Quick and easy design for everyone

Hopper woman with Macbook Air

WHEN creating digital art, my weapon of choice is usually Gimp, a free and open source image manipulation program that runs both on my Mac and Linux PC. This preference for cross-platform tools means I rarely use Adobe Photoshop because it doesn’t run natively on my Linux desktop.

As powerful and versatile as Gimp might be, however, I realize that it isn’t for everyone. Many Photoshop users, for example, have a hard time adjusting to Gimp because the commands for performing familiar tasks are different. Photoshop itself can also be quite daunting to a new user, so the learning curve on either program might not be worth climbing for someone who merely needs to create an occasional graphic for his blog, a poster or a presentation for the office, or a cover design for his Facebook page.

For those needs, there’s Canva (www.canva.com), which bills itself as a tool that makes design simple for everyone.

Canva runs on your browser, so it will work whether you are running Windows, OS X or Linux. This also means there’s no software to download, and you can get down to designing almost immediately. The service is free, but you’ll need to register.

For the most part, Canva lives up to its billing— it is remarkably simple to learn and easy to use, yet the output can be quite impressive.

Once you’ve logged in, you can choose from 10 templates: a social media graphic (800 by 800 pixels); a presentation slide (1,024 by 768 pixels); a poster (42 by 59.4 cm.); a blog graphic (800 by 1,200 pixels) a Facebook cover (851 by 315 pixels); an A4 document (21 by 29.7 cm.); a card (14.8 by 10.5 cm); a photo collage (25 by 20 cm.); a business card (8.5 by 5 cm.); and an invitation (14 by 14 cm.). You can also choose to start with a document using custom dimensions. For example, I used Canva to design a 960 by 320 pixel graphic for the slider on my WordPress blog.

In the editing window, Canva puts all the available design tools on the left side of the screen. Here you can choose a layout, add graphics and text, choose a background for your work, or upload your own images.

A really powerful tool is the search box at the top of the panel, which gives you access to more than 1 million stock images to use in your design. If you see a graphic or a background that you like, simply drag it to your canvas. Once there, the visual element can be scaled up or down, moved and rotated.

While many of the elements are free to use, most images from the search results cost $1 each—not very much, really­—if you use them in your design.

The built-in image repository is convenient, and saves you the trouble of searching for royalty-free images on the Internet, but if you don’t want to pay the $1 charge, you can always upload your own images.

Text can be entered anywhere on your page, and you can choose from hundreds of beautiful fonts. Canva also offers you the option to use stylized text with built-in backgrounds (like a movie ticket, badges and word balloons). Like images, you can drag these onto your work and move them around as you wish.

Visual elements are stacked, and you can easily change the order in which they are stacked. You can even change their transparency to create ghost images. There is as yet no way to automatically align the different elements on a page, however, so if you want to center several elements on a page, you’ll have to do this visually.

When you’re satisfied with your design, you can click on Link and Publish, which will give you a link to your work and save it as an image file (PNG) or a document fit for printing (PDF). You may also choose to share your work on Twitter and Facebook.

Unlike many online tools, Canva is reasonably fast, assuming you have a decent Internet connection.

The service is still in beta testing so don’t expect it to run perfectly. I did stumble onto a glitch when I tried to publish a design that I had already published but made changes to. I e-mailed Canva support and was pleasantly surprised to receive a reply about an hour later with a workaround.

“We currently have an issue that causes the publishing error. However you should be able to export for now by changing the title of your design,” wrote Hazel Gascon of Canva.

I tried it and it worked.

The glitch notwithstanding, Canva is nothing short of amazing, and a godsend to anyone who needs to produce attractive graphics quickly, without having to learn a complex image editing program.

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