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The Complete Guide to Small Business Design Tools and Applications

Entrepreneurs want to keep costs low, but that doesn’t mean they should sacrifice the quality of their design. Small businesses can now take advantage of affordable design tools and applications that allow them to produce high-quality, professional designs without the cost of a full-time designer. Here is a rundown of your best options.

Adobe Creative Suite

While there are many design applications out there, the collection of tools provided by Adobe Creative Suite are second to none. It’s a suite every designer, small business owner or professional who plans to create or manipulate visuals should have in his or her arsenal. Here are the most popular design-related tools in the Creative Suite that are used for visual creation and manipulation.

Photoshop

Price: Ranges from $9.99 to $49.99 per month for a single user. Additional pricing options available.

Best for: Editing and manipulation of raster images.

Pros: If you’re in web design or looking for a user-friendly tool to edit and enhance photos, then Photoshop is the application to use. Considered one of the top software programs for photo editing, Photoshop provides the building blocks for creating everything from basic greeting cards to large posters. It also gives you the ability to restore vintage photos, artfully combine digital imagery with text and apply different filters to photos using various effects and gradient tools. Photoshop’s extensive Tools panel also gives graphic designers the ability to correct photo mistakes or airbrush imperfections such as red eyes and poor lighting.

Cons: Depending on the user’s level of program knowledge, editing can be time-consuming and tedious. The very tools that make Photoshop one of the best programs in the market for photo editing also make it somewhat intimidating to learn for beginners. Also, Photoshop images are raster-based (made up of pixels), which means graphics are not scalable for print. While Photoshop can be great for design and manipulation, it’s not an advisable format for creating something like a logo, which needs to be able to scale.

Illustrator

Price: Ranges from $19.99 to $49.99 per month for a single user. Additional pricing options available.

Best for: Vector drawings, such as cartoons, illustrations, charts and logos.

Pros: Adobe Illustrator is the leading program for making vector images that are scalable (large or small) without the loss of image quality. Because vector files are saved in EPS format, the file sizes are typically small and easily shareable over the web. One of Illustrator’s greatest strengths is its vector format, which allows you to create images through a combination of lines and points; any graphic created in Illustrator is scalable to any size and printable in any resolution (or it can be exported and further tweaked in Photoshop).

Cons: It can be challenging to create graphics that appear realistic in Illustrator, rather than flat and cartoonish. Similarly to Photoshop, Illustrator can also be challenging to learn if you’re not experienced with the software due to the sheer number of tools available in the program.

InDesign

Price: Ranges from $19.99 to $49.99 per month for a single user. Additional pricing options available.

Best for: Manipulating typography and laying out text pages such as newsletters or magazines.

Pros: For graphic designers who are users of Illustrator and Photoshop, InDesign helps bring all of these graphical elements together in its desktop-layout program. Whereas Illustrator is for creating vector files and Photoshop for editing raster images, InDesign deals best with manipulating the look and placement of text in multipage layouts. Thus, graphic designers typically use InDesign to create brochures, posters, newsletters, magazine pages and other visual publications. Another pro of InDesign is the ability to compress normally large file sizes (due to weighty images and graphics from Photoshop) into manageable PDFs that can be easily sent via email or uploaded to the web.

Cons: Compared to Illustrator or Photoshop, InDesign is ill-equipped to modify individual graphics or images.

Cloud-Based Design

Adobe Creative Cloud

Price: $49.99 per month for a single user. Additional pricing options available.

Best for: Page layout, frontend design, image creation and editing.

Pros: The Creative Cloud provides many of the same graphic design applications Adobe Creative Suite customers are familiar with—Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere Pro, etc.—with the added flexibility of cloud storage and file-syncing capabilities across desktop and mobile platforms. With a Creative Cloud membership, users can create and edit images, design webpages, layout and publish brochures for print and web, as well as access tools for website and app design. The platform’s cloud-computing services allow individuals to store files as big as 20GB and teams up to 100GB, making files accessible from anywhere and easily sharable with clients and co-workers.

Cons: While widely used, the variety of Creative Suite programs aren’t intuitive and require a significant time investment to learn the interface and make the most of the programs’ functionality. Luckily, Adobe offers a robust tutorial library. Additionally, sites such as Lynda.com and Photoshop Essentials offer free or low-cost courses for specific programs. Because Creative Cloud comes in a bundle, an individual professional might not have a need or budget for the entire suite of applications, in which case the Creative Cloud might not be the best option.

Presentations

PowerPoint

Price: 30-day free trial; $99/year or $9.99/month.

Best for: Great-looking presentations and polished PDFs.

Pros: Use existing themes to create a professional look, or adapt themes to customize your design. PowerPoint helps you align images and text, group and customize shapes, and generate icons. You can also work on a presentation with other members of your team using the web app; there you can make and reply to comments. The program is intuitive, and documents created using it are easy to convert to movies and PDFs.

Cons: If you do not create your own images or buy them online, you may find the image library lacking in options. Also, the limitations on the page size and shape make designing for print publications (i.e. newspapers or magazines) difficult.

Keynote

Price: $19.99 per seat (for minimum of 20 seats or more).

Best for: Sleek presentations that rely heavily on graphics and special effects.

Pros: Apple’s answer to Microsoft’s PowerPoint, Keynote is a presentation software program available to Mac OS and iOS users. Unlike PowerPoint, which works best with text, Keynote is more media-based. Keynote users can easily integrate images, sound and videos without the need of an external plug-in like Flash. Similar to PowerPoint, Keynote also has slide designs and transitions to choose from, but the options are more varied and arguably more visually appealing from a graphical and functional standpoint. Moreover, users can convert Keynote presentations into a PowerPoint or QuickTime show, or they can update changes to the iCloud across all Mac devices.

Cons: Although PowerPoint is available through Microsoft Office for Mac users, PC users cannot run Keynote on the Windows operating system.

Image Editors

Pixlr

Price: Free.

Best for: Graphic creation and image editing, online and on mobile.

Pros: Pixlr allows users to easily open an image from a URL or import them from Facebook, Picasa and Flickr. It offers the core functionality of Photoshop (filters, layers, retouching, resizing, etc.) but is easier to use. It’s available as an app, as well, for iOS and Android.

Cons: You must be connected to the web to use the Pixlr editor.

GIMP

Price: Free.

Best for: Graphic creation and image editing.

Pros: It allows image creation and editing with features that correspond to those of Photoshop. It includes all of the common tools and functionality: brush, pencil, airbrush, clone, transform, quick mask, etc. It also provides easy-to-follow tutorials, GIMP Magazine and a very active support forum. GIMP was “designed to be augmented with plug-ins and extensions to do just about anything. The advanced scripting interface allows everything from the simplest task to the most complex image-manipulation procedures to be easily scripted.”

Cons: It’s far from a slick site, and installation can feel intimidating for those not accustomed to developer documentation. Once it’s installed, the program is pretty straightforward.

Sumopaint

Price: Free with paid Pro ($9 for lifetime license) and Pro Plus ($19 for lifetime license) options.

Best for: Graphic creation and image editing.

Pros: Sumopaint is an online and offline image web editor and graphics application equipped with many of the standard features usually found in image-editing applications. Its tools palette includes brush, symmetry, gradient and shape tools, as well as tools for creating 3D effects. For a quick and easy program that doesn’t require the high learning curve of Photoshop, Sumopaint is ideal for quick and simple image manipulation. The program is also available in 22 languages.

Cons: Though it mimics some of Photoshop’s features, Sumopaint’s capabilities dim in comparison. Image editing is limited, particularly in Sumopaint’s free version.

Fotor

Price: Free.

Best for: Image editing.

Pros: Fotor’s biggest strength is its wide selection of image filters. However, this free web editor also allows users to add clip art, create photo cards and collages, and retouch photos with “wrinkle remover” and “teeth whitening” tools. The application is also available for Windows and Mac platforms, as well as Android and iPhone users.

Cons: If you browse online, user reviews for Fotor are overwhelmingly positive. However, the operating speed can be slow at times.

Infographics and Data Visualization

Google Developers

Price: Free.

Best for: Creating infographics based on real-time data.

Pros: Data gives presentations, reports and web posts more power when it is well-displayed. Google Developers lets you display data in real time, offering an extensive chart gallery—from tables and timelines to donut and pie charts, among others. The charts and infographics are interactive and can be created with and embedded in spreadsheets.

Cons: If you’re not comfortable dealing with code and data, the learning curve here will be steep.

Visual.ly

Price: Free.

Best for: Web infographics and data visualization.

Pros: If you need to present content in a way that’s visual and interactive, then Visual.ly is ideal for crafting branded messages through infographics and other visual elements. Visual.ly combines design tools with visualization, removing the need to work simultaneously in data programs such as Excel and vector programs such as Illustrator to create a single graphic. The service is particularly well-suited for both corporate clients who are looking to source creative ideas for projects, as well as for designers eager to work on projects and share and promote their work among Visual.ly’s community of data visualization enthusiasts. Visual.ly also offers the option to follow, share and comment on other users’ infographics, allowing you to develop a following if you are a consistent about producing compelling inforgraphics.

Cons: Users can only upload file sizes up to 7MB on the site. Also, community submissions are not subject to the Visual.ly code of ethics, leaving it to users to determine whether data visualizations submitted by other users are accurate and reliable.

Infogr.am

Price: Free.

Best for: Interactive infographics.

Pros: Infogr.am’s core capabilities and functionality revolve around the creation of data-driven infographics. Users can choose from more than 30 different types of charts and edit data directly within Infogr.am using the app’s built-in spreadsheets. Files can be saved as PDFs or PNGs and shared via email or embedded into websites and presentations. Infogr.am also claims to be launching the “world’s first video infographic creator,” though no official release date has been announced.

Cons: Some users have reported difficulty embedding Infogr.am’s code into websites. And although it allows for easy editing of data and images within infographics, there are limited customization options.

 
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