A non-designer’s guide to creating online visuals

Engaging images are essential in Web communications. These simple guidelines and tools can help even the artistically challenged to develop eye-catching visual elements.

Images have never been more important in social media.

They’re the key to driving greater online engagement, much like a great headline in advertising.

The only issue is if, like me, you aren’t über-skilled in graphic design, creating eye-catching images can be difficult.

How can non-designers still create engaging images for social media? One way is by learning simple, repeatable design principles.

Here are three key that will help you create engaging images every time:

1. Create a simple and balanced layout.

This is what the table in my Airbnb looked like this morning:

This is what the table looked like about 30 seconds later. Do you notice any difference?

Both images contain the same items. I didn’t remove anything from the table, yet the second picture’s slightly altered layout looks so much better.

The lesson here is simple: The layout of the elements in your images makes a huge difference.

Take a look at these two examples:

Doesn’t the second image look a lot better? This is because of two design principles related to image layouts: proximity and alignment.


As Bakari Chavanu explains, “Proximity means grouping elements together so that you guide the viewer to different parts of the message.”

In the examples above, the first image places the icon and text very close. This prevents each element from standing apart and fulfilling its role.

  • The icon visually communicates surfing.
  • The text communicates details about surfing.

Applying the proximity principle means that the viewer should clearly be directed to the icon and then the text. This helps the viewer to understand what’s being communicated.

In the second example, text is grouped only beside text:

Applying the proximity principle adds unity and continuity to your images.


Properly aligning the elements in your images maintains balance:

Again, take the surf school images as an example:

  • The top of the icon and the text are aligned in both images.
  • All the text is aligned only in the second image.
  • The bottom of the icon and text are aligned only in the second image.

These small differences all contribute to making the second image feel more balanced and engaging.

To create simple and balanced images, remember:

  • When you have different elements (text, icons, illustrations) in your image, think of what roles they play.
  • Keep some sort of alignment with these different elements, whether it’s vertical, horizontal or diagonal.

2. Understand the importance of color.

Leslie Cabarga, author of The Designer’s Guide to Colour Combinations, notes:

That a poor choice of colours affects us subconsciously is a fact observed by many real estate agents. Potential buyers viewing a house with ugly wallpaper will often reject the whole house. I recall as a child not being able to eat in a certain restaurant whose walls were painted a pale, 1950s green.

Color is not just a visual element; it’s also emotional. Because color elicits particular emotions, it can often determine whether people are drawn to your images.

This isn’t to say that it’s as simple as staying away from particular hues. It does mean that it’s crucial to think about the role color plays in your creations—to create contrast.

Callie Kavourgias describes this color and contrast function:

Contrast creates conflict between elements to attract the eye to a specific place and is the most effective way to add visual interest….it allows you to highlight key elements in your design.

Here are a couple of simple examples.

Each pair of circles has the same color in the center, but they appear different. You might even notice depth changes with different color variations.

This contrast shows that the perception of colors used in your images can be dramatically different based on how you combine them.

That’s a key principle when it comes to color and contrast: Keep it simple, because less is often more. It’s important to pick the right color combinations, but how do you know which colors to pick?

One fantastic tool that I recently discovered to help with this is Paletton. It automatically picks contrasting and complementary colors.

In this example, I chose red as my primary color (represented by the uppermost dot on the color wheel) and asked for monochromatic color scheme (a color scheme based on various shades and tints of one hue).

When I hover over the different boxes on the right I’m provided with the hex codes (like ‘FF6B6B’ seen on the right side of the image above), which I can then use in my designs.

In this second example, I also used red as my primary color, but instead asked for a triadic color scheme (three colors that are equally placed in lines around the color wheel). Again, I’m able to pick contrasting colors that go well together.

Another tool I use frequently is Brand Colors, a collection of official color codes from world-renowned brands.

Hovering over any color (as I did here with the Addvocate brand) reveals the hex code.

When I’m stuck and can’t think of a great color combination, I’ll often go to Brand Colors for inspiration.

These types of tools are lifesavers for non-designers like me.

3. Choose legible, consistent fonts.

It’s probably an overused analogy, but picking a font is like selecting which clothes to wear.

Your choice of clothes echoes parts of your personality and style. Walking into a meeting wearing a suit versus wearing a T-shirt and short-shorts will leave people with quite different impressions about you.

Similarly, when you use fonts in a social media image they communicate a key message about you and your brand.

Here are two social media image options—which do you prefer?

I lean toward the image on the left:

  • It’s easier to read.
  • The two fonts seem more complementary.

This doesn’t mean the other image is horrible, but it does illustrate the importance of focusing on the role of text.

Max Luzuriaga, a Web designer and developer, sums it up well:

What do you do with type? Read it. So why do so many people make it so damned difficult to do just that? Be it tiny font sizes, crammed line-height, or just plain ugly fonts, it seems that a lot of people out there are determined to not let you enjoy their content.

By making your type readable, you immediately jump ahead of at least half of the competition, which is fortunate, really, because it’s not that hard.

This raises the million-dollar question—how do you select which font to use? Here we can lean on the sage advice of Dan Mayer:

Just as with clothing, there’s a distinction between typefaces that are expressive and stylish versus those that are useful and appropriate to many situations, and our job is to try to find the right balance for the occasion.

While appropriateness isn’t a sexy concept, it’s the acid test that should guide our choice of font.

Most of the time, one typeface will do, especially if it’s one of our workhorses with many different weights that work together. If we reach a point where we want to add a second face to the mix, it’s always good to observe this simple rule: keep it exactly the same, or change it a lot—avoid wimpy, incremental variations.

The best part about choosing fonts is that you don’t have to do much work.

  • Sites such as Font Pair suggest which fonts go well together.
  • A simple Google search (e.g., “best fonts for business quotes”) can provide excellent examples.

When selecting fonts for your images, remember:

  • Simple is better than fancy.
  • Be consistent; avoid a wide array of fonts.
  • When adding a second font, go for something different but equally simple.

How do you create engaging images for social media? Which resources have helped you develop outstanding designs? Please let us know in the comments section.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Buffer blog.

(Image via)


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