Truth: You don’t need Photoshop or Illustrator to make graphics.
Okay, so having those programs would be nice, but there are plenty of free alternatives. (The free programs will never quite compare to the expensive ones, but they’ll get the job done.) Standard disclaimer: in order to use ANY graphic software, you have to be willing to play and try new things. You will get frustrated. You will shake your fist at the computer. Downloading graphic software will not (unfortunately) turn you into a graphic making expert. Having a willingness to learn and get better will make the process easier, though.
This is an Illustrator alternative. It seems to have a really steep learning curve, though. I played around with it A LOT before figuring much of anything out. At the moment, I mainly use it to make shapes for my graphics. (I stick to mostly circles, as you’ve seen.) I am quite sure, however, that I am under-using this program. I’d guess that there are many more features I have yet to discover.
This is a Photoshop alternative. I’ve used both, and while Photoshop is definitely superior, GIMP is free and you can’t beat that. There are also plenty of GIMP tutorials online, so you can google just about anything. Messing with the layers and text is a bit more clunky than Photoshop (or even Pixlr), but it’s possible. I’ve used GIMP to add text to all my circle graphics, since I find that Inkscape is… not very user friendly when it comes to adding text.
One HUGE advantage to GIMP that you won’t get with Inkscape or Pixlr is the ability to pull color from ANYWHERE and use it in your graphics. It allows you to select color (I could pick colors from my blog header, for example) and then use it in your graphics. I actually did something similar with my cover photo on Facebook–all the colors came from the greens used in my blog design. I used the color select tool to pick up the greens I wanted and BOOM. Matching colors. (Pixlr has this feature BUT it only works within Pixlr. You can’t go to different tabs or pull up any picture to grab the colors.)
And take advantage of the layers in GIMP. Once I figured out how to do this (always save your work in the native GIMP format; it preserves your layers), it made creating graphics so much easier.
This is also a Photoshop alternative. (In some ways, it is better than GIMP.) And it’s on the web, so there’s nothing for you to download. I haven’t had the best luck with Pixlr, only because it’s been a bit buggy for me and won’t let me copy/paste things. But! If it works for you, this is a great option, and it goes anywhere you have Internet access. (This is what the instructor of my web design course used, so I’ve seen it in action.)
4. Font Squirrel
Fonts are AWESOME. The more fonts you have to play with, the more creative you can get with your graphics. (Dingbats are helpful as well if you want symbols.) Be careful about font licenses. If you’re using making graphics for your own personal use, you have a few more options. Many fonts, however, require you to purchase a commercial license if you use it for business purposes. I play the safe route and always make sure I have free for commercial use fonts. There are many more font websites out there, by the way, this is just my personal favorite. Feel free to share your favorite font website in the comments section!
5. Other Resources
HTML colors — I have no idea how important it is to stick to web safe colors, but it gives me a good starting point for choosing colors.
Hex codes to RGB values — If you find the hex code of a color you like, this tool will make it easier to figure out the RGB values. You can use GIMP for this as well.
What your color choices mean — I use this infographic to choose my colors, depending on what kind of feeling I want to inspire with my graphics.
A quick note .png versus .jpg: .png gives you transparent backgrounds and better picture quality, but they are bigger files and require more time to load. .jpg is smaller and faster to load, but doesn’t allow you to have transparent backgrounds and the image quality is not as nice. So keep that in mind. (I always try to stick with .png, unless the file is too big for the size requirements.)
What are YOUR graphic making secrets?