As a small business owner, you probably already do some of your own writing – blog posts, your website copy and marketing copy. You may not be a ‘professional’ writer, but the point is that you do write, and you also think like a writer.
Here’s a little secret. You can take all those tricks you already know about writing and use them to create your own visual content.
“But I’m terrible at visual stuff” I hear you cry.
You know what, you absolutely are not. You can create branded, visually literate imagery to spice up your content. You just need a bit of practice, some faith in yourself, and some commitment to your cause.
Don’t believe me? Let’s get started.
1. Train your brain
One piece of (really good) advice handed out to writers is that they need to read. Not just within their own genre, but across lots of different genres. Exposure to different types of writing gives the little writer homunculus in your brain plenty of fodder to work with when it comes time for him to get to work.
It’s no different with your visuals. Spend time really looking at design and images, and you’ll start developing a keen eye. The good news is that you’re doing this already – just think about the bombardment of imagery you’re subjected to every single day.
The only real change you need to make is to be more present and pay attention.
2. Start collecting
Build on your attention practice with collecting.
Online, there are endless examples of design that will grab your attention. If you love working socially, you’ve got Pinterest, and Instagram. Use folders and bookmarks on your devices if you’re more of a private collector type.
Don’t limit yourself to the virtual though. You know how everyone loves a vintage, textured background? That’s because they look and feel so nice in real life. Now, don’t you wish you had a nice collection of vintage stock postcards to flick through right now?
Start thinking of business cards as more than just a way of emailing someone you met at a networking event. Start collecting them with visual intent. Keep them handy as a reference tool, because chances are at some point you’ll want to look at one of them again to see what it is that made you remember it.
Take the same approach with postcards, magazines, posters, photographs. Start looking at this imagery with a critical visual eye. Think about how they work as marketing tools, and how they go about selling their product.
There you go! Now you’re starting to think like a designer.
3. Create an outline
OK, so you’ve been paying attention to the visual world around you, you’ve got your collections of fun stuff you like, and you’re ready to start getting all visual with your content marketing.
Where to start?
As with a piece of writing, think about it in terms of drafts and revisions.
How do you go about crafting a written piece? Personally, my approach is piecemeal. I tend to write over a few days, in different stages. Initially, I write down some headlines, subheadings, and jot down sentences that may or may not make complete sense. It’s just getting down the framework of what I’m going to come back and massage into shape.
Same deal with your visuals. Start putting colours together using online tools such as Adobe Kuler or Color Blender. Select some fonts that you might want to work with – Google Fonts are pretty extensive and free to use.
Hopefully you’ve already got the words that are going into your design. Professional designers often work to a brief without all the content, and then need to revise the design to fit it all in. It’s inefficient at best, and a total design wreck at worst.
Get all your content in first, and then you can see what you’ve got to work with.
4. Create your headline and subheadings
As with your written pieces, your design needs to have a logical progression that your reader will look at. Use ‘headings’ to draw your reader through the message of your design.
Graphic design is marketing, not art. You are asking your audience to ‘read’ your message, you guide them through the process. As with your written marketing, you need to include a Call to Action.
Colour, boxes, different font sizes, photographs and illustrations are all tools to draw your reader through your message.
Visuals can be more efficient than words though, and that’s why the right photograph, illustration, series of shapes, or even font, can really nail your message.
5. Create your first draft
As with writing projects, you are going to have to go through a few rounds of drafts before you get your final result.
Personally, I’ve always found the editing part of writing easier than the initial stage. No matter how horrible a first draft is, having something to work on is more motivating that staring at the dreaded blank page. Filling in the guts through the editing process is hard work, but somehow is an easier process.
Same with design. Get your first draft done, and then step away and leave it for a while. Next time you come back to it, you want to look at it with fresh eyes.
Don’t get too bogged down in the details at this stage. Look at the overall layout, place the call-to-action of your piece where you think it should go and add your initial colour and font choices.
All or some of this will probably change through your revisions, but it’s important to just get started.
6. Edit, edit and edit
As with writing, your final piece may bear no resemblance to your initial piece. If the colours you have chosen aren’t working, try some new ones, or just different shades. Keep moving the pieces of your design around, and trying different things. I can’t count the number of times the ‘a-ha’ moment of my design has come while trying something else.
It’s good to pre-visualise, but be open to happy accidents.
7. Don’t forget to proofread
This is the stage to just go over the whole piece, and check all the little details – the design equivalent of spelling and grammar (don’t forget to check your actual text for these errors too!)
Follow a simple checklist to make sure everything is neat and consistent.
- Are all your elements are aligned correctly?
- Do all the boxes and tables have consistent margins?
- Is your heading text is a consistent size?
- Body text and subheadings – are they consistent too?
- Do all the colours match?
Really go over it with a fine-tooth comb to check the itty-bitty details.
8. Tools to use
Finding free and cheap tools to do your own designing has never been easier.
Photoshop Elements is watered down version of that design workhorse Photoshop. Elements is much cheaper (buy it outright for around $150), easier to use, and will do all the light design tasks you ask of it.
GIMP goes one step better, and is absolutely free. You can use it to work with your photos, add some text and shapes over the top. The interface is a little clunky, so you might not enjoy the learning curve that goes with using it. Picmonkey is generally pretty popular, and you can use some of the basic tools for free.
If you like mucking around with illustrations and drawing, Inkscape is a free vector program. You can draw and create to your heart’s content.
The new kid on the block – Canva – is on a mission to make graphic design simple and accessible. They’re still working out some bugs on their beta launch, but if you’re patient, you can create great things using their software.
And finally, you can create your own infographics using Visual.ly
9. Commitment and practice
I do truly believe that any business owner can take charge of their own visual marketing and output. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, though! It takes time, committment and practice to develop your eye and your skills.
As with most of your business decisions, whether you want to take on the challenge comes down to whether you want to spend time doing it yourself, or spend money to have it done by someone else.
I’ve created a quick PDF cheat sheet with the above points for you to download and keep as a handy reference.