Welcome to my blog post on creating digital graphics with free design tools. This post has been drafted with educators in mind but you don’t have to be a teacher or trainer to take advantage of these tips. I want to offer advice on improving presentations and graphics by using a variety of software – focusing primarily on free online website tools like Canva and Visme. Keep in mind that using these tools you can also design graphics for other purposes as well: posters, flyers, website header, social media etc (ex. Facebook cover).

I’m going to offer some thoughts as a designer/teacher and get straight to the examples and tips. Afterward I provide some links, so if you’re in a hurry to experiment jump to the end! Also, this post is intended for a beginner to intermediate audience. Experts well-versed in Photoshop or Illustrator may prefer to work with Adobe software or similar (Sketch comes to mind).

As a graphic designer and teacher / trainer I’ve often brought my design and media skills into my educational work. I love it when my teaching materials pop visually and the type is easy to read. My aim is to share some insights and describe a few new tools I discovered that allow even design novices to create attractive documents.

My subject is both presentations and design, because even if you’re not a designer you probably have occasion to create a PowerPoint, and even without employing design thinking or getting too visually creative you can make your presentations look decent. If you use some of these tips I’m confident your presentations, lesson materials and other graphics can really sizzle.

Let’s get to it, first you need to turn on your device and get PowerPoint going right? Wrong.. or let’s slow down and talk design principles and software options.

Example graphic by Mike Simpson (made with online tool Visme).

Presentation Design Basics

First of all, if you’ve seen TedX or any really awesome presentations you know the first rule is to use only a little text and lots of full size photos and graphics. There’s nothing wrong with a short paragraph or some bullet points but you must not read the text verbatim. This is generally understood but not always followed.

Where my advice differs (or gets more specific) is that I encourage you to load some true design software or even just peruse some photos before you get to the PPT stage. What I’m suggesting is to brainstorm. Think of some iconic images that might really make your title and first few slides really POP. You can use your own images or find some online. This is the day and age of AWESOME FREE PHOTOS, available in all kinds of places, totally legal to use, and you should start browsing NOW.


Photo Resources: Free, Public Domain, Creative Commons

Where to look for free photos?

Well I have a couple suggestions. First of all, you have to be aware that many “royalty free” photos may require attribution (credit) to the author and may have limitations against commercial usage. If you’re an educator I wouldn’t worry about this unless you’re publishing a book or doing a website where you expect a deluge of visitors. So take a look via Google. You can start with the image filter and find different license categories, or you can just do a web search for royalty free or Creative commons photos.

Here’s a few sites I recommend:

Wikipedia / Wikimedia: You’ll see a lot of websites listing Wikipedia as the source, and this is a reliable way to find images generally accepted to exist in the “public domain” or to be used for reasonable non-commercial uses like education

Pixabay: This is one of the largest sites for copyright free images (CC0 images). Yes, this goes one step beyond the typical “give credit” Creative Commons license which you might find at Flickr for example (Flickr is great also by the way).

screenshot Piixabay website


Devices: Recommended Computer Hardware

High tech or expensive computers or tablets or software are NOT REQUIRED.

Here are a few computing tools I recommend:

– Mobile (iOS/Android): On the iPad there’s a fantastic app called “Haiku Deck” that was a revelation to me when I first discovered it. You can literally browse millions of creative commons photos and the app takes care of the crediting, and the paid version allows for different forms of export, including to PPT. Android also has free or inexpensive apps and being an Android smartphone user I swear that a smartphone (with a decent screen) is a great place to do some digging. I wrote a Haiku Deck review not long ago. Check it out.

– Any PC or Mac: This is the part where as a tech nerd I get excited. Because we truly live in the post-PC world. You don’t need Microsoft Office or Adobe Suite, or a Macintosh computer to make presentations or graphics looks good. Why? A few reasons, namely free software and more importantly web-based software. If you create an account at “Canva” or Visme” (links below) you can use basically any Internet-connected computer to make cool graphics, including multipage presentations. This obviously takes us to software…


Software: PowerPoint and Graphic Design Alternatives

When I get started on a presentation I like to brainstorm a little. I do lots of writing of course, but the fun and inspirational moments come when looking at pictures and thinking about what you want to say and SHOW. This is entertainment after all.

So if you were me, you might look at your own library of photographs. I take tons of pics. I shoot family outings, walks in the park or street, and lots of shots in situations that remind me I might need my own “stock photos” one day. You might not have your own photos so refer to the sites mentioned above.

Next step for me is to fire up my Macbook or iMac and drop some images into Photoshop. I like to overlay a title or two and imagine how a few slides will look. I ask myself if a light or dark background is appropriate. Do I want a textured background or will I rely mostly on photos? At this point I am experimenting. And of course, you don’t need a Mac. Use a PC or tablet and start up a slide or graphics program and start experimenting too. If your school or business requires using a template or specific colour scheme your options are limited – otherwise consider this an opportunity to PLAY. Make it fun.

So my potential software list usually looks like this:

– Adobe Photoshop
– PowerPoint
– Haiku Deck

But now it’s expanded to include web-based software such as:

– Canva
– Visme

The two tools above, are FANTASTIC. You can really get going quickly and generate professional quality graphics. You can design: posters, cards, social media images, presentations, interactive website banners and many more. The sky is the limit really.

Do not underestimate the power and potential of using free online graphics software. The benefits are many. Lots can be accomplished with a free account. Keep in mind these sites operate on the “freemium” structure meaning some of the art is totally free to use, and others will cost a small fee to use. Free accounts may be limited in how many projects you can maintain and what file formats you can export to. Visme for instance allows for 3 projects using 1000 MB of files and allows exports of JPG images. Haiku Deck is similar. Create any number of presentations but you need a paid account to export editable PPT files (a very cool feature by the way!).

Browse these sites after quickly creating an account and you will be amazed. There are hundreds of templates and photos, illustrations and other graphics, many available free of charge. Check out a template and then quickly modify it to suit your own needs. Upload your own photos, icons or other graphics. I was amazed that Visme even allowed me to drag and drop photos from my computer right onto the web page. they were uploaded and available instantly.

Note: Technically Haiku Deck has a web-based site to work on your presentations from any computer but they do not market it as a first stop, so I don’t include it as a recommendation unless you have an iPad and start there. Also, consider checking out Lucid Press if you have some previous design experience and would like to work with an online tool that’s been compared to InDesign (Adobe).


Wrap-up: Last Word of Advice

In summary I think that we live in an exciting age. There’s literally no reason your presentation slides have to be dull. Photos and graphics can really add flair to your slides, and there’s lots of software out there that’s free and easy to get started with. And remember, software like Canva and Visme can create basically any kind of graphic. That’s awesome! Time to get started.

By the way, in the old days the graphic at the top of this post would have been made by me in Photoshop or Illustrator/ this time I did it in Visme. It took about half an hour and it was a lot of fun putting it together. Half my time was exploring and stumbling with the tools (like any person would) and half my time was spent having fun moving the text and graphics around to arrive at the final composition.

If you’d like to read more about Haiku Deck or a mobile photo-editing tool called Snapseed you can check out the following:

Post on Haiku Deck: http://iam.strongandfree.ca/blog/app-review-haiku-deck-alternative-presentation-software

Post on Snapseed: http://iam.strongandfree.ca/blog/mobile-apps-for-ios-android-photography-editing-with-snapseed

All the best with your future presentations and graphic design!

– Mike


Canva – https://www.canva.com (web-based design software)

Visme – http://www.visme.co (web-based design software)

Haiku Deck –https://www.haikudeck.com (iOS app and web-based)

Lucid Press – https://www.lucidpress.com (online InDesign alternative)

Pixabay – https://pixabay.com (Free CC0 photos, illustrations)

Photoshop (Adobe) – http://www.photoshop.com (the classic photo/image editor)

Sketch – (Mac only) – https://www.sketchapp.com

Note: Canva, Haiku Deck, and Visme are all “freemium” – the basic features are free. Adobe offers free 30-day trials – why not give Photoshop a spin? (And there are affordable monthly subscriptions from $9.99).