7 design hacks that make it look like you know what you’re doing

creativity, Design, work

I have this theory: You can be good at design without being good at PhotoShop.

I am not a graphic designer in the slightest. Yes, I learned some PhotoShop and Illustrator during high school and college, but it’s not like I have the software anymore or even remember what I’m doing. And yet I find myself making design decisions all the time (my resume, a blog post infographic for a client at work, the bar cart that my roommates and I are trying to put together). It’s been life-saving to know at least things like how to make a Powerpoint slide look good, which sounds super basic, but really comes in handy more than you know.

Enough intro- on to the good stuff!

Alex’s Design School for Basics

1.  Learn some easy color theory.

First things first- you have to be good with color. I’m going to skip over that color wheel and primary and secondary color stuff, because I never use it anyways, and get to the things you really need:

  • Choose two main colors and then a few accent colors– for instance, my two go-to colors are ballet slipper and black, and then I have a few others like lavender and sea foam that I like to throw in the mix.
  • Pantone has everything you need for hex codes and color trends. Hex codes: that exact number (like #AFD645, for example) to match the specific shade you want.
  • Use tools like the Canva color palette generator to give you ideas and inspiration for good, meaningful color combos. I like to pick a few images and plug them in to get the colors I like– for instance, I picked the ballet slipper shade because I used to be a ballet dancer.

For more reading on basic color theory, I suggest this article.

2. KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance, says Coco Chanel. Translation: You know how the little black dress is the epitome of classic style? You want your designs to be the LBD of graphic design. For instance:

  • Stick to those two colors you just picked out. Three max.
  • Use just one image.
  • Pick one font for headers, and then another font for the body text.

3. A few dont’s:

  • Do not use Comic Sans.
  • Do not put purple text on a black background.
  • Don’t skip spellcheck- last thing you need is a typo ruining your Insta highlight and distracting you from an awesome design.
  • Don’t fill the whole space. Use the white space!

4. Find free stock images that go with your colors.

Not crappy stock photos of random people in suits giving you a thumbs up. Here are a few amazing sites that provide beautiful free images:

I often use these because my own iPhone photography pales in comparison to these pros, but you can obviously also mix in your own photos. Stock sites just make it easier on you to look polished and professional, and find unique images you might not be able to take yourself. There’s just something extra glossy about a good stock photo.

5. Draw inspiration from everywhere.


Looking to outside sources will help you see new ways of putting together visuals. A few places I like to look for design inspo:

  • Vintage ads
  • Neon signs
  • Art museums
  • Gardens
  • Boardwalks
  • Window displays
  • Album art & music (my love of lightning bolts comes from David Bowie)

6. Use mood boards to define your aesthetic and stay focused on it.

I love spending time finding images of things that resonate with me and putting them all together to see what my overall vibe is. Use those stock photo sites I just mentioned if you need help. I have this live inspiration board that I keep adding to and taking away from, and from that board I’ve figured out what I’m drawn to. And then I can take a step back and pick a few words to describe it. I found a few themes: Coffee. Pink. Architecture. Typewriters. Vintage. Beach. And so I stick to those themes whenever I’m choosing pictures for my blog posts and other designs.

My personal vibe is usually timeless, bold, professional, feminine and fun, and I got that from seeing pictures of vintage neon signs next to pictures of desks. Why do I like desks? I have no idea. I just love desks. Anyways. Here’s a sampling of what I have on my board:

7. Photoshop is great and all, but Canva will make you look like an actual wizard.

If you’re a pro graphic designer, you can work PhotoShop and Illustrator like magic. I can not work magic, but I like to appear like I can, so I use these easy graphic design apps instead. You’ve probably heard of some of these, especially Canva, and they are my dirty little secret to success. A couple others: PicMonkey, and A Design Kit.

The important thing to remember with these is not to get too excited and forget all the things we just went over: Keep it simple. Pick your colors deliberately. Stick to one or two fonts. Use the stock photos. Focus on your aesthetic.

And honestly, if all else fails, just use the templates. It works every time.