Question for my readers…

During an interview last week I was asked a question that had me stumped: “What are some tools for people who want to project a strong personal brand but can’t afford to hire a graphic designer?” Is there a tool out there? Did anyone ever write a basic DIY post on this that could be used somewhat universally? Any suggestions anyone? I find it an interesting problem!

50 Comments leave a comment below

  1. There are many decent student designers looking for work, with a range of skill and style and helpful sites like, its easy to find someone. Students price is usually 25-45/ hour or depending on experience and price per project. Give some love to the Student Designers.

  2. T-
    A great resource is Tom Peters’ book titled “A Brand Called You.”

  3. I’d say focusing on the graphic elements is putting the cart before the horse.

    Does a strong logo matter to a brand? Sure, I guess so. But some of the best brand logos today probably seemed lackluster at the time. The Target bullseye. The Nike swoosh. The Starbucks, umm… mermaid.

    A strong personal brand is built through doing great work and letting others know about it.

    Tina, you’re a great example. People don’t know and recognize Swiss Miss because of the cute logo. They come here and know about you because you pull together awesome, designy stuff in one spot and share it with people.

  4. I usually tell people to pick a nice typeface from any of the many type foundries and roll with it until they can pay someone to come up with a brandmark.

  5. Think creatively, how about a profit share of your business? or a skills swap if you are a photographer, animator etc?

  6. I’m not sure if there is a “tool” for doing this, but some of my thoughts/tips for those who are bootstrapping a new start-up and need design pointers when they can’t pay for it—yet.

    However, I think clients should also consider offering designers some kind of revenue share or future payment (at premium for taking the risk up front) to help out small businesses a designer really believes in.

    Keep It Simple, Stupid.

    If you only have system fonts to choose from Helvetica looks damn good in most situations.

    Professional photography can get expensive, but many people nowadays have cameras capable of taking really nice, usable photos. Photography on a website or brochure can make or break the feel of an entire brand. Turn the flash off and use the “rule of thirds.”

    A great place to get some inspiration for a color palette is Adobe’s Kuler, it can really help those who aren’t comfortable selecting colors that work well together. (

    While I wouldn’t suggest it as a long term solution, sites like Tumblr allow someone to get a web presence easily and with the help of several themes that aren’t terribly designed.

  7. In addition to student designers, sometimes all it takes is a decent lesson in typography. Branding doesn’t necessarily have to be graphical to be strong or recognizable. There are also the opensource/freeware options (e.g. Inkscape, the GIMP, etc.), though those sometimes have a steep learning curve and a high potential for graphic disaster

  8. One tool that immediately comes to mind—and that is all too often overlooked by us visually-oriented designers—are words. Language is powerful and witty copy goes a long way. You know this as well as I, but Cameron Koczon has utilized good copy quite well (obviously, alongside design). Additionally, think of how Twitter parody personalities have done so well, on the power of their words alone.

  9. Trade!

    Although it ended up just not really getting off the ground, two friends of mine couldn’t budget getting a graphic designer at the time. I was going to do some work in exchange for them making me some stuff.

    That said, I also agree with Chris F. I don’t think brands are as important as people sometimes make them out to be. People can project themselves as their own brands just fine.

    CreativeMornings itself started out as a picture of a coffee cup with light brown text over it. The site wasn’t fleshed out like it is now. Hell, it wasn’t even originally its own site, it was a blog cateogry on SwissMiss.

  10. I did a ton of pro bono work when I was a student. It’s valuable experience and a great way to make contacts and build a portfolio. By the time most designers are out of school they need to have real world and branding experience. How lucky for them then that there are people who need their skills?

    In my experience, it’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. And who knows, maybe the client will be successful, and when they need more work done, they’ll know who to call, and they’ll PAY for it.

  11. Hire a student. Otherwise I would suggest sticking with Word (shudder)
    I’m tired of people asking me to do websites or other work for $500.00. Somehow them clients still want pro work at bargain bin prices a student can use that $500.

  12. You get in contact with me and I’ll see what I can do pro-bono

  13. I agree w/chris and some other folks that commented.

    be curious and do work that excites you — consistently over time. i.e.,
    a brand, any brand, needs time. i blogged for three years and now RQD has a brand, i think, with its followers (although — or because — i do it for myself)

    for caravan we drew a caravan on a napkin and used that. i love it. but caravan doesn’t have a brand yet, because we’ve only blogged a bit and done one event and 13 issues of a weekly newsletter…

    it takes time.

  14. Just as a bit of push-back against those going the “pro bono / free student practice” route… I’d advise against this.

    Try to get SOMETHING in exchange for a job. “Experience!” doesn’t count, nor does “For the portfolio!”

    You don’t need to get a lot of money in return, but anything from some samples of whatever they’re selling, to a free photo session for YOUR site (you might need a good portrait shot!) if they do photography, or _whatever_ not only makes sure that the person you’re helping out realizes YOU have value, but it also helps reinforce the idea that ALL designers have value.

    I always make sure I get something out of the deal. Sometimes it just amounts to buying me lunch. But I always try to put some level of value on it, just because any form of investment on their end helps raise how much they should properly value your time and effort.

  15. At our architecture firm management makes us do all our graphic design / poster / branding work internally and I’ve found research is key if you’re going to attempt a logo / poster with no graphic design training.

    There are some great graphic design inspiration / research sites such as

    I basically just adapt something I like from one of those sites to our posters. Cheating? Probably. I do the same thing with buildings.

  16. For digital business cards at least you can try our app . It comes with professional themes that anyone can use for a great first impression.

    Also is a good resource.

  17. Wow! Thank you all for your suggestions and insights! Keep them coming!

  18. live simple, use helvetica ;)

  19. Pugly Pixel has a lot of great tutorials, templates, and freebies for beginners or those with a narrow skill set. As a seasoned designer, I’d offer a trade for a product/brand/company/institution I believe in if they couldn’t afford to pay.

  20. Content is key when it comes to having a personal brand. A strong personal brand isn’t about having a logo. It’s about having a point of view and consistently sharing that with the world. It’s about capturing, shaping and sharing that point of view be it through a blog, the way you dress or what you have to say in 140 characters or less.

    A strong personal brand is developed long before a logo.

  21. Tara and Kathleen have many great posts and articles over at Braid Creative on tools for personal branding:

  22. I like Woothemes for WordPress themes. I also vote for Pinterest; it can help you find designers/photographers/artists to collaborate with.

  23. Thank you, Tina, for the question! Had started a list of web-based tools to make a portfolio —

  24. logo: Helvetica / Garamond / Futura

  25. WHO are we talking about here though? If you’re in a position where you’re even concerned about a strong personal brand you should also be in a position where you’re willing to make the investment paying a professional. Even paying a student – they still know more about design than you (person in question seeking branding.)

  26. Hi Tina, thanks for the question !
    I have spent a lot of time looking for a tool, but I have to say I did not find anything that really works. There are of course a lot of sites offering inspiration or logo design but when it comes to the development of a global brand image you have to spend a lot of money.
    I would like to have the logo, but also different banners, site design, stationery, digital cards for example for Christmas, newsletter…

    After 3 years I have decided to leave the site as “blank” and neutral as possible and the logo is just the name written in Georgia.

    BTW I have the same problem when it comes to contract somebody to redesign my blog site, just change some code and make the structure my way.
    It will be great to have a portal where site (re)design could be combined with good graphic design at affordable/reasonable prices.

  27. Why someone need a strong personal brand if can’t afford it?

  28. Like others who have commented, I agree that if someone is just starting out and doesn’t have a budget for graphic design, they shouldn’t focus on the visual aspects of their brand (yet). That being said, they can do some things themselves in the meantime. They can:

    -Get the best photo of themselves that they can, and use for their avatar. Those with no budget can get a friend to take a photo of them outside on an overcast day (good lighting), with a plain background.
    -Think of a short, memorable and nifty name for their company/service/whatever. Use it for their url, twitter handle, etc.
    -Sonia’s idea is great! They could have their name written in their favorite (websafe) font
    -Pick their favorite color and use it everywhere: in blog headers, in the background of their site, etc.

    Then the trick is, once they’ve picked “their thing”, they should do it EVERYWHERE. On their blog, with their twitter account, Google+, LinkedIn, Moo card, cheap t-shirt, email signature, what-have-you. Consistent usage is one aspect of branding they can implement cheaply or even for free!

    I don’t know of any posts on this, but now everyone’s comments are all contributing, so this post is becoming one. It’s like barn-building for DIY branding.

  29. If the question is projecting a strong personal brand, I’ve always advised clients that the easiest way to achieve this is consistency and uniformity in presence. You’d be amazed how inconsistent even some large brand personas are when it comes to how they represent themselves. This goes for everything from your email address business name, URL, twitter handle etc. It doesn’t take a designer to create these things. Consider buying a stock image that can be used consistently everywhere and use a lot of the ideas already suggested here by other commentors for keeping things simple. The main goal is to be recognizable and have a consistent presence in all the locations one might encounter your brand online or off.

  30. People should focus on what they are good at, and not look for shortcuts..

    Tina the best thing you can do is to tell them that there is no DIY tools, or shortcuts..if you can’t afford a real designer to design strong brand, then maybe you should re-think that brand.

  31. Your signature. Write it with a Sharpie 100 times, make it legible, scan in the one you like the best. Personal branding logo done :)

  32. just ask a good designer to help you out in exchange for complete freedom and a bit loose deadline….

  33. Brand is more than a design idea or typography. In 1969 NASA didn’t have a cool logo or a good picture, but they had good brand. Read more in this blog I found:

  34. FInd a way to get a graphic designer. Trade, give the designer a lot of freedom, etc. Design really isn’t something you should skimp on (although its often overlooked.) Design does A LOT to establish credibilty, communicate a message, and attract customers. Design’s impact is ofen subconsious, (the like the color, tone, images, etc.) and its here that customers are won and lost.

  35. This tactic may not be the most popular, but it gets used a lot in the commercial world — just copy something you like. Beyond that it’s all about how well you can use a piece of software to which there are many tutorials.

    Nothing wrong with finding something you really like and changing the name (of the company) color, font and some other personalized stuff.

    After all nothing is THAT novel anymore—we’re all constantly reinterpreting what’s already been done before.

  36. Develop content. A brand is not only about looks, but also about what is delivered. There is lots of great free blog templates, and for people that are not designers, and do not deliver anything visual, they can do a great job branding themselves through their writing.

  37. Hi Tina, I agree with Chris F…I believe you’re approaching the problem from the wrong end.

    My suggestion: Start with an idea, which will be the core of your personal brand. An idea or word like “simplicity” will work well.

    Next, build your decisions around the chosen core idea. You’ll send simple responses to the emails you receive, shop for simple clothing (with some nice detailing) and work to create a simple resume or personal portfolio site.

    Soon, your entire presentation will be consistent not only will others will begin to expect simplicity from you, but they will be rewarded when you provide what they expect from you.

    I hope that helps!

  38. Send that person a copy of Robin Williams’ “Non-Designer’s Design Book.” It might not go into a lot of detail about branding, but simply *neat* design (which the book WILL teach) will go a long way to instill confidence.

  39. Here is a kickstarter project addressing the issue of learning about typography.

  40. “Personal Brands” aren’t always (best) created by graphic designers.

    In the beginning, some things to focus on could be how you great others and how you sign off from emails. The language you use shapes the perception people will have of you.

    A strong smile and complimentary handshake.

    For meetings I like to wear nice boots. Makes me stand up straight I even like hearing my boots clicking as I walk. Reminds me about having a good rhythm, as well as confidence.

    Great handwriting and a signature helps the personal brand when it comes to writing thank you notes.

    After all of that, maybe answering emails in a timely manner, anticipating needs, all around general enthusiasm for a client’s business…

    Nail those things and (even as a designer) I’d say you’ll be remembered above the rest.

  41. I work for a sign company with an online design tool full of fonts and images. It’s really user friendly if someone is willing to take the time and get creative with it. Obviously most any sign shop is going to have their own designers, but with the option for the customer to create their own design, they save some money.

    Check it out.

  42. I disagree with all of you. (nothing personal) :)

    There is no short cut or cheep trick. In creating a brand you get what you pay for. Hire someone smarter than you that is a fantastic designer and you’ll look the part.

  43. There are a few online tools that make brand creation super easy.

    Websites like can be used to create simple, compelling personal sites. An upgrade to premium membership (something like $25) allows the use of a personal domain (which can be registered for about $10 with pretty much any hosting service), and loads of flexibility for imported content.

    A simple personal blog with wordpress (for a small fee) or, better yet, tumblr (completely for free) can be set up in a few minutes and integrated with the website above. Have a regular schedule of updates, and stick to it.

    Business cards from cost next to nothing and can be surprisingly elegant. A good example here:

    Overall principles: keep things clear, simple and consistent; make it easy for people to contact you; and err on the side of minimalism.

  44. …a piggy bank.

  45. Look at your process from a fresh perspective and sneak in a ‘cameo’ of your name.

    For example, if you are a detecitve agency, paint your name in fingernail polish on your thumb and make a thumbprint.

  46. You can always learn to do something. Doing it right needs expertise. Doing it perfectly needs experience.

  47. on the quick i’d say – nice layouts, great color options, and awesome paper texture.

    in the long term – no shortcuts for custom brand identity

  48. I always used to study post in news papers but now as I am a user of
    internet therefore from now I am using net for posts, thanks to web.