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Scissortail's Learning Nest by Kayleen Holt
18 FREE Graphic Design Resources for Instructional Designers

Introduction

"Design and aesthetics have a profound impact on how users perceive information and learn, judge credibility and usability, and ultimately assign value to an online experience."

Jorge Reyna, The Importance of Visual Design and Aesthetics in e-Learning

I don’t know which is worse: when a client seems to think all I do as an instructional designer is make the course “look pretty,” or when they don’t care at all about visual design and want me to use the ugly graphics the SME created in PowerPoint.

Either way, making a course visually appealing is important but can be challenging, especially for those of us who have no graphic design background. I like to hire a graphic artist whenever I can, but budget constraints often require me to create my own graphics, eLearning templates, and slide designs (and let’s not forget, blog graphics). In this post, I’ll share with you some of my favorite sites for stock images and graphic design tools.

Stock Image Sites

One of the most common questions I see in instructional design forums is, “Where can I get free stock photos?” Fortunately, there are many sites available with amazing, high-quality images. I’ve listed the ones I use below. For each site with a search engine, I searched for “free” and picked an image I liked. (I’ve been dreaming of a beach vacation, so that may have influenced some of my choices.) I’ve given attribution in each case, even when not required—because photographers and graphic artists appreciate it (and I appreciate them).

Free Stock Photos

Pixabay offers photos, vector graphics, illustrations, and videos that are searchable by orientation, category, size, and color. Crediting isn’t required.

orange sunlight filtered through oak trees
Image by jplenio from Pixabay

Pexels is also a great place to find high-quality stock photos and videos, searchable by orientation, size, and color. As with Pixabay, credit is not required.

silhouette of a woman with her arms outstretched on a beach at sunrise
Photo by Jill Wellington from Pexels

Morguefile, as described in their terms and conditions, is “an administrative platform” that allows users to upload their images for others to download. The visual appeal of the images varies, but you can definitely find some stunning imagery here—including free photos, videos, vector graphics, and templates. License terms may vary with each image.

the sun sets over the water near a rocky coastline, casting an orange and purple glow
Photo by Pellinni at Morguefile.com

Gratisography offers a variety of whimsical photos and vectors for free that can be used for “almost anything you can think of” (according to their license terms).

a woman playfully grabs onto the underside of a metal staircase next to a brick wall, swinging her feet beneath her
Photo courtesy of Gratisography

Unsplash is another great site for free photos that don’t require attribution. They can be searched by orientation and color.

mohamed-nohassi-odxB5oIG_iA-unsplash
Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Free Vector Graphics, Videos, and Icons

Vecteezy offers free vector art, stock photos, and stock videos. Attribution is required when using the free version. The Pro license is $9 a month (if paid yearly).

Woman-in-bikini_generated
Beach Vectors by Vecteezy

The Noun Project is your one-stop shop for icons. Attribution is required (and automatically generated) for basic downloads (the free account) if the icon is larger than 100px. For a few dollars per download, you can get a royalty-free license that does not require attribution.

Icon of a dollar sign in a "no" symbol

Need stock video? Coverr has got you covered. (I’ll show myself out.) You can enter a search term or browse videos in 20+ categories.

Free Diverse Photos and Illustrations

For photos that are inclusive of disabled people (rather than regular stock photos that put an abled person in a wheelchair or shows hearing people badly feigning ASL), check out Disability Inclusive Stock Photography and the Disabled and Here Collection. Both sites require attribution.

 

African American woman smiling at a computer and signing in ASL
Credit: Disability:IN

Disabled And Here describes itself as “a disability-led effort to provide free and inclusive images from our own perspective, with photos and illustrations celebrating disabled Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC).” One thing I love about the site is that it provides alt text for each photo. Not only is this a convenient time-saver, but it also ensures that the description aligns with the terminology the models in the photo use for themselves. For example, the alt text for the below image is, “Three Black and disabled folx (a non-binary person holding a cane, a non-binary person sitting in a power wheelchair, and a woman sitting in a chair) look seriously at the camera while a rainbow pride flag drapes on the wall behind them.”

Three Black and disabled folx (a non-binary person holding a cane, a non-binary person sitting in a power wheelchair, and a woman sitting in a chair) look seriously at the camera while a rainbow pride flag drapes on the wall behind them.
Credit: Disabled And Here

Black Illustrations is another wonderful resource for inclusive images, offering some free illustrations and templates and many low-cost options. All the illustrations feature Black people, as the name suggests. A subscription to access the entire library of 1000+ images costs $89 a quarter.

Black Couple Picnic on the Beach
Credit: Black Illustrations

Free Graphic Design Tools

Canva is my go-to site for creating beautiful graphics quickly. It’s free to use, and you can unlock more features (including many stock images) with a subscription. I pay $120 a year for Canva Pro and create all my blog title graphics (and many others) with it.

WordArt is a gem I just discovered this week, and it is oh-so-cool. It’s an online tool for creating word cloud images, which can take any shape you can imagine. The tool includes many customization options. You can even upload your own images to fill with text. You’re restricted from selling standard quality (free) images, but you can buy images individually rather than having to pay for a monthly subscription. I tried it out with my company logo and some text I imported from my website. 

Word cloud using the logo for Scissortail Creative Services showing a stylized bird with outstretched wings and tail feathers. Words fill the background, including Mission, Goals, Creative, Scissortail. Custom, Help, Aspire, Learning, Achieve, and Engage.
Created with WordArt.com

I just learned about removebg recently, and it’s already made my life easier. (I’ve forgotten who I heard about it from, sorry.) Upload an image, click a button, and that’s it—no more background. I used it in last week’s post to show off my new microphone.

Adobe Color Wheel offers help with one of the most challenging parts of graphic design (in my opinion)—creating a color palette. It’s a fun tool to play with, and even offers some new accessibility tools. Here’s a sample palette. You can also extract colors from an image and save them as a color palette.

Screenshot from Adobe Color Wheel showing a custom palette of complementary colors in peach, orange, and green tones. The hex codes and RGB values are shown for each color.

The Color Blind Safe tool tells me that the swatches are color blind safe. But that doesn’t mean you can throw the colors just anywhere, all willy-nilly. This where the Contrast Checker tool comes in handy. If I were to put the light pink color on top of a medium green background, it would not only look bad, but it would not have sufficient color contrast for accessibility.

Screenshot of the Adobe Contrast Checker tool showing pink text on a green background, which fails the contrast check with a contrast ratio of 1.88 to 1.

What’s great about this tool is that it doesn’t just tell you there’s a problem. It offers suggestions to fix it—in this case, either black text on a medium green background or light pink on a dark green background.

Screenshot of Adobe Contrast Suggestions of black text on a medium green background or pink text on a dark green background. Each suggestion has a contrast ration of 5.0 to 1.

Have you ever seen a really cool font somewhere and wondered what it was so you could use it in a course? What the Font lets you upload an image (or take a photo if you have the mobile app), and it gives you a list of fonts like the ones in the image. When I uploaded the Scissortail logo, it didn’t show me the exact font (Montserrat), but it identified several similar fonts. The screenshot below shows only a few of the ones in the list.

Whatthefont

GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Program) is a free, open-source image editor that’s available for multiple operating systems. I haven’t played with this one much yet, but I’ve heard nothing but good things.

Photopea is another one I just learned about, thanks to my friend Sean Pruitt, who is an amazing graphic artist and owner of Colored Bean Productions. He says this browser-based app is “an almost exact Photoshop clone.” 

Summary

There’s one other powerful graphic design tool I haven’t listed because it’s not free, but you probably already have it: PowerPoint. It’s a tool that gets a lot of hate because of how often it’s misused, but it’s just a tool. You can use its power for good or bad. Here’s a post from Tom Kuhlmann that is sure to spark some creative ideas about its use as a graphics editor.

That’s it for my list, but if you are still hungry for more—and you’re ready to go down a fun rabbit hole—check out these awesome lists other people have put together.  

Other Resources

The first three links in the above list are free resources. The others are books. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn a small amount if you purchase using these links. You won’t pay any more, and I don’t receive any incentive for recommending these books. I never recommend books I don’t personally use.

Weigh In!

What are your favorite graphic design resources? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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