As you scroll through your Facebook or Twitter feed, what catches your eye: a boring wall of text or a bold, strong image? Obviously, it's the image (photos are clichéedly called "eye-catching" for a reason).
And this isn't just a vague anecdote. Facebook posts with images get 2.3x more engagement than those without images, while Tweets with images receive 150% more retweets. You can't even post to Instagram without a picture.
This means that if you're responsible for social media for your brand or small business, creating great-looking images should be a big part of your job. But, with every one of your competitors also trying to plaster social media with pictures, you need to make sure you have the tools to do a good job, and make strong and, yes, eye-catching images that drive traffic and engagement. The good news is you don't have to invest thousands of dollars in a professional design firm, or even hundreds of dollars in software—there are some fantastic free design tools to get you started.
If you're a small business owner, managing your business's social media accounts is just one of approximately infinite hats you wear. Make your life easier by automating the process. Take a look at these 4 workflows to better manage your brand's social media; or, if you're focused mostly on Instagram, here are 3 ways to automatically post to Instagram for Business.
The best social media image apps
Web, iOS, Android, macOS, Windows
Scaling a side hustle
Web, iOS, Android
Quickly making images to share on social media
Making your own designs
Web, iOS, Android
Creating occasional images
What makes a great social media image app?
You want to make an image that will catch your followers' eyes—something that will make them click and share and keep watching for the next great thing you post. You also don't want to spend a lot of time or money creating these images (because, let's face it—social media posts have a very short lifecycle).
The secret to creating these kinds of images is having a lot of great templates and design resources (images, icons, shapes, text styles) all readily available, so all you have to do is mix, match, and message.
The good news is that you don't need to pay premium prices to get premium results. I tested over 15 apps to bring you this short and sweet list of the best free apps for creating your own vibrant and professional social media images.
When testing and evaluating apps, I had a few key criteria that each app needed to meet to be included:
Is this app easy enough for amateur designers? In most cases, your company's designer (should you be lucky enough to have one) is not who will manage your social media. Thus, I wanted to make sure these apps could be used effectively by people (like me) with minimal knowledge about design and design tools.
Is this app suited well for social media marketing? Some apps are awesome, but have too many features when all you want to do is put together a good image to go with a social promotion. These apps are geared toward simplicity, so you don't have to spend agonizing hours designing every single graphic.
Is the app experience smooth? When trying to design something in a web app, a major factor is how smooth and fast the web experience is. Some apps might have passed muster, except that the web experience was consistently frustrating (freezing screen, slow to load designs, not saving or accepting changes, etc).
Are the design assets professional? There are a lot of tools that offer templates—just not the kinds of templates and assets that are going to help you represent your brand well. This list features apps that are ideal for companies and individuals looking to represent their brand with professional-grade social media images. (To be honest, this criterion weeded out the most apps.)
Is this app multi-purpose? While images for social media marketing may be your key reason for seeking out a graphic design tool, you'll ultimately be more productive if you only need to learn and use one tool for multiple marketing design purposes, such as creating email banners, postcards, flyers, blog images—you name it. The apps that made it into this roundup feature templates and tools for designing more than just social media images.
With that said—on to the apps.
Best free social media design tool for template-based design
Canva (Web, iOS, Android, macOS, Windows)
Canva is a powerful, but still simple to use, template-based graphics design app. There are hundreds of thousands of templates, graphics, and photos you can use as part of the free plan (that goes up to millions of assets with a Canva Pro subscription).
When you open Canva, you're presented with dozens of possible templates for everything from posters to Instagram Posts. It's a lot to navigate, but there's great search built in. Just click the search bar in the top right of the screen and look for something like "birthday instagram stories" to see more specific options. (I got 160 suggested templates just for that.)
Once you've found a template to work from, the drag-and-drop editor makes it simple to add your own resources. Just click Uploads then Upload Media in the left sidebar, add any images or brand elements, and you can drop them straight into the editor. One tip: right-click on any element and click Send Back or Send Forward if you want to move it behind things like the text (which you can double-click on to edit) or the image frame.
Like Google Docs, Canva enables you to share and collaborate with others, so if you want a second set of eyes on your design, click the Share button in the toolbar and then add an email address.
When you're done, click Download to save your post for, well, posting. If you've accidentally included any premium assets, you'll have the option to pay to remove their watermarks (normally at about $1 per asset). It's a handy option if you only occasionally use Canva. If this happens a lot, you can subscribe to Canva Pro for $12.95/month (or at least check out the 30-day free trial). Pro has heaps of extra designs, and some nice features, like automatic resizing, a social media scheduler, and the ability to upload your "brand kit," so you can easily add your logo, brand colors, and font to your designs.
Canva Price: Free for 250,000+ templates and 5GB storage; from $12.95/month for Canva Pro, which offers unlimited storage, millions of assets, and more.
Best free social media design tool for scaling a side hustle
Adobe Spark (Web, iOS, Android)
Adobe is the biggest name in graphic design, so it's no surprise they have an app designed for making social media and web graphics. Adobe Spark (or Adobe Spark Post on mobile for the tools you want) isn't as well known as Photoshop or Illustrator, but it's better for most people. And it's free to get started.
As I write this, Spark claims to have more than 34,000 templates for you to work from. A good chunk of them are Premium templates, only available to subscribers, but there are still thousands available for free. (To me, it looks like it's a roughly 50/50 split between free and Premium).
Search isn't as good with Spark as it is with Canva. The simplest way to get started is to select the kind of post you want to make from the home screen, then use the Templates search in the left sidebar to find the one you want, rather than to just search everything from the home screen. You can also create your own design using the Icons, Design Assets, and Backgrounds tabs in the sidebar, and, of course, adding your own photos (or pulling them from Pixabay) and text with the appropriate tools.
One great feature of Spark is how easy it is to resize and reformat your posts for different social media platforms. In the right sidebar, click Resize, and then select the different post style or design. Spark will then make a best guess at reformatting everything to fit. It normally does a pretty good job, and it should only take you a few seconds with the admittedly lovely-to-work-with editor to fix any quirks.
Spark is an excellent standalone editor, but it's hard to overlook its integration with the rest of Adobe's Creative Suite. If you plan to scale your business to the point where you need to use (and pay for) Adobe's more powerful tools, Spark is the way to go. You can create libraries (in the Libraries tab of the sidebar) that are available across all your Adobe apps, pull in photos from Lightroom, and use Adobe Stock images.
Beyond the Post (graphic) design type, Spark also provides two other project types: Pages and Videos (available as separate apps on iOS). With Pages, you can build a simple, sleek web page that you can then share via a direct link. Videos is just what it sounds like: a basic video editing app that works as smoothly as Spark's graphic design tool. You can even start with a template that will help guide you through ideal video structures for presentations, ads, and more.
The main downside of Spark's free plan is that Adobe adds a logo to the bottom corner of your design. If you click on this logo, it will say Remove Once, but, after lots of testing, the logo appears to be removable in all designs—you'll just have to deal with that upgrade pop-up each time.
Adobe Spark Price: Free for basic features; from $9.99/mo for premium features, such as logo upload and placement, branded templates and tools. (These premium features also come with an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, starting with the $19.99/mo plan.)
Best free social media design tool for quickly making images to share on social media
Pablo by Buffer (Web)
Pablo is a minimalist tool for placing text over the top of images from the team behind the social media scheduling app Buffer. It couldn't be simpler to use or in its design. To us, that's a feature—but if you need something with more options, check out one of the other great apps on this list.
Seriously, Pablo is barebones. Open the website and you're straight into the app. There's no need to create an account—because there are no accounts. In the center of the screen, there's a preview of your image. On the left, you can search for an image through Unsplash or click Upload Image to add your own. At the top of the screen, click Templates to choose from one of the six defaults. On the right, you can choose the size and shape of the canvas, add a filter, position the text, and insert your logo or another graphic. Click on the text to change its formatting, double-click on it to edit it directly. Oh, and click Reposition to change the position and crop of the background image. That's literally it.
Once you're happy with your post pic (and it won't take long for you to be), click Share & Download to save your image or post it directly to Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, or Instagram (or queue it up with Buffer). If you do queue it up with Buffer, you can also connect it to any of the other apps you use with Zapier.
For all the lack of options, Pablo is still on this list. It makes it beyond simple to create basic-but-good-looking social media images. Honestly, by stripping most features, it just makes it impossible to create ugly graphics.
Pablo Price: Free
Best free social media design tool for making your own designs
Desygner (Web, iOS, Android)
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Desygner has some of the most advanced features of any of the apps we tested—while still being simple to use. If you don't want to go the template route (although it does have thousands of great templates to work from), additional features like a free-drawing pen tool and the ability to import from PDF, PSD, and SVG files give you a lot more creative freedom.
Take that pen tool: with a project open, click Drawing and then Pen. Now, click and drag to draw a free-form line into any shape you want. Handy, right? Well, click on the shape you just drew, and you get some additional, super-powerful options in the top menu bar. You can click Convert to Image Box to create a frame that you can add an image to, or Opacity, Fill Color, Stroke Color, or Stroke to control how it looks. And you have all the same options with the other, shaped drawing tools and the Path tool, which is basically just the pen tool but you click to draw straight lines.
If you go to a lot of effort to make an Instagram post, you want to be able to use the same elements on Facebook. Click the resize button at the bottom of the screen, and select a new size. Desygner will convert your canvas to the new size—but as a new Page in the same document. This means you can work on one design and quickly replicate it for other platforms.
While working on your own designs like this is absolutely more time-consuming than working from templates (which, again, Desygner has thousands of), it does mean your social media graphics are going to be unique. There's a certain sameness to a lot of the default templates in every app, and you'll begin to spot them in your social media feeds. Desygner helps you stand out.
Desygner Price: Free; from $9.95 for more templates and assets, as well as features like saving your own designs as templates.
Best free social media design tool for creating occasional images
Of all the apps on this list, Snappa is the only one whose free plan has access to the exact same templates, graphics, images, and other design resources as the paid plan. The catch is that, instead of having to carefully check what template you're using, you can only download three designs a month.
If you only occasionally need to create images for your social media channels—or just want to create a one-off banner for your Twitter account or Facebook page—it's really nice to not constantly be running into upgrade notifications. As good as Canva and Spark are, the free plans do make you very aware that there's a paid plan they'd love you to be on. Snappa is a lot less pushy—but no less useful.
The other mild difference with Snappa is that its templates—while excellent—aren't as thoroughly themed as some of the other options. (Right now, just before Christmas, there are only three generic holiday-season Instagram post templates.) You need to look at the defaults as a base you can customize and build from, rather than something ready-built that you're just adding a photo and changing the words with.
If you want to make a birthday post, for example, you should look at the templates and pick one that has a layout you like. Then, open it and add your own picture with the Bkgrnd tool in the sidebar—either by uploading one or finding one of the included royalty-free stock images that works for you. You can customize it further by clicking on Effects and adding a color overlay, blur, or other adjustment—most of which serve to make any text on top of the image more legible.
Of course, you then need to add balloons. Because every birthday post has balloons. To do that, click the Graphics tool and then Icons. Use the search to find a balloon you like, and click to add it. To make sure everything lines up nicely, you can click the Toggle Grid option in the top toolbar and use it to position things perfectly.
When you're happy with how things look, click Download to save your image or Share to push it directly to your social media accounts—so long as you haven't maxed out your free posts. If you have, you'll need to upgrade or click Save to keep the file until the monthly limit resets.
Snappa Price: Free for 3 downloads or shares per month; from $15/month for unlimited downloads, shares, and integration with Buffer and your social media accounts.
Even the best tool can't make up for a lack of knowledge. Check out Design 101: How to make great graphics without design skills, and learn the principles you need to succeed in creating standout images for social media.
This article was originally published in October 2017 by Emily Irish.