, photo editor and designer into one site, a one-stop-shop for most of your startup needs.

Each branch of this mammoth web app has its own interface, with a real-time viewer front and center and tons of resources (icons, templates, fonts etc.) in the left-side panel.

BeFunky

Whether you’re trying to get your photo to pop or looking for an editable template for pretty much any purpose (event invites, menus, infographics, “Thank You” cards and more), you’ve hit the jackpot with BeFunky.

Pricing: While they come with plenty of freebies, that’s not to say BeFunky’s giving away all its goodies. While many of the tools are free to use, you’ll need a pro account ($4.95/mo or $24.95/yr) if you want access to all, ad-free and unlocked premium templates, stickers and frames.

Lucidpress

Lucidpress is suitable for print and digital outputs, but it shines when you’re fixing to create the latter: with static and interactive templates (allowing for slideshows, YouTube embeds and more), drag-and-drop functionality, and streamlined collaboration, it allows you to climb to designer status in the eyes of your customers. They’ll be none the wiser.

lucidpress

Pricing: Lucidpress is free to use with limited functionality (a cap on 60 objects per document, and 3-page documents max), or you can shell out $7.95, $15.95 or $40 for a basic, pro or team account, respectively. These paid plans come with the ability to save a ready-to-print file, view analytics, embed documents and more.

Freebbble

Dribbble is the largest showcase-site for professional graphic artists, so you’re bound to get time-sucked into it. Eventually you realize that most of the exhibitors are top-notch artists on four-figure payrolls and agencies.

If you’re looking to quench your thirst for great design made by Dribbble’s community of artists, head on over to Freebbble, where all the content given away for free on Dribbble is neatly ranged and classified by license type as well as resource type.

Freebbble

This offshoot isn’t affiliated with Dribbble, it only parses it for great free resources – which they all are – so you’ll need to check again with the original dribbbler that it’s OK to use their freebie and that his/her intended license is properly tagged.

Pricing: Freebbble is free to use.

Withoomph

Your logo should encompass or at the very least hint at your values, your product, your brand with as little text and graphics as possible. Enter Withoomph, an online logo generator that can deliver countless beautiful logos, from just your company name and a few descriptive keywords for what it does.

Withoomph

Also, it creates a nice display of logo-watermarked items prior to purchase, so you’ll know exactly the look you’re buying. As a first-iteration logo, for an MVP or the like, what this automated method spits out based on algorithms will suffice, until you can find the money/time for writing a brief and employing a designer to rework it.

Pricing: A digital-ready logo generated with Withoomph will cost you $30, the print-ready version is double, while both in one purchase will go for $75. That’s a bargain, considering the going rate for a designer-made logo runs in the hundreds of dollars.

The Best Designs

There’s a steep learning curve to getting the most out of Upwork or Freelancer, so if you’re trying to hack it on your first go, that’s finding a great designer, you’ll probably get to taste disappointment before you hit the jackpot.

But if you’re looking for designs that inspire, look no further than TBD, which showcases a great number of them, together with their work, and where you can find them.

The Best Designs

The curation and classification by budget you’re willing to spend, provider profile (freelancer vs. agency), and the wealth of filters that neatly organize the work itself – the sum of this “tag-cloud” is a tool that’s definitely helpful for someone just dipping their toe into the vast seas of designer work chaotically available online.

Pricing: TBD is free to browse, but contracting the designers showcased here won’t come cheap.

99Designs

As opposed to other sites that list designers, writers and candlestick makers (not really) lumped in together without providing a way, aside from reviews, to verify credentials, this one is your best bet to getting the work you need done at a professional level.

The brilliant idea of getting designers to battle it out has resulted in an all but foolproof experience for everyone involved: the bidding wars produce great results, even when the contest is “blind” (which it should be, so as to get fresh ideas and not to let the designers be influenced by your rating or each other).

99Designs

Since using this site does take some know-how, remember these key facts to get you started: make your contest blind and get a discussion going, offer feedback to your first ten designers who enter, in order to be given the option to guarantee the prize money – that’s what will make your contest attractive to the topmost designers of the 99Designs community.

Pricing: Running a contest on 99Designs will set you back a few hundred dollars (to be sure, less than an agency would charge), and can run up to over a thousand, depending on the design work you’re outsourcing (logos, web pages, book covers, anything really) and the prize money you’re offering (Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum).

Easel.ly

Everyone knows content marketing is (supposedly) replacing old-school ads (banners and the like) as the only way to get eyeballs on your product. But engaging users at this time of rampant ADD and short attention spans isn’t as easy as writing blog posts; the only type of content that’s actually got a shot at breaking through the noise is visual.

Easel.ly

Easel.ly is the DIY home of infographics that offers a ton of templates, objects and images to pick from, and Visual.ly sets you up with a designer that can make all kinds of visual materials for you: you’re free to chose between them based on your needs, possibilites and time.

For what it’s worth, Easel.ly’s platform is highly intuitive, letting you drag-and-drop just about any kind of content you want from their extensive library (from charts to images, icons and more) or even upload your own.

Pricing: Easel.ly’s free to use with a pretty restrictive cap on images and fonts you can add to any one infographic (60 and 10, respectively), but the Pro plan is a bargain at $3 a month.

Visual.ly, which is basically a meeting place between freelance designers and brands aimed at finding the best fit for the needs of the latter, will set you back more, while providing all kinds of visual content aside from infographics.

Creative Market

The popular market where designers can strut their stuff is a boon of inspiration to anyone starting out, with tons of graphic resources, even 3D, on hand: templates, icons, wallpapers, wordpress themes, brushes and other Photoshop add-ons, and more.

Creative Market

The “Simple License” that covers most of the items sold on here basically allows for both personal and creative use (within some common-sense limits) and, on top of that, every week six resources go free. Sign up for their newsletter to be alerted when the freebies get released.

Pricing: Creative Market is free to browse for inspiration and the items on sale are decently priced. Also, if you load your CM account with $100 or $200, you’ll be getting 10 or 22 free credits respectively, for use in the marketplace.

UXPin

Though this might be a little out of our league, it never hurts learning a new skill, particularly with so few (and so pricey) UX designers out there. So, if you’re thinking about prototyping your app/website and don’t know the first thing about it, UXPin is your next pitstop.

uxpin

Aside from letting you wireframe any interface, whether on desktop or mobile, this platform boasts a user-friendly dashboard interface itself, easy prototyping of the user’s experience on site/in app, nifty collaboration functionality to get a friend to test-drive it for you and more.

It’s also worth taking a look at its knowledge base, where there are tons of white papers to get you started.

Pricing: while the learning resources are free, to actually use the UXPin platform you’ll need to set aside $19, $29, or $49 every month, depending on which package you find more up your alley here.

Canva and Canva for Work

Here is a great online tool for the hard-up startup of one that can help you create anything from social media covers and posts, to event invites (like the launch event you’d want to get the press to with a cool image and a savable calendar link in tow) and more.

Canva

It makes it as easy as drag-and-drop to load their templates up with your own images, or you can buy most of their graphic resources for as little as 1$.

Canva for Work packs the power of the free Canva, but it’s better by orders of magnitude in that it allows you to create a brand kit with consistent colors and fonts, to customize templates, to share photo folders, and to resize designs.

Pricing: A subscription to Canva for Work will run you USD12.95 a month or, on an annual plan, USD9.95 a month. A paid image on both Canva products will set you back one US dollar or 10% less if you purchase credit for a bunch of them in advance.

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