DIY Design On a Tight Budget

I’m having one of those moments as a designer in which I can barely stand to be online. You see, over and over, I keep seeing people creating terrible designs because they can’t afford to hire a professional designer. Now, I realize this applies to all areas of design—furniture, interior, decorating, et cetera—but I can at least help out with graphic design, identity design and web design.

So, at the risk of irritating other designers, I’m going to give you guys some tips for how to step into Do It Yourself Design on a tight budget. There are “industry secrets” that can help you keep costs low but still create decent design. Obviously there is no substitute for a real designer. We’re trained by professionals, we have valuable experience, and we live & breathe this stuff. Ultimately, a professional designer will always produce better designs than a design hobbyist.

OK, enough of the caveats. On to the DIY Design Tools…


Let’s start with typography. Every design that involves letters should start with type choice.

By the way, the difference between a font and a typeface is this: typeface: the design of the letterforms (a.k.a. “glyphs”). font: the package the letterforms com in. Example: on a musical album, the songs themselves (chord structures, lyrics, melodies, harmonies) are the typeface. The CD or Record itself is the font.

  1. Do not use Comic Sans.
  2. Do not use Papyrus.
  3. Do not use Times New Roman.
  4. For printing, if you want to use Arial, don’t. Use Helvetica instead. The only time you should use Arial is on the internet. Besides, Arial is Microsoft’s lame attempt to copy Helvetica.
  5. If you’re using Coolvetica, well, I’m sorry, but it’s really not that cool. Just use Helvetica instead, or change font types altogether.

So what do you do? You really only need a couple of go-to resources. My first suggestion is to regularly check out the MyFonts Specials page. The vast majority of typeface designs on the Specials page are good. Some are terrible, but at least you’ll be using something besides Comic Sans, Times New Roman, Papyrus or Arial. What? Do I sound like a snobby, overly self-important artsy-fartsy jerk? Well, maybe I am—but only when it comes to font choices.

Second, check out Jos Buivenga’s exljbris Font Foundry. Jos is a Dutch typographer in the forefront of new type design. His designs are friendly and approachable while also imparting a sense of stability, trustworthiness and precision. The heavier weights (bold, heavy) of his designs are very happy and fun. Calluna can be very serious and classic, while Calluna Sans can be more youthful. Bottom line: no matter what project you’re working on, Jos Buivenga’s fonts will work. You can’t go wrong here. Plus—and here’s the kicker—he offers at least one style of all his fonts for free! Yes, free. For many people, good typography starts with Jos.

Use font families. When you’re designing a layout, like a document, website, poster, et cetera, it’s ok to use more than one font. At the most, you should use three. It’s important that fonts match without duplicating each other. Here’s some easy rules to follow:

  • Don’t use two different sans-serif typefaces in the same design (Calluna Sans & Gill Sans for instance).
  • Don’t use two different serif typefaces in the same design (Jenson & Garamond for instance). The same goes for Slab styles (a.k.a. Egyptian styles), Script styles, et cetera.
  • Do use different typefaces from the same type family together. For instance, Calluna & Calluna Sans are great together, as are all the fonts in the Museo family.
  • Do use different typefaces from the same designer—as long as they aren’t the same style (see the first point above). For instance, Museo Slab for titles, Calluna Italic for subtitles and Calluna Sans for body text would be a good combination.
  • Some other great typography houses to check out are Hoefler & Frere-Jones, TypeTogether, Alejandro Paul, and Erik Spiekerman.

Subscribe to the MyFonts email list. They send out great email newsletters that are short, beautiful, incredibly informative, and they will lead you to new, well-designed fonts.


If you need imagery for a design, do not use clipart. Ever. Never ever. Head over to iStockphoto and spend a dollar on a stock photo or stock illustration. If you need to edit a vector illustration, download the free GIMP software.


Need a logo? Here’s where it gets sticky. Well, I guess everything in this post is potentially sticky, but that’s beside the point—unless you’re sticky. Logo design is really hard. Just being honest here. It takes a lot of time, effort, creative energy and skill to come up with a “good” logo. If you use a stock logo design company, or if you use one of the online logo contest sites, you will not be happy. Period. Maybe at first you’ll see your new logo and think, “Ooooh sparkles!” But in the end, there’s simply no way for a designer to communicate your vision, values and mission without interviewing you, working with you, and charging you a lot of money. So, if you need a logo, call me instead.

Can’t afford to hire me to design your logo? No problem. Just use a suitable typeface, set really big with the letters squished close together (called “kerning”).

  • If you’re operating a serious business with lots of history and stability in your brand, use Officina, Jenson Pro or Calluna Sans or even Garamond Premiere Pro. Don’t use plain ol’ Garamond, though.
  • If you’re historical and stable but also want to be modern and clean, try Meta, Museo Sans or Gotham. Gill Sans works sometimes as well for this.
  • If you want to make sure you fit in, appear trustworthy, and maybe add just a smidgen of European flare, you can use Helvetica Neue (pronounced “Noy-uh”). Be forwarned, though: Helvetica is everywhere. That’s why it makes you fit in with everything. Seriously.
  • If you’re a more youthful, organic business, try something like Calluna Sans, Museo Slab, Archer and/or Ideal Sans by Hoefler & Frere-Jones.


Use the Golden Ratio for everything. What’s the Golden Ratio? 1.62:1. Or, to be more geektastic about it, the Golden Ratio (a.k.a. Divine Ratio) is 1.618034 to 1.  That means if you draw a shape that is 1 inch tall, it should be 1.62 inches wide to fit in the Golden Ratio.  If your logo is 1 inch tall, it should be 1.62 inches wide.

The ratio scales up and down infinitely, so let’s say you’re doing a 1 page newsletter on a sheet of Letter (8.5×11 inches) paper. Let’s say 11 inches will become the “1” in the ratio. Divide 11 by 1.62, and you get 6.79. So, you could make the main content portion of your page 6.79 inches wide, which leaves you 1.71 inches of width on the page for a little sidebar or table of contents or content callouts or contact info, etc.  Let’s take it another step. Divide 6.79 by 1.62 to get the next step down. The result is 4.19. So, make the header at the top of the newsletter 4.19 inches. And that’s the entire layout!  4.19 inch header (a.k.a. Masthead), 6.79 inch wide content area. Break it up into two columns for some visual interest. Also, put some stock photos in the content, and have text wrap around them.

Use staggered font weights. Have sections of content use headings in a Bold, large type size.  Also, if you’re using a sans serif for body type, use a serif for headings. If you’re using a serif for body content, use a sans serif for headings.  Use italics for long quotes.

Website Design

Get a free WordPress account and use one of the free themes, either the TwentyTen theme or a WooThemes theme. If you’ve got a little money to spend, set up an $8.00/month Rochen account and use the automatic scripts to install WordPress or Joomla. Then buy your own WordPress theme or Joomla theme. At that point, you can get a designer to install your theme for pretty cheap.


Have any other suggestions for people? Share them below in the comments! I’m skimming the surface of lowest common denominator here, and honestly, I don’t really follow any of these suggestions, but for those who need to do desktop publishing cheaply and quickly, I think I’ve given you some good tools here.

13 Responses to “DIY Design On a Tight Budget”

  1. Jessica Cotten says:

    I’ve never loved you more. Everyone in the whole world needs to read this.

  2. Awww shucks! You’re pretty swell yourself!

  3. Jennifer Bishop says:

    What a great post Joseph! Typography is so much more important that most realize. I am tackling this issue right now with a client. They don’t want to change their logo, as they think Arial with GIF clipart will suffice.

    Thank you for addressing this.


  4. Glad I can help! Yeah, typography is an often neglected element of branding. There’s lots of companies out there using fonts like Arial or HELVETICA ALL CAPS simply because they haven’t taken the time to re-examine it. I hope you can convince them to change!

  5. Delilah McKinney says:

    *Puts coin in piggy bank* I’m saving up for you to design my company logo…just so you know! There’s just no way I can get my vision out by myself. 🙂

    -Delilah (a future client)

  6. @Delilah McKinney: cool! Looking forward to working with you.

  7. Delilah McKinney says:

    I talk to my attny next week (once I get settled in Greensboro…just moved from Charleston, SC). After I speak with them…we’ll go from there. Identity Design is probably more of what I’ll be interested in since it will be a brand new company. I’m stoked and full of vision! ha

  8. Penelope says:

    I’m one of those unpro’s who stumbled onto your blog looking for an explanation of the Golden Ratio: Wow! You hit it out of the park. I cannot thank you enough because I now have a starting point I’m very good at space planning and now I know that it pertains to the ratio.

  9. @Penelope cool! I’m glad I could make it easy to understand. I am finding more and more that as I grow in artistic skill, my designs are naturally falling into the Golden Ratio. I always use the ratio, at least to do last-minute tweaks and adjustments, and it’s always so helpful to know exactly where an item should go.

    As long as you start with a defined measurement—the total width or total height of the area/design—you can just start dividing by 1.62 (or 1.618034 to be precise) and laying down a grid as you go. It gives you a precise framework that you know will be attractive.

  10. Kache says:

    All this time, how did I bypass this “snobby, artsy-fartsy” post? Ha! Thanks, I needed it 😉

  11. Ha! Thanks, Kache! I haven’t written a new post in quite a long time. I almost forgot this one was here! Hmmm…I wonder if I should update it.

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