Good design is a critical part of any web or social media presence. Like the clothes you wear to a job interview or a business meeting, a sharp looking social profile or website is the first step toward being taken seriously online.
Whether you’re a professional designer or an armchair artiste, tools abound that you can use to snazz up your web presence, and give it that polish that professionals, potential customers, and online friends have come to expect from a social media maven. We’ve talked to the experts about what they use for inspiration, collaboration, and getting down to the business of design in a social media world. Here are some of the suggestions they offered up.
1. Core Application Alternatives
In days of old, the software powerful enough to create and edit high quality graphics was expensive — and it still is, if you must have the name-brand products.
But if you’re open to experimentation and perhaps a bit of digital quirkiness, there are free, open source alternatives to some of the staples of the digital design tool set.
“I use Photoshop for any image editing I need to do, but it comes at a price,” says Alex Mathers, a freelance designer and illustrator who writes about design and social media promotion at Red Lemon Club. “I would recommend Gimp () for those requiring similar functions, and Inkscape () as an alternative for creating vector illustrations over Adobe Illustrator () … All of these programs are excellent.”
We’ve mentioned Gimp before as a powerful free alternative to Photoshop, and Inkscape has a similar mission in the realm of scalable vector graphic (SVG) creation. Unlike bitmapped images (JPEGs, PNGs, which are the final products viewed on a website), vector graphics are mathematical representations of images, and can be scaled up indefinitely to meet any size requirement. This means that one file can be used in any medium (web, print, etc.) at any size. They are indispensable to the illustrating designer.
2. Design Communities
If you’re a creative person, there’s no better way to improve your craft than by getting social. You can start by following designers and design blogs on the major social networks, but if you’re looking to really explore others’ work and share your own, design communities are key.
“Society6 is an online community that allows artists to showcase their work, sell prints and find others to collaborate with,” says Mathers. “Behance, This is Central Station, Creattica and Design Taxi are some other great creative communities that I have used that help designers connect and promote their work.”
Like any social network, the value is in sharing. “I upload any recent work I have to Society6 and Behance and use both platforms to interact with other creatives, find people to collaborate with, send and receive feedback, and generally communicate with others in similar industries,” says Mathers. “Both sites, particularly Behance, received a healthy amount of traffic … [they] are an excellent way to gain exposure in front of the right people.”
3. Design Element Resources
If you’re not an illustrator or digital artist by trade, but you love “putting it all together” for blogs, social media profiles, and websites, you’ll need a good resource base to draw from. There are many great blogs and sites that compile textures, fonts, vector illustrations, and other graphic elements that you can incorporate right into your projects for free.
“Dezignus is a good resource for free vector illustrations and textures, and they have a large selection of downloads that is constantly expanding,” says Mathers. “Colourlovers.com is a fascinating resource for designers looking for color scheme inspiration and help.”
Mathers added that for his typographical requirements, he regularly visits Dafont.com “for a huge selection of free fonts that are easily accessible and downloadable.”
Jacob Gube, founder and chief editor of the design blog Six Revisions, adds that deviantART () is also “a great resource for sharing and getting design assets (Photoshop brushes, textures, icons, and more).”
It can also be a source of design inspiration. “One of the first things I do to get a quick burst of creativity is to click around deviantArt. Seeing what your colleagues are doing can serve as a good motivational factor for getting your own work done,” says Gube.
Wonderfully creative social media icon sets abound on the web, and many of them are free for commercial use. But finding the one that perfectly compliments your design (or perhaps inspires a theme in its own right) can be a tiresome process of searching and browsing resource blogs.
IconFinder makes the process a bit easier. It’s a search engine for icons submitted by users, with detailed information on their graphic formats and licenses — nearly all of which are free and available for commercial use. The interface provides a convenient way to download icons right from the search results.
“I’m constantly going back to this site every time I need icons for a site that I’m working on,” says Jad Limcaco, professional designer and editor of Design Informer. “Instead of bookmarking every site that offers free icons, Icon Finder does the work for you … It makes life a lot easier.”
If you’re not hunting for something specific, the site also offers a browsable catalog of icon sets.
Building a socially-minded website from scratch requires quite a bit of planning.
“One step in the design process I rarely skip is wireframing,” says Grace Smith, owner of Postscript5, a micro-design studio based in Northern Ireland. “It’s perhaps one of the most important stages as it helps give an overview of usability, information architecture, layout, and site content.”
For larger projects and applications, Smith uses Mockflow for this stage. She says the process is “an intermediary phase between initial sketches and the actual design phase.”
MockFlow is a versatile tool that enables you to quickly render functional website prototypes without a big time investment. There are also real-time collaboration and note taking features built into the platform.
“[It] may sound like a waste of time when you can just move on to a full color comp, but it allows you to spot potential problems early, make adjustments quickly, and cuts down dramatically on revisions later in the design treatment stage.”
A similar tool recommended by other designers is Mockingbird.
If you find yourself collaborating on a design project, whether with a colleague or client, the feedback process can get cumbersome via e-mail. It helps to be able to take visual notes on a visual product.
“I use Notable for feedback on projects,” says Smith. “Notable is superb and is ultimately built to allow quick and easy collaboration. It’s helped me streamline my feedback process and keeps all parts of a project organized using sets and workspaces.”
Notable works on the web, so you can capture and notate web pages from any computer, as well as your iPhone. Image captures and their respective notes stay organized on your notable account dashboard, and can easily be shared out to your collaborators or team.
Believe it or not, e-mail marketing is still very much a part of successful social media campaigns. Whether you’re looking to up the design ante for your business’s newsletter, or reach out creatively in search of new freelance projects, a design-focused e-mail marketing tool is worth investigating.
“Campaign Monitor is an intuitive e-mail marketing application created for designers. It has excellent tools for designing professional HTML e-mails, creating and managing e-mail campaigns, useful e-mail analytics, and more,” says Jacob Gube.
In addition to the valuable features Gube notes above, Campaign Monitor can also be a viable source of income in itself. “For designers looking to expand their service offerings, you can re-brand, customize, and resell Campaign Monitor to your clients,” says Gube.
As part of a small team or as a lone freelancer, a designer must wear many hats. Because of the competitive market right now, Gube stresses the importance of salesmanship. “Designers can [have] great success by using online proposals to win over a project bid.”
He recommends Proposable, an online tool that allows you to build highly customized, branded presentations. A Proposable account incorporates an asset library (which can include rich media like video), a variety of templates, and a comment management system for real-time feedback.
“Proposable makes generating professional-level proposals a cinch,” says Gube, “and it has reporting features to analyze the performance of your proposals. It was created for salespeople, but as a designer, being a salesperson is a huge part of the gig, whether you’re freelancing or pitching a design idea to your managers.”
Staying on the business side for a moment, getting paid can often be a struggle for freelancers. For the social web-minded designer, the idea of a cloud-based invoice management system is likely appealing. Enter Freshbooks, “an all-in-one web app for invoicing, tracking expenses, time-tracking, and more,” according to Gube.
“I use it to keep track of my expenses, manage payments, and to generate professional invoices quickly and effortlessly,” he adds. “There are many billing tools out there, but this one stands out because it caters to freelancers, is aimed towards creatives (designers, developers, writers, artists), and is one of the few web app start-ups that still values customer support.” And the fact that it’s all on the web allows you to “send someone a bill from your favorite WiFi-enabled coffee house.”
10. 960 Grid System
Creatively, the sky’s the limit when it comes to web design. But the interfaces of the social web generally follow certain patterns that users are accustomed to. If you’re building blog templates or other interactive websites, the 960 Grid System is a good way to map out your page elements so they can achieve alignment harmony.
Many of the designers we spoke to stressed the importance of good old fashioned pen-and-paper sketching in their creative process. “Sketching enables me to break down ideas and fully explore UI options. I find putting it down on paper tends to raise questions and ideas and leads to changes,” says Smith. “I use the Sketch Sheets supplied with the 960 Grid System which display a browser frame and grid lines.”
960 Grid provides examples of how the system works with a number of sites, and also offers a wealth of other code-related resources for web designers.
What other tools and resources do you use to make your social web designs really pop? Share them in the comments below.