Graphic Design 101: The Tools of the Trade

There's more than just Photoshop (who knew!)

I always try to emphasize theory before tools when learning design, which is how I learned. But the comments from the inaugural Graphic Design 101 post, and some of my own foggy memories have reminded me that it can be helpful to understand which tool to use in order to create a great layout, set type, or for just designing in general.

Before I create a list of options, I do want to stress that it can be incredibly helpful to go with what you know. If you’re on a timeline, it can be frustrating if not downright impossible to get the hang of a new program. A really clever design can be realized in almost any tool. So enough of my caveats, let’s get down to brass tacks:

MS Office or Apple Productivity tools.

Word, PowerPoint, Pages, or Keynote are designed for document or presentation production, but they can all easily be used to create cards and stationery. Here’s a short overview of some of the things you can do:

  • Import images
  • Set type
  • Create shapes
  • Change opacity of both shapes and photos

If you don’t already have these programs, most offer free thirty-day trials. These general productivity programs tend to be a bit easier to learn and don’t assume specialized knowledge. These tools are great for designs that don’t require complicated photo editing work or the creation of intricate patterns. You can still import images, though! Just remember they should be hi-res (300 DPI) for printing. (If you’re not sure about the quality of your photo, right click on the photo file on your computer and choose “properties.” There should be a details tab that will tell you what the DPI is.) If you’re not printing your designs at home, just remember to save the final version as a PDF for the copy shop or printer.

You could easily create a design similar to this tandem wedding invitation in any one of the above programs:

For the above, you’d need to set up the document for your desired size (i.e. your invitation is probably not an 8.5″ x 11″ document), import the tandem bike image, and add your text, working the font sizes and settings until you get the look you want.

Adobe Creative Suite (Adobe Creative Cloud)

The big guns: Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. These are sophisticated tools created for the professional user. Having said that, if you go on to YouTube you’ll find tons of tutorial videos. If you’ve never used these programs, trust me that you’ll need the tutorial videos; there is a steep learning curve.

All of these programs have overlapping function and features. Photoshop was created to manipulate photography and for creating photographic effects. Illustrator is for creating illustrations and manipulating vector graphics. Adobe InDesign is for creating layouts and heavy-duty documentation like books and ebooks, but could be used for stationery design.

Here are just a few of the advanced features that these tools offer over general productivity software:

  • The ability to work on layers: Layers (which you’ll find in Photoshop and Illustrator) allow you to alter and edit some parts of a design (on one layer) while leaving others unaffected (sort of like working with an art project, layers let you move individual elements before you glue them down, so to speak). For example, you might have a visual element, like a photo serving as a background layer, and your text on a layer above it. You can move the text around to different areas of the layout to see how the variations appear without affecting the image background layer. This holiday card from Up Up Creative demonstrates one way layers can be used, with the captions likely created on a separate layer than the image:

  • Sophisticated image manipulation: Not only can you create Instagram-style filters, but you can also do detailed photo editing with these programs, such as masking: selecting a certain shape or element within a photograph and touching it up, changing the color, etc., as well as doctoring up photos that may not have been optimal right out of your camera by using features like white balance to brighten them.
  • Creating vector images: If you want to digitally “draw” an element, Illustrator is the program use, to create what’s called a vector graphic. Although, this takes a lot of training, what I do is either start with a scanned line drawing, and use the “Trace and Expand” feature to turn it into a vector format, which can then be altered.  Alternatively you can use a stylus so you that it’s more similar to drawing with a pen and paper. For example the background flora imagery in this invitation suite is all vector art layered together or arranged to create one compound image:

  • Pattern creation: Among a million other features, Illustrator allows you to take one small visual element, like an ornament or a series of small flowers, and quickly turn it into a full-blown pattern.
  • Paths: Whenever you see text that is an arc or not in a straight line (see example below) it has been set on a path. In other words, an invisible shape (half circle, diagonal line, zig zag, etc.) has been created and the text has then been placed and set on this path to mimic the shape. For example, the text on the A Printable Press invitation below that reads “The Twenty-Fourth of September” and “Half Past Four in the Afternoon” has been set on a path:

  • Advanced typography control (letter spacing, kerning, line spacing, etc.): I will talk more about typography and type setting in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that if typographic accuracy is important to you, you should opt for one of these tools rather than the Office/Mac tools.

In the past, these programs were mostly cost-prohibitive if you were only hoping to use them for your wedding, but luckily Adobe now offers subscription-based use, so you can get monthly access to many of Adobe’s programs for around $30/month (some require year-long commitments, so just keep an eye on the fine print). You can also download trial versions of the software. A great (but not free) resource for learning these heavy-duty programs is

Here are two more designs that would require these types of sophisticated tools and would be difficult if not impossible to create in less industry specific programs:

This record wedding invite above uses some dimension and reflection effects found in tools like Photoshop or Illustrator.

Same thing with this wedding invitation from A Printable Press:

The image of the tree, lights and background are most likely vector art and are most easily created in a program like Illustrator. 

“General Public” Design Tools

These are free tools that either mimic some of the Adobe Creative Suite programs, or are simpler, less feature-rich versions that don’t require as much ramp-up to learn how to use them.

  • Pixlr: A free, web-based “Photoshop Lite” type tool. Includes layers and pretty sophisticated photo editing tools, but minimal typography control. (Side note: because it’s web-based you won’t be able to copy-paste screen shots into images.)
  • Seashore: A Mac-based program, again “Photoshop Lite” but with some interesting filters. Download includes a user guide.
  • Gimp: Available for both Mac and PC, Gimp is a free desktop application that also serves as a “Photoshop Lite” tool. It allows layers, and you can use any fonts that are installed on your computer with the program. There is a lot of online support for Gimp as well since it’s been around for a while, so you can troubleshoot the program pretty successfully through YouTube tutorials.

Design Your Own…

I researched several software packages or services for designing your own wedding invitations, but I can’t recommend any of them in good faith. They either have pre-made (and ugly!) templates that you can customize, so it’s not really designing from scratch. Alternatively, the palettes and images on offer are pretty clip-arty. In future posts I’ll talk about resources for good imagery.

One neat tool I did discover is Martha Stewart’s (of course!) app called “Craft Studio.” It seems to be targeted toward the scrapbooking set, but you can clearly use it to create invitations. It’s not strictly a design tool, in the sense that you start with a blank slate. The app provides elements, imagery and “tools” (glitter! punches! stamps!) that you can choose from to create a design. From what I can tell you can only import photos, so you are prevented from importing any other imagery (and clearly the business model is to get you to make in-app purchases of different design elements and themes). I haven’t used this myself, but it looks easy to use (which de-facto means less functionality) but if you’ve got some time and an iPad, it might be worth experimenting with.

I recently heard of a similar app called “MAKR,” which is brand new, so I haven’t had a chance to use it yet. Like the Martha Stewart app, it seems similarly user-friendly, but it’s more geared toward designing paper goods like invitations, business cards, and labels, so the typography, color, and pattern options all seem a little more advanced than Martha. Also, where the Martha Stewart app is a little on the sweeter/vintage side of design, MAKR is more trendy and modern. Both are only available for iPads at the moment. (Sorry Android users!)

Stay tuned as our Graphic Design Series 101 continues, and don’t hesitate to leave your questions and suggestions for future posts in the comments. (And if you’re working on your own designs, share those too! You can upload photos into Disqus, and you know we want to see!)

Featured Sponsored Content

  • Another great post! Even though I’m not designing wedding invites, I love learning about this stuff. Thanks for putting it together!

  • Dani

    I actually designed (and printed and cut out) our invites, save -the-dates, rsvp’s, registry information/stuff to do in our town insert, thank you’s, and am currently working on our ceremony program! I mostly draw comics and do a little animation, so doing something primarily word based has been pretty fun! This is the first basic mock-up; I’ve darkened the yellow just a bit because this yellow was too light through our printer. We printed these on this paper in white from Staples and it’s great! Slightly luxurious and the texture is really nice. Cutting them out had to be the worst part! We borrowed the industrial cutter from my fiance’s work and carefully rounded all the corners with plain ol’ scissors, because the corner-rounder tool we bought was crap. Overall, I’m super happy that we decided to do out own invites instead of ordering. Even though I’m sure none of our guests will notice or care, it was really fulfilling to look at the invite and say ‘dang, I made that!’

    • dg

      I love them!

    • JDrives


    • Maddie Eisenhart


    • sara g

      Aw that’s so cute! I just finished our Save the Dates last night (which I designed in Gimp and printed a Costco) and it’s a great feeling to know I did it myself.

    • Lena and Aggy

      Where in Bozeman are you getting married?! I do freelance wedding planning for a local planner in town but would love to give you any advice if you need any. I know APW is a huge community but Bozeman is such a small place, I never thought there’d be anyone from there on this site. Silly me! Good luck! (Also, great invitations!)

      • Dani

        We’re getting married at the Big Yellow Barn in Springhill! I would absolutely LOVE some advice! It’s so awesome talking to someone else from Montana, let alone Bozeman!

        • Lena and Aggy

          Ah! Big Yellow Barn is my fave! So gorgeous and the scenery is the absolute best. Send me an email at and lets chat! Wheeee!

  • Princess Consuela

    I made ours in Inkscape (free! and awesome!) and am really proud of them. Here’s our anonymized version. It’s printed on legal sheets (8.5×14), creating a small poster :)

    • JDrives

      Gorgeous color choices!

      • Princess Consuela

        Thank you! <3

    • Princess Consuela

      Also, we chose full-bleed printing, which Eleanor’s last post covered, so about 1/8″ is cut off all the way around, and it looks really cool bleeding off the edge of the sheet, but it took some figuring to make that look good, like extending the flowers weirdly toward the edge, but they are vector designs so I just dragged them to the edge and they came out great. I know nothing about graphic design other than what I taught myself on Inkscape to do these, so I know I did half of it the wrong way, but it doesn’t matter – still rewarding :)

  • dg

    My fiance also did our invites through adobe and I love that they’re so personal and were free. APW posted on facebook last week a guide on emailing out your own invites vs. using services like greenvelope, etc. Does anyone happen to know or have the link for that? I’ve searched all morning and can’t locate it. It was a link to another blogger’s post. TIA if you happen to know it.

    • Meg Keene

      I don’t think we posted that, I just looked. But if you post it and it’s good, we WILL post it, how’s that?

    • Katelyn

      I think I remember seeing it in my feed – pretty sure it was for Glosites, who are an APW sponsor.

      • dg

        Can’t find the post anywhere and I 100% saw it on FB this week. I don’t follow many wedding posts unless they’re from APW which is why I’m saddies that I can’t find it on glosites feed. Will post here if I find it.

        • Katelyn

          I found it! It was in my Pinterest feed – under Eleanor’s (e.m. papers) profile.

    • Lisa Gaetjens

      You should look into MailChimp. We used it to send out our save the dates and invitations. It lets you see who has opened the emailed and clicked on links (like to your wedding website), so you can know if some guests have not seen the invitation and contact them another way.

  • Rebecca

    Such a helpful post! I am curious, though, about how people go about printing these beautiful invites. Any tips on paper used, printers/ink, or printing companies used?

    • Bethany

      If you’re going to print yourself, you want to use either “cover stock” or something thicker. I think Wedding Paper Divas suggests something like 80-100 lb. stock. I would also recommend going to talk to a local printer in your area. I have never met a printer who wasn’t incredibly nice, patient and helpful. They will be able to give you suggestions on the thickness of the paper, and you can actually touch it and compare colors (white vs. pearl white vs. ecru vs. stark white …).

    • Princess Consuela

      We used and were really happy with the quality and prices. They foster cats, too, so – win.

    • Meg Keene

      You can print at home, and we have a tutorial on that:

      And we also have a printer sponsor: and a former letterpress printer sponsor: (tell them we sent you, obvs.)

    • Like Bethany said below, you’re going to want to use something like cover stock, look for something that is between 80-100 lb. (it will say on the pack). Talking to local printers is a spot on idea, especially if you don’t feel super comfortable printing on your own or if you don’t have a lot of places where you can look at paper samples.

      I printed all of our stationary/paper things at home (see picture! so fancy!), because I’m a designer and I used our wedding as an excuse to buy myself a fancy-as-fuck Epson printer that takes separate CMYK cartridges. HOWEVER! Your average at home printer can produce great invitations, but you usually need to have your printer on its best setting, and be aware that it will use more ink than any printer should ever be allowed to use. This is especially true if you’re going to print on something like a cover stock or a cotton based paper, because non-shiny paper will suck up a lot of ink. A LOT OF INK. Seriously.

      You also should make sure your ink is compatible with the paper you want to use. Sometimes with home printers there’s just no way to print on a cotton or textured paper because the ink will bleed or smudge, and you usually can’t change out inks because they use a very specific cartridge. So test prints are your best friend, BEFORE you buy a huge ream of cotton paper that you can’t use.

      In short, you can use a home printer and whatever ink it takes, just make sure to test print before buying your materials in bulk, and budget in your ink cost.

      Paper cutters are also worth it, if you’re going to have more than 10 things to cut down to a specific size. It doesn’t even need to be a nice one. My $15 paper cutter helped me churn out 70 invites, 70 programs, and all our paper flags, without even needing the blade changed. It’s a beast.

  • Bethany

    I just did this and it turned out so super well. It was one DIY thing I knew I could do, and I’m so proud of how they came out. … I designed ours using Illustrator (but I do graphic design/communications work by trade) so I have it already in hand. Much of the Adobe software is available for download for free for a 30 day trial. If you’re not into that, one thing a friend of mine did was design the typography in Word, and then used a stamping technique for the graphics — this meant she didn’t have to worry about anything coming out pixilated (which is not something you want on your invitations, or ever in design).

    A few resources I found that made things awesome: VectorStock. They have a minimum purchase of $25, but if you know you’re going to need a lot of imagery (I used little animal graphics on our RSVP card for the dinner selection choices, a big boat graphic, an anchor graphic) … it’s worth it, especially if you’re not an illustrator. ALSO free fonts are where it’s at. You can find all sorts of gorgeous scripts and other things for free. You just download them to your computer. I used

    In this case, printing will honestly make or break the design. We are friends with some printers, so we were able to work with them and ours came out beautifully. If you’re printing yourself, mess with your home printer’s settings to make sure you’ve increased the DPI (dots per inch) to as high as it will go (300 dpi is ideal). That will make things smoother looking. If you’re going to have someone else print it, DO NOT use a site like VistaPrint or OvernightPrints. We made that mistake with our Save the Dates and there was color separation (where you could see the blue, red, yellow, and black inks when they were supposed to be one) and it looked icky. Cheap, yes, classy, not as much. Work with a local printer. They are a little more expensive but it’s worth it in spades. They will let you come in to their shop to look at and touch the paper, and they can make suggestions on quantities and other details you may not have thought of. Most of them will provide you with a physical proof of your invite on the actual paper using the same techniques so you can make sure you love it before you print 100.

  • JDrives

    Once again, APW is eerily clairvoyant. Just this morning I was thinking that I’d like to start training myself in graphic design as a fun hobby and also a potential future part-time gig. THANK YOU so much for this helpful guide!

  • Kate

    I designed both our Save the Dates, and our invitations. Both were pretty simple, but I couldn’t find what I wanted online. I’m not a graphic designer, but I do have a decent artistic eye and I had a sense of what I wanted.

    For the Save the Dates, I used Gimp so I could use layers and reposition / resize the text, and layered the date (in fancy Jane Austen font) over an engagement photo for the front of the postcard. Then I used Word on the back of the postcard to put a short message and leave space for the address. I printed them on my home printer on the thickest cardstock I could find, had them cut at Office Depot, and mailed the out. They survived the mail just fine, although I wish I’d used something a little heavier and more like an actual postcard.

    For the invitations, I wanted something like a letter, and was having trouble fitting everything on a half sheet. I used a full sheet, set it up in Word, and used a couple of free, fancy fonts. I used resume paper for a high quality paper and printed them out on my home printer (although I had to run the occasional plain paper to clean the printer), sealed them with sealing wax, and sent them out in resume envelopes. They turned out really well.

  • Kayjayoh

    Big, big thumbs-up for I love it. Great tutorials on so many topics.

  • Kayjayoh

    Excellent post and good descriptions.

    I did almost all of our wedding stationery in InDesign (with one foray into Illustrator so I could use Vistaprint’s template for round stickers) and it all went quite smoothly. I downloaded a nice free font (fun and decorative, but readable, and with a name significant to our wedding day) which tied the whole thing together, since I didn’t use the same colors in any of the pieces. I’m really happy with how it all turned out.

    Another great thing about layers is that you can easily set up multiple versions of a thing by turning on and off various layers. Turn a layer on, print to PDF. Turn the layer off, print to PDF. Bam! Two versions.

  • MirandaVanZ

    I made our invitations using word, I made three columns on an 8.5 x 11 sheet on landscape orientation so we could get 3 invites out of each sheet of card stock. The colour is a little off from what gets printed so that’s why they are so bright. I’m making our programs too but I’m still working on them. They aren’t that fancy but they will get the point across and I enjoyed figuring out how much I could do with word.

    • ART

      I think they look great!

      • MirandaVanZ

        Thanks! I’ve never done anything like this before so I keep thinking that maybe I’m fooling myself into thinking they are good enough.

        • ART

          not at all!

    • Lisa

      Off-topic, but I love your reading from Ecclesiastes! :)

  • Amanda Allison (TBPacheco)

    After designing my own engagement party invites and some other party invites for work and friends, I found that graphic design was a really helpful hobby for me. Personally, I use a combination of lots of things, but if you can’t afford Adobe CS, look at Pixelmator. It’s about half the price with great features. Additionally, Picmonkey is a free website where you can edit photos and design on a blank canvas.

    Personally, I’m not very good with vectors and patterns, so I’ll hand-draw and scan in the image as the base layer and create on top of that. Way easier for me.

    Also, THANK YOU for posting this and for all the extra comments. My friends think I’m crazy for doing all of my wedding papers myself!

  • sheismle

    I am working on designing our invitations now. I’m in the sciences and have learned to use InDesign and Illustrator for making figures for publication, so it’s been interesting translating those skills to a more creative project. :) Although I’m more familiar with InDesign, I actually ended up using Illustrator for everything (mostly because VistaPrint has .ai templates for all their products, and the templates have a layer to show the bleed edge).

    I’ll put a word in for Google Fonts (nice free fonts, not the best browsing interface, but good previews) and Creative Market (for vector images & patterns) (not free, but not expensive; I spent ~$30 on 3-4 “packages” of vector elements).

    The overall process has taken quite a lot of time, but (1) there are a lot of pieces of paper involved (we are doing the “wedding weekend” thing), (2) I’m nitpicky and keep making changes/”improvements”, and (3) it is a zen-like activity in the midst of all the other wedding & life activities right now, so I’m enjoying it a lot!

    • Laura

      fist bump for transferring skills from figure-making to wedding crafts!!! ps, you use indesign for figures?? fancy!

      • sheismle

        Aw thanks! It’s the one pseudo-crafty skill I have. Once you start using InDesign, you will never go back. It’s great for posters too. :)

        • Laura

          same here re: pseudo-crafty skills :) when my friends hold craft night, i usually show up with my laptop and write code. and once i had a dream that i wrote a matlab script that could design my perfect wedding dress. oh, science. you are my life.

  • Laura

    I love GIMP! Although we eventually went with invites from Minted, I did spend a couple evenings creating a really fun invitation design with GIMP – that’s my version of being crafty. It’s also available for Linux, by the way!

    • Elissa

      I used the Gimp on Linux too. It takes some learning, but so does Photoshop. I used Inkscape for recolouring a vector graphic I bought from Shutter stock, and then imported it into Gimp, because it was the tool I was most comfortable with. I used Inkscape later for signage, and the covers for the programmes. The programme was just done in OpenOffice. A bit mix and match, but I was really pleased with how all of it turned out.

  • Outside Bride

    So I know this post is strictly about design, but I think it’s really important to consider your plans for addresses and such before picking software. The Microsoft Mail Merge function can be an incredible time saver once you get the hang of it and it’s a skill worth having, as addresses are just the beginning. You can merge spreadsheet text into your design in either Word or InDesign, but again, the learning curve is very different between the two. I think we will be doing our invitations in InDesign for the control, but I want to make sure I have the “mail merge” equivalent function down before I commit. The time savings of not having to hand-write addresses might be an OK trade for any sort of sloppy (and visible only to me!) design elements I can’t correct in Word. Just food for thought.

  • Caitlin_DD

    Love these articles! Currently working on my invitations in Photoshop.

  • Amanda

    I designed our save the dates in (the free!) Libre Office Draw. It has a lot of the same capabilities as inDesign. Because Libre Office is similar to Microsoft Office, there hopefully isn’t as steep a learning curve. Holy cow, I remember learniing inDesign and it is a beast to learn. There’s like 5 different ways to do any one task.

    Anyway, we printed the save the dates on 4×6 colorful cardstock from Amazon, and bam! instant save the dates!

  • sara g

    I’m a bit late but I finished our save the dates yesterday. On the back is a black and white picture of us and our wedding website info. I like how it turned out… it’s really simple but it works for us. I couldn’t find any pre-made designs that I liked, that weren’t like $3.00 per card, so I gave up and made my own using Gimp.

  • MEM

    I designed ours at You do have a limited set of fonts and can’t do some of the more detailed work but I found it easy to use and not as overwhelming as when I attempted to design my own in publisher. The final product looked amazing and came with appropriate envelopes. it also wasn’t too expensive (although I’m not sure I’d call it cheap)

  • If you’re into it, I think designing your own is a great way to go! After what felt like months of searching, I finally designed our own in Microsoft Word of all places (not something I recommend.) I think they came out great, but the programs suggested are much better tools and you’ll deal with a lot less frustration. We ended up printing them at a local print shop on heavier weight cream “linen” stock and made a watercolor border around them. It was awesome to be able to say that I made those : ]

  • Pingback: Why Brides Should Pick DIY Invitations | Splash of Silver Stationery()