Jane Bozarth, director of Guild Research, recently interviewed L&D professionals about the challenges of working under budgetary constraints. Not surprisingly, she learned that designers and developers in this predicament often depend on free or low-cost solutions. The practitioners she spoke with identified some of their favorite low-cost graphic tools when creating eLearning on a budget. Nine are highlighted below. To read the complete Guild report, download eLearning on a Shoestring.

Nine low-cost graphic tools for creating eLearning on a budget

Cave paintings are proof that humans used symbols to communicate during ancient times. Today we are witnessing a return to more visual forms of communication. This trend is evident by the emergence of emojis and icons. The popularity of icons in eLearning makes sense: while language is nuanced with regional and cultural differences, symbols are generally understood throughout the world.

The Noun Project is one of several sites L&D professionals working on a budget can turn to for icons. The visual library, which began with a $1,500 Kickstarter campaign, now boasts a public domain repository of more than one million curated icons. New sets of graphic symbols are constantly added, and the organization periodically sponsors facilitated design workshops called iconathons where artists from around the globe contribute civic-oriented symbols around themes such as urban disaster preparedness, sustainable energy, and human rights.

The Noun Project’s advanced editing features allow designers to customize the color, size, rotation, orientation, background color, and background shapes of the icons they download. Downloading images is free; however, users must credit the artists (who are paid royalties) according to a standardized template. A $39.99 NounPro upgrade allows unlimited royalty-free downloads.

FlatIcon.com was founded by the creators of the startup Freepik. Flaticon offers vectorial and editable icons. Its comprehensive database, created for and by designers and developers, is grouped in collections of 16 to 380 images. Users can choose from a wide variety of themes—from business or teamwork to young avatars. The icons are available in vector or raster format, as PNG, SVG, EPS, PSD, and BASE 64 files. Icons can be customized for personal and commercial projects. Most of the resources offered at Flaticon can be accessed for free, as long as users acknowledge Flaticon. The company’s Premium plan, which costs $7.50 per month based upon an annual subscription, allows designers to utilize all illustrations sans attribution. 

Flaticons.net offers more than 2,500 royalty-free flat icons that users can download and customize for personal and commercial purposes. Available images include simple stars, hearts, and squares, as well as message bubbles, clocks, and coffee cups. Images can be sized, colored, and then downloaded as PNG files. While the selection of icons is more limited than what the Noun Project or flaticon.com offer, designers will find many useful symbols that can be used with no restrictions whatsoever.

Retype is one of several iOS apps from Sumoing. It is available from Apple’s App Store for $2.99. Retype is an inexpensive way for L&D professionals to transform text into eye-catching designs. The clean, easy-to-use interface allows designers to add stylized text and effects to images. The app can help make eLearning projects more visually appealing. It can also be used to create posters, invitations, and banners. Features include 3-D shadow effects, multi-color fonts, and an assortment of royalty-free background images.

Draw.io is a free browser extension for Google’s G Suite that can run on or offline. It is an alternative to Microsoft’s Visio, which is not free, but offers another low-cost diagramming option. Draw.io’s intuitive user interface makes it easy for eLearning designers to create flowchart layouts. Many find the tool particularly useful for storyboarding. The drag and drop program features an assortment of templates; users can easily add text or graphics and create and edit layers. A wide selection of shapes, colors, and connector arrows allow for customization. Designs can be shared and exported in a variety of file formats.

ChromeVox is a free screen reader that is pre-installed on Chromebooks. When enabled, it permits visually impaired users to use jump commands and take advantage of braille captions, among other accessibility features. eLearning designers can use the free tool to preview how a site might appear to a person with a visual disability such as colorblindness.

Adobe Spark is a free graphic design app from Adobe Systems that allows users to create simple videos on their desktops or mobile devices. Some eLearning designers find the tool helpful for producing short explainer videos. Users can incorporate photos, motion graphics, icons, and text overlay into a variety of professional-looking styles and themes. They can create a soundtrack using their own recorded voice and imported music, or choose from the many free sound clips available.

Although creating and exporting a project is free, finished projects contain the Adobe Spark logo. Premium packages, starting at $9.99 per month, allow designers to delete the Adobe Spark logo and insert other branding information if desired. Premium packages also allow users more design flexibility, as well as access to additional fonts and colors.

Affinity Photo is a photo editing software program from Serif. Retailing for $49.99, it is a low-cost alternative to Photoshop for eLearning designers working on projects that require high-quality image output. It offers basic photo enhancements such as cropping, retouching tools, and red-eye removal, as well as more advanced features such as 360-degree image editing, liquify effects, and lens distortion correction. It is compatible for both Windows and Mac systems. Affinity Photo works with many file types, including RAW, JPG, TIFF, PNG, and PDF, but does not support animation files. Users note that the program is somewhat complicated, and the company offers minimal customer support.

Affinity Designer is another product from Serif, the same European software developer responsible for Affinity Photo. It is marketed as a low-cost alternative to Illustrator, and also retails for $49.99. Designers creating eLearning on a budget can use the program to create custom typography and sophisticated vector-based illustrations. Accuracy is ensured with responsive design, advanced grids and one million percent zoom. The program offers full optimization for UI, UX, websites, and app design. The dynamic symbols tool allows designers to edit one base object and have it automatically update instances of it across an entire project.