How to pretend to be a graphic designer: tools to make visual content creation easy

This is a summary of the Information Skills Programme session given on 22nd June 2017

This is aimed at anyone who has to (or wants to) create visual resources – be that posters, images or graphs for reports or web pages, presentations, social media content or infographics. No previous experience or training in design is expected or required. All the tools listed below are available in free web-based options.

There are a huge number of tools out there designed to help anyone create eye-catching visual content. But which one is best for you? Canva is the most widely used in the David Attenborough Building, so there is an active community here to support you. But, depending on your project, something else might be more suitable.


Canva is a popular tool, with a focus on enabling you to creating documents quickly and easily.

How to use it

The best place to get to grips with Canva is using their tutorials

You’ll find more tutorials at

If you’re interested in learning more about design, Canva’s Design School blog is well worth checking out.


  • If you’re using the free version you can’t change the size of your design after you’ve started.
  • If you want to search Canva’s templates use Once you open the template you’ll get the option to edit it. Although lots of the templates might be for a completely different purpose to yours, general layout works, you can always change the text and images.

Canva for Non-Profits

Canva has a special account type for non-profits. It’s available for a team of up to 10 people from an organisation and gives you some pro features you don’t have access to with a free account. You can apply at Proof of status is required. For UK organisations this is a Charity Registration Number from Charity Commision, CIC Registration Number from CIC Regulator or Articles and Memorandum of Association.

The benefits you receive are:

  • Unlimited folders for your designs
  • Unlimited storage for photos and assets
  • Magically resize your designs
  • Set color palettes for your brand
  • Save templates for you and your team
  • Organize your photos with folders
  • Easily find your designs with search
  • Priority support

Pros: Lots of high quality, free photos, illustrations and templates to choose from. It really is easy to create something that looks good in a very short time.

Cons: There’s no way to filter out paid for elements, so you’ll do a lot of scrolling if you don’t want to pay.

Output formats: PDF, JPEG & PNG

Best for: Posters


The next tool I want to share with you is Piktochart.

In many ways it is similar to Canva, but with a greater focus on infographics, which is where Piktochart started out. It now caters for “printables” (posters, reports etc.) and presentations, so it’s very similar to Canva. They’re also similar in the layout of the design interface so you shouldn’t have trouble switching between the two for different projects.

How to use it

Map showing number of threatened species by country in Africa – demonstrating Piktochart’s map data visualisation tool.

Pros: You can choose to just look at the free options so if you know you won’t use a paid for option, it can save you time. There are more options for using charts and you can import your own data (xlsx or csv formats). The easy display of simple geographic (map) data is also a selling point.

Cons: There are far fewer layouts available than in Canva and I prefer the photos and illustrations in Canva. You can only download a finished document as a PNG or a JPG, not as a PDF.

Output formats: JPEG & PNG (PDF only with Pro account)

Best for: Data heavy posters and presentations


This is a completely different sort of tool to Canva and Piktochart. Vectr is graphics software for creating and manipulating vector graphics – .svg files. It comes as a desktop program as well as a web-based tool. Although it doesn’t come with built-in templates, you can use it to edit vector templates from sites such as Freepik and Vector4Free.

How to use it

When you sign up, follow through the built-in tutorials. It only takes a few minutes and will give you enough know-how to get started on a project. There are many more tutorials for specific tasks available at It might take a little longer than the other tools listed here to get to grips with, but Vectr has a much shallower learning curve than most vector graphics software.

Pros: Shallower learning curve than alternative vector graphics software and available as a web-based tool.

Cons: You either need to create your design from scratch or use this with other tools as part of a workflow.

Output formats: PNG, JPG & SVG

Best for: Manipulating vector graphics (e.g. from Freepik) or creating images with a transparent background.


Plotly is what you want to use if you’ve got a lot of data (or complicated data) to visualise. As well as a huge range of charts and graphs, you can create presentations and “dashboards” – interactive collections of visualisations for use online.


How to use it

Plotly Tutorials

Pros: Very powerful data visualisation tool that will connect to your data from multiple sources and in multiple formats.

Cons: This generally isn’t a tool for creating a whole document. You’ll more likely use it for just the figures, so you’ll need something else for the rest of your document (could be a standard program you already use). Also, in the free version you can only export your design as a PNG or a JPG.

Output formats: PNG & JPG in free version (more in paid versions).

Best for: Creating impressive charts and graphs for publications.


Easelly feels like Canva and Piktochart, but it really focuses on infographics. So you won’t find the templates for things like social media posts, posters or reports. What you do get are similar element options – photos, shapes, icons, charts – with lots of options that work well for infographics.

How to use it

I’d recommend Easelly’s video tutorials.

If you prefer not to use videos, use the articles in Easelly’s Knowledge Base.

Pros: Good variety of infographic templates and it’s easy to resize your design.

Cons: I didn’t find the design interface isn’t as intuitive as with other tools (but it’s not difficult once you get used to it). Also the help / tutorials were harder to find and navigate than in other tools.

Output formats: JPEG & PDF

Best for: Infographics, particularly more in depth ones


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