A Tale of Four Apps

Hi there! It’s been a while. COVID has done a number on the world and on my plans for this year. My apologies for having neglected this blog. I am trying to keep it going but, as you can imagine, other priorities often take precedence. But, since I’m currently chin-deep in getting a book ready for publication in multiple formats, I thought it might be a good time to go over some of the tools I use and how they compare to each other in terms of what they can do and how easy they are to use. If you’re a DIY fanatic like me, you’re always on the look-out for ways to do things better. It’s with this mindset that I share my thoughts and experiences about these apps.

CANVA

COST: Free or $9.95/month (Pro)
TYPE: Online App
LINK: https://www.canva.com

I’ll be honest, I only recently started using this app, mostly for work. I was highly skeptical at first, but it’s kind of growing on me. However, it does have some limitations…

PROS
Canva is an excellent tool for quick one-offs. They have pre-made templates for anything you can think of, print or digital. Social media posts are sized to the exact specifications of each platform. Flyers and posters have an option for full bleed. You can share your designs directly to your accounts, or export and save them for other uses. An extensive library of free or paid stock images, videos, and music is already built in, and you have an option to upload your own. Multiple options for export file formats. Animated elements, and videos available, so you could potentially create a simple book trailer video right in Canva. AND they have a built-in custom print service for certain things, which is a very nice feature.

All of your designs are automatically saved in your account so you can go back and make changes, or copy a design and update elements to have a full stack of brand-consistent designs. It’s very user friendly and intuitive, which means literally anyone with internet access can use Canva, and learn it quickly. A truly handy tool for your every day promo needs.

CONS
While it has some excellent features, Canva was not built for more complex design work. It’s limited to stacking elements one on top of the other, but much of the nuance gets lost. For example, if you have a text box, you can only apply one font style per paragraph. If you want to mix and match fonts and sizes in one line, you need to create a separate text box for each new style. The snap to alignment feature isn’t as nuanced as I’d like it to be, especially if you have too many elements on one page. Every so often, things shift, too. Despite elements being grouped in a specific arrangement, I’ve had templates look out of alignment when shared with others (Pro account feature) and in an exported PDF, which means I don’t trust it.

You’re limited in what you can do to an image. There are some pre-built filters and color adjustments, but you can only crop to pre-defined shapes. There is no masking option so blending is essentially nonexistent.

While Canva has some great chart/graph features, the color schemes are limited to what Canva provides, which isn’t always ideal. And there is no table option (which I found out the hard way). Text layout is good for small things like social media posts. But when you get into multi-page territory of flowing content, it starts to become more work than I’d like, and nowhere near enough control.

FINAL VERDICT
Canva is great for creating quick little designs, but it wasn’t meant for bigger, more nuanced projects. Use it for your promotional graphics, but if you’re trying to create a book cover, or format any kind of publication (especially for fiction or anything that has a specific look and feel), look elsewhere.

GIMP

COST: Free
TYPE: Desktop App
LINK: https://www.gimp.org

GIMP has been my go-to art/graphic manipulation app for a decade now. It’s an excellent tool for learning and exploring digital art and graphic design because it won’t cost you anything and it’s really fun.

PROS
Have I mentioned it’s free? GIMP is an open source competitor to Photoshop. It has a lot of the same functions, and there are thousands of free brushes and scripts/plugins you can download to make it more robust. In terms of complexity, it has a lot in the toolbox, so it can be a little overwhelming when you first start using it. With that said, I still prefer GIMP to Photoshop. I’m pretty tech-savvy, but after 3 years of having Photoshop, I have barely figured out its most basic functions. GIMP is much more user friendly and intuitive, so the learning curve is smaller. It’s extremely powerful when it comes to creating digital art and manipulating photos, which means it’s excellent for creating your book cover art. It can also create animated GIFs, which is a nice little bonus.

CONS
GIMP is fairly RAM-heavy, so if your computer doesn’t have enough memory, it may run slow, freeze, or crash with complicated projects (think big file with many layers). Also, while it’s comparable to Photoshop, the two are not the same. If GIMP has a “smart object” feature, I haven’t seen it yet. It also doesn’t have editable filters. What I mean by that is, when you apply a filter to a layer, you can no longer change the filter settings. You have to undo it, and reapply with the new settings. This can get frustrating and tedious if you’re used to Photoshop. And, while there are many plugins/scripts available for GIMP, they likely won’t rival the actions and templates available for Photoshop.

FINAL VERDICT
GIMP is a fantastic tool for beginning graphic artists, or those who can’t afford Adobe’s products. If you have never used Photoshop, you won’t miss it. Learning GIMP is, in my opinion, much easier, and you’ll be creating beautiful works of art in no time. If you’re a long time Photoshop user, I wouldn’t recommend GIMP. You’ll hate the limitations and the foreign UI layout. I’d call this an intermediate tool between Canva and Photoshop. Like any tool, it’s only as good as your use of it, though. I firmly believe it can create graphics to Photoshop’s quality level. It’s just not always a straight/easy process.

PHOTOSHOP

COST: $20.99/month (standard license)
TYPE: Desktop App
LINK: https://www.adobe.com/products/photoshop.html

And that brings us to the graphic design standard-setter, Photoshop. I’ll be honest, I still get lost/confused using this app. I’m more comfortable with GIMP so I  only use Photoshop for things I can’t do in GIMP. But I will admit, it has some really nifty features…

PROS
This is as robust a tool as you can get. If you can think it, Photoshop can probably do it. And if it doesn’t have a ready-made action pre-installed, you can probably find one online. It’s honestly overwhelming in everything it can do. Smart objects are my favorite, and I use them a lot. If you have a template of a 3D rendering of a book, for example, the cover will be a smart object. You paste your cover art into it, and Photoshop will apply it to the 3D model and make it look seamless. Layer effects can be applied to text without losing editability of the text (something GIMP can’t do). Not to mention tons of online resources, guides, tutorials, etc. It’s the work of millions of professionals over decades, and it shows.

CONS
Massive learning curve with this one. The simplest of tasks can seem impossible at first because just looking at the UI is overwhelming. There are so many menus, settings, options, and tools, it really does take an intensive course to learn it all, and even then it’ll probably be just the most common functions. It’s also very pricey. Adobe switched their platform to a subscription model some time back, so you have to pay a monthly fee just to have access to the app. Gone are the days of one-time license costs that could last you a decade if you were cheap. If you want to use Adobe products now, ya gotta pay through the nose for the privilege.

FINAL VERDICT
Photoshop may be the golden standard, but not every project needs that. If you do graphic art and design on a daily basis, then you absolutely need this tool. It helps you create magic, pure and simple. But if you just want to do some quick things here and there, it’s not worth the time or money. You’re better off trying your hand at Canva or GIMP, or paying a professional to create it for you. It’ll be cheaper and less painful in the long run.

INDESIGN

COST: $20.99/month (standard license)
TYPE: Desktop App
LINK: https://www.adobe.com/products/indesign.html

GIMP and Photoshop are purely graphic design tools that don’t deal with print layout. Canva straddles both areas relatively okay. InDesign was built for publication formatting. It’s in a league of its own, but kind of dips its toes here and there, too.

PROS
There is no better tool for creating professional publications. Lots of different options for specific things here and there, but nothing that is as all-encompassing as InDesign. It gives you complete control over every single element in your document, down to the pixel. Text controls, fonts, alignment, all of it is leagues above and beyond what MS Word or Publisher can do. If you’re formatting the interior of your book or magazine, you will want InDesign to do it. Things like paragraph styles, standardized headers and footers, page numbering, bleed, and gutters are a breeze. I was iffy about diving in, thinking I could do what I needed with MS Word. Now it’s all I use, and I’d never go back. It’s just too good at what it does. And it’s not just limited to print publications. It has an EPUB export function. You can create social media graphics, flyers, posters, banners, business cards, brochures, booklets… the list goes on and on.

CONS
Back to the cost and learning curve again. I think in this instance, the cost is a bigger con than the learning curve, because InDesign lets you create templates. So, while it might take you a week to create a template for a paperback book, for example, once you have it, creating another book from it is the work of 2-3 hours. I say this from personal experience. But, as with Photoshop, it may not be worth the cost for one or two projects.

FINAL VERDICT
InDesign is an absolute MUST if you’re going to be formatting your own print publications. Its versatility also makes it useful for various digital projects, too. But, again, if you’re only going to be using it once a month, it’s not worth the cost. This is one tool for which I don’t have a suitable, cheaper alternative, and that is because there is so much precision work that goes into formatting for print that the alternatives I have come across either fall way short, or they’re Apple-only products that don’t have a PC alternative. Therefore, if you want it done right, and can’t afford InDesign, I recommend hiring a pro.

ADOBE FINE PRINT

I want to add a few words about Adobe, because they have so much going on that, if you need multiple tools, it can actually be worth while. I personally have found reasons to use at least three: InDesign (most often), Photoshop (sometimes), Illustrator (rare instances, but very helpful). And if my computer wasn’t 4 years old and lacking a proper graphics card, I’d be using Premier Pro, too. Things I use these tools for:

  • Print layout for novels
  • Graphic work for promotional  media
  • Logos/scalable elements
  • (potentially) Book trailers

I say it’s potentially worth it because, while one app will cost you $20.99/month, if you want/need access to their entire suite of 24 apps, it will only cost $52.99/month. And whichever plan you choose, you will also gain access to Adobe Fonts, which is just awesome. I think this is why so many creative professionals swear by these apps. But there’s probably also an element of commitment cost involved. If you have put in so much time and money to master these tools, you’ll be less inclined to stray.

I hope you found this post helpful. Is there another tool you use for your projects? Share in the comments below! I’m always looking for fresh ideas. 🙂

Until next time!

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For The DIY Author: Where to score freebies and deals

It’s been a while since I’ve done an author tip of any kind, so I figured it was time. This is for all my die hard DIYers who love to explore and who know well enough to know that making things costs money, but it doesn’t always have to cost a fortune. 

If you’ve spent any time at all on my website, you’re already familiar with all the tools and resources on my Resources page. These will be in addition to that. I’m not including them on the page because they work a little differently than the others. There are freebies, yes, but not always the ones you’re looking for, necessarily. There are deals, true, but you have to be vigilant to snag them before they are sold out or the time to claim runs out.

The list below is for resources you get by signing up for their newsletters. I know what you’re thinking, but trust me, there are times when giving someone your email address is a really, really good thing. If you’re paranoid about getting hacked, I suggest creating a separate email account just for these subscriptions. Just don’t forget to check it on a regular basis so you don’t miss out. 😉 

There are two components to this website: FontBundles and DesignBundles. As their names suggest, FontBundles offers fonts. DesignBundles offers design elements that can be used with PhotoShop and other image manipulation programs. Sometimes, the deals include things like backgrounds or images that don’t need special software at all. 

Both of these parts work on the same concept. You sign up for the newsletter (you only need to sign up for one) and they send you weekly emails with freebies that you can download at no cost then and there. On top of that, they have periodic deals on bundles, which pack a number of fonts or elements together at a much lower cost than you’d get if you bought them individually. And every once in a while, they have $1 events, where a selection of fonts/designs only cost $1 each. All of these deals have an expiration date. If you miss it, they’re gone and you have to pay full price again. 

But the best part is, everything on these two websites comes with a commercial license, so you’re free to use it on anything you want without worrying about licensing. If you’ve ever looked for any kind of stock online, you know full well how important that is. 🙂 You’re welcome.

Think of Envato Market as a catch-all for anything and everything you could possibly need. Fonts, icons, logos, graphics, videos, audio, even website templates and elements. It is huge. Every time you think you’ve explored it all, you find something new. 

Much like FontBundles, when you sign up for the EnvatoMarket newsletter, you get monthly freebies in your inbox. It’s usually one thing from each category: A font, an audio track, a graphic, a website template, etc. They last a month, during which time you can download these things at no cost, with the proper licensing included. Once the month is up, the deals are replaced by something else. 

If you want to explore the website beyond what’s free, please do. Their price range from very affordable to somewhat pricey. You’ll see an immense variety of products available. Some may not be of the same high quality as you would find on specialty websites like iStockPhoto, or DepositPhotos, but you might get lucky and find exactly what you’re looking for. I did, more than a few times.  

Creative Market is similar to Envato Market. Same concept, too. You sign up for their newsletter and they send you periodic emails with freebies. The website is well worth exploring, especially for fonts. I consider fonts the trickiest of all graphic elements to get right. By now, everyone knows (or should know) that you can’t just take an image from Google results and plop it onto your website or cover design. That’s how you get sued for copyright infringement. But fonts are gray area. Too many websites out there list hundreds of thousands of fonts “for free,” and I love those websites. But when it comes to my own designs, I’ve learned it’s safer to go the paid route. 

The great thing about this resource, which isn’t necessarily true for FontBundles, for example, is that when you download a freebie from them, it’s saved in your account and you can re-download at a future date. So, if you’re like me and download things on impulse on your way to work and then forget about it, you can go back into your account and it’ll tell you exactly what you downloaded when.

Bonus: This site includes things that can be used by the average Joe who’s never heard of the Adobe Suite. Like PowerPoint presentation templates. 🙂  

I’ve talked about AppSumo before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This resource stands in a league of its own. What they offer is subscription discounts. And I mean deep discounts that come with some awesome perks. For example, a basic level subscription to the social media management tool eClincher will cost you $59/month. I managed to snag a deal from AppSumo that cost me a one-time payment of $49 for lifetime membership. 

My favorite of their deals is for DepositPhotos, 100 photos for $49, which comes out to $0.49 per image at the highest possible resolution (which is like 4k now). And unlike the subscription deals you get on the DepositPhoto website, these credits never expire. If you do any graphics work at all, if you need images for your website, or your book covers, or any promotional graphics, this deal is worth your weight in gold. It comes around maybe once or twice a year, and sells out fast, so if you see it in your inbox, grab it. 

A word of caution on this resource: It is very tempting to buy amazing-looking deals you might not necessarily need. Always do your homework and consider your own workflow to see if you can actually utilize that thing you’re tempted to buy. When it comes to stock resources, all deals are not made equal. I can vouch for DepositPhotos because it’s my go-to site and I know they have stuff I can use. Something else might not be as helpful. Always check out the site first, search the things you usually use. if you find good stuff, go forth. If you don’t see enough things you’d want to download, save your money and wait for something else. 

I’ve been making my own graphics, covers, websites, and promotional things for long enough to appreciate a good deal when I see it. I’ve spent money I didn’t need to, missed out on deals by a matter of minutes, tried and tested different ways of doing things, and I’m still learning. What worked for me years ago doesn’t cut it anymore. I’ve evolved. I’ve outgrown the old and moved on to the new.

You may be just starting out, or you may have been at this for years and already know some or all of these tools. Wherever you happen to be on your writing/designing journey, I hope these resources make your job at least a little easier.

If you found this post helpful and want to show your appreciation, you can buy one or two of my books for yourself, or as a gift for someone else. 🙂 Check them out here. Thanks in advance for your support!

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