I’ve talked before about why you might want to DIY your brand, especially for a first iteration as you get off the ground.
But doing it yourself requires resources. So to save a little time, here’s my roundup of great (mostly) free sources to get started. These cover the top 4 graphic elements of your brand, plus tools to actually create and publish your branded materials.
Jump ahead: Moodboards | Colors | Typography | Imagery | Design & Publishing Tools
To create a consistent brand that resonates with your audience, it’s helpful to create a moodboard. Here you’ll collect a range of images that represent your color scheme, style, and overall aesthetic. It’s a touchstone when adding new elements to your online presence or marketing materials.
Any time you ask “does this fit my brand..?” just refer back to your moodboard. It’s kind of like a swatch book when designing a room or coordinating a wardrobe.
My favorite tool to create moodboards is Pinterest. Not only does it have a massive network of images available directly within their platform (it’s searchability rivals the image search on Google), but you can easily add or upload images found elsewhere.
Whether you purchase from the site or not, you can create a free account on sites like Bigstock, Shutterstock, Twenty20, Unsplash, then use collections like moodboards. Gather and save as many images as you want, then look for and filter trends based on color, mood, and aesthetic.
Any File Aggregator
If you’re already using an online file aggregator to clip notes and keep them accessible, this may be a great option for you.
Note-writing programs like Evernote let you clip images to save in a single note. File collectors with a kanban format (think sticky notes on a board), like Airtable or Trello, can also create great moodboards.
Old School Cut and Paste
If you still like flipping through magazines, feel free to throw it back grade-school style and pull out the scissors and glue!
The important part is to have one place where you can collect a wide variety of images, then distill them into a small collection for a quick, at-a-glance impression.
A consistent color palette is also important for a cohesive brand. You can be super minimal with one accent color and a shade of gray, or more diverse with a palette of 3-5 primary colors and variations that compliment them.
My favorite resource for setting a color palette is color.adobe.com — and it’s 100% free!
You can start with a cornerstone color and develop a palette based on 9 color harmony rules, then tweak from there.
Or you can extract a palette from an image that represents the right tone. Just upload that photo and Adobe will automatically pull colors based on 6 color harmony options. You can also tweak the palette with an easy, draggable color selector.
There are a lot of considerations to choosing fonts, but here are some of my favorite resources once you know the direction you’re going.
A warning, though: be careful where you download fonts from — this can be one of the easiest ways to hide and install malware on your computer. There are a ton of sketchy resources if you google “free fonts,” so be sure to get them from a reputable source.
Also bear in mind that some fonts are free to use both online and in print, while others are restricted to one use or the other. Try to find fonts you can use in both print and digital materials.
Font Squirrel & MyFonts
Both FontSquirrel and MyFonts are great resources to download free fonts. They can also recommend affordable font families — sometimes certain weight variations are free while others are paid. For example, a regular weight may be available, but to get a bold or extra thin variation may cost a little extra.
Google Fonts makes it easier than ever to both download fonts for your computer (or to give your designer) AND embed the fonts in your website.
What the Font
This is a great tool if there’s a font you love but don’t know the name. Or maybe you love it but the license costs more than you can invest right now.
What the Font (a tool developed by MyFonts) lets you upload a photo with text and run a search. The tool then provides a list of fonts that either match or are similar to what’s in the photo.
The images you use connect with viewers on a subconscious level and convey mood more effectively than anything else. So it’s important to have a consistent image library. Whether used on your website, print materials, or social media, make sure your images are on-brand.
And remember, imagery includes more than just photos! Think about textures, backgrounds, and even icons that create a tone — from serious to playful, structured to hand-made.
Free Stock Photos
Unsplash is a very popular site for fresh and free stock images. All their photos (you won’t find icons or other graphics) are free, but they do ask to credit the photographers when you can. This is great when sharing on social media, but isn’t required if the images are used in web or print.
Bear in mind, though, that you’ll likely see other businesses using the same images because they’re so readily accessible.
Death to Stock is a much lesser-known resource, but is also harder to search. This one takes a little patience to build a library for yourself — they email photo packs on a monthly basis to free users. Packs vary in theme and aesthetic, and are donated by community photographers.
Alternatively, you can pay a small fee and have access to their entire library at any given time. Images are still grouped in packs by theme, but you no longer need to store all the files yourself.
Paid Stock Imagery
BigStock and Shutterstock are two of the best-known sources for stock graphics. They offer a variety of options for purchasing images, from monthly subscriptions to individual licenses. The main criticism for these sites is that imagery can be over-used or less-than-creative — they can feel a bit stale or trite.
Ghetty Images provides higher-quality images, but prices can be prohibitive for early-stage companies. Consider taking a look anyway, especially for a cornerstone image you’ll use in a lot of materials.
Twenty20 is a relative newcomer to the game in response to the stale feeling of sites like BigStock and Shutterstock. You’ll often find more approachable and often more diverse images here, and they have purchasing plans similar to other paid sites.
The absolute best option for quality, on-brand photos is a custom photo shoot. These can be more affordable than you’d think, often starting around $1k.
A custom shoot guarantees all images are authentic to YOUR brand — nobody else will be using the same ones. A shoot usually includes staff headshots, product photos, and/or day-in-the-life images such as workspaces and candid work-day photos.
Design & Publishing Tools
Once you have a foundation for your design elements, it’s time to bring them together in publishable content. If hiring a designer isn’t in the budget, there are plenty of free tools to get started.
This section includes resources for: design and image manipulation, print production, code-free web development, and social media scheduling.
Design & Image Manipulation
Canva is one of the most celebrated easy-to-use design tools available. Many business owners create all of their branded materials using this software, from print brochures and business cards to complete presentation decks and social media posts.
Canva has preset templates to help get dimensions right for various platforms, as well as having a leg-up to start your designs. They also have a feature to automatically reformat content from one template to another, making repurposing designs across social channels a total snap.
Gimp is a distilled, open-source (free) competitor to Photoshop. It has an array of options for photo editing that will help any beginner get started.
Moo is my absolute favorite for business cards and small print collateral. They have fewer options than some competitors — committing to keeping things super simple — but the quality is truly top-notch. They also have some finishing options I haven’t seen elsewhere, like colored edges or recycled cotton paper.
Moo can be a little pricier for business cards, but they do smaller minimum orders. This gives you more flexibility to try new designs without feeling over-committed or locked in.
I also LOVE that you can mix up the backs of your cards for no extra charge! I have 5 variations for mine. It’s a fun talking point, especially when folks can choose the design they want to take home.
Vista Print is one of the most established online print production shops. They have a wide variety of collateral options (business cards, postcards, fliers, etc) at affordable bulk rates. They also have a wide variety of finishes and materials, including plastic or linen.
A wide range of signage and promotional items are available, too, along with more personal items like photo gifts and wall art.
Smart Press also has a wide variety of unique printing options, including holographic foil and custom business card shapes with digital laser cutting. They also offer smaller minimum orders (like Moo does) and their product range is extensive (similar to Vista Print). More unique offerings also include a broad variety of booklet finishes.
UPrinting has all your business basics like cards, flyers, and signage. But they really stand out with their packaging options — from mailer and product boxes to pouches, packaging sleeves, and even wrapping and tissue papers.
Code-Free Web Development
WordPress.org provides a downloadable framework with a “famous 5-minute install.” It is the most flexible and scalable option, but also the most complex of those in this roundup. It is generally considered the best option for SEO because of its foundation in blog formats (aka content marketing).
You must purchase separate hosting space from a provider like Blue Host, Host Gator, or Go Daddy (I also provide hosting for my retainer clients) and then install WordPress. Because WordPress is open-source, there are a wide variety of themes and plug-ins that make it possible to build with no coding knowledge.
Side note: WordPress.org is different than WordPress.com. The biggest difference is who hosts your site and domain — the .com option is easier to start with, but far less flexible in the long run.
Squarespace is a hosted web builder like WordPress.com. It’s super easy to start and build your first site with no coding knowledge, but is harder to scale in the long run. Squarespace is known as a great option for both blogging and ecommerce.
Wix, like Squarespace, is a hosted option that’s easy to start but harder to scale. It has a reputation for being the most approachable option for beginners, but is probably the least flexible. Sites are not responsive (don’t adapt for mobile devices), and changing themes requires starting over from scratch.
Eventbrite and Etsy are good options if you’re not quite ready to build your own website. These platforms allow you to showcase and sell events or products, respectively.
Bear in mind:
Any site you don’t host yourself (including Squarespace, Wix, Eventbrite, Etsy, etc) is subject to any changes on the platform itself. If they goes out of business, your site goes away.
Because WordPress is a CMS (content management system) on your own hosting space, you truly own this site. This is similar to prioritizing marketing channels — you don’t own social media channels, but you do own your newsletter list.
Social Media Scheduling
Before we dive in, it’s important to note that some social platforms (notably LinkedIn and Instagram) may suppress posts that aren’t manually posted. Keep this in mind when balancing the benefits of reach and engagement vs saving time.
UNUM is super simple, which makes it very approachable but less flexible. It is an Instagram-only app and focuses primarily on planning a beautiful grid. Upload your photos or use their Unsplash integration, apply simple editing tools, rearrange as you like, and add captions.
Saved hashtag groups also make it super easy to save and quickly access your go-tos — these can include any text (and emojis), not just hashtags.
UNUM includes scheduling reminders, but does not post directly to Instagram (see note above about platforms suppressing auto-scheduled posts).
Instead, UNUM will send you a reminder when a post is scheduled. Then just open the app and export the post — it will save the image on your camera roll, copy the caption to your clipboard, and launch the Instagram app, making for a pretty seamless manual process.
Hootsuite is the most comprehensive option, covering Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Pinterest. This makes it super easy to coordinate your entire social calendar. Plan, publish, monitor, and even interact on all these channels in one spot.
Meet Edgar‘s claim to fame is the ability to automatically recycle content, as well as pulling from other sources beyond your own creations. Build a library, add variations for each entry to help recycle the content, establish a schedule, and let Edgar to his thing.
If you don’t have new content, posts will cycle through the library, giving new life to prior blogs and articles. Edgar covers Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest.
Planoly specializes in Instagram and Pinterest, including stories. Paid plans include cross-platform scheduling to Twitter and Facebook, post analytics, comment management, and a “link in bio” style lander to create direct links for specific IG posts.
Planoly even has the ability to sell products (physical or digital) directly through their platform.
Later features “social sets” in order to manage multiple brands from one account, with plan tiers based on number of posts per month. Some premium features include hashtag suggestions, text on images, calendar notes, and managing comments directly through their dashboard.
Like Planoly, Later also incorporates a “link in bio” feature to create a targeted, clickable landing page that coordinates with your social posts.
Tailwind is another scheduler that focuses on Instagram and Pinterest, with particular specialization in Pinterest.
Pinterest tools help create pins using on-brand templates, schedule posts a week at a time, and leverage analytics to plan across relevant boards and post at the best times. Instagram analytics help suggest hashtags and best times to post.
Need a little help?
If you’re DIYing your first brand, a little extra support and guidance can be a huge help (while still staying in budget). Schedule a FREE consultation to see if tailored brand coaching is right for you.