Episode 10: Ditch Canva for Real Designers

Episode 10: Ditch Canva for Real Designers
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 28:29
 
1X

What’s the value of good design to a university’s brand reach? Jon-Stephen Stansel thinks it’s worth an awful lot more than Canva’s $13/month for overused templates. In this tenth episode of Thought Feeder, J.S. and Joel talk about how using mass-produced templated designs from any service can negatively affect an organization’s visual brand. They also offer alternatives to help bridge the gap for non-designers who are responsible for doing design work.

Episode 10: Ditch Canva for Real Designers
Season 1

 
 
00:00 / 28:29
 
1X

What’s the value of good design to a university’s brand reach? Jon-Stephen Stansel thinks it’s worth an awful lot more than Canva’s $13/month for overused templates. In this tenth episode of Thought Feeder, J.S. and Joel talk about how using mass-produced templated designs from any service can negatively affect an organization’s visual brand. They also offer alternatives to help bridge the gap for non-designers who are responsible for doing design work.

Episode 10 Transcript

Joel Goodman
Welcome to Thought Feeder, I’m Joel Goodman. Joining me as always is, the illustrious Jon-Stephen Stansel, and today we are talking about a scourge on creativity, brand efficacy… Canva. Okay, well, that may be a little harsh.

Jon-Stephen Stansel
No, no, it’s not harsh at all! Let me at ’em, I’m ready to go, let’s take down Canva! Let me lose some followers on Twitter and upset some folks.

JG
Come on, if they haven’t read your blog post on Canva yet, then…

J.S.
Yeah, well, you know this kinda came out, and I’ve gotten the reputation of being the anti-Canva guy, a little bit. And it’s not just Canva — Canva is the easy target to pick on. There are so many graphic design template apps. There’s Adobe Spark, there’s Over, there’s a whole bunch of them out there. Canva is, by far, the most popular one and probably the best interface, but it’s one of the biggest offenders.

I did a presentation at CASE, a while back just talking about some trends in social media that I think have kind of passed. I had one slide in my slide deck that said, Canva isn’t a replacement for a graphic designer, and “Canva makes you a graphic designer at the way, a microwave makes you a five-star chef,” and there was a collective gasp in the room. Like, oh, but J.S.! I use Canva.

JG
[laughs] Audible.

J.S.
I know. I know you use Canva because all the templates look the same and I can spot a Canva template from a mile away. And, honestly, so can your audience, because all the content looks identical. It’s time that we move past Canva and start actually budgeting for graphic design professional content for our programs. Generally, you don’t see a university using Canva for major work but I have seen very large universities use Canva for social media content on their main accounts. And I can tell because I can get on Canva right away and go, okay, well there’s the template you used, let me change out the colors and I could recreate the same content you just put on your Twitter account that has 70,000 followers, with content that you made on Canva, probably a free account. And frankly, it’s uninteresting, it’s boring, and it looks like every other — it looks like every single coffee shop that sprung up in your downtown area.

JG
Now, J.S., I think there are some ways that…

J.S.
Is anyone still listening?

JG
I think there are some ways that applications like Canva could be used in good ways. But the problem is if you don’t care enough to spend the money on real graphic designers, do you care enough to spend the money on setting up these tools to actually be something that can be used institution-wide or organization-wide? And I think in general, that’s not the case, because what you could do with a tool like Canva — maybe not Canva specifically but a tool like it — you could have your staff graphic designers or a freelance graphic designer that creates assets for you put together customized templates for your institution in the same way that you know in the olden days, there would be a there be a Photoshop file for the alumni magazine, or I guess an InDesign file for the alumni magazine, and they would have all your styles flowed in and really all you had to do was plug in photos and choose what layouts and things that you wanted.

Why couldn’t you have your staff designers design, a bunch of really good, solid say, social media card templates that really what you had to do was, choose the template that you want, one that is branded specifically for your university, and is from your brand manager or whatever the designer that’s managing the brand for you, brand visuals? Why don’t we do that? Why don’t universities do things like that?

J.S.
I think many do and that’s what I recommend to people who come to me and go, I’ve got a small program, I don’t have the budget for a graphic designer, I don’t know how to use the Adobe Suite, or I don’t want to pay for it. But, you know, can I still use Canva? And I think that’s a reasonable solution. The problem is, Canva is easy enough to be extremely dangerous. Because what happens is, non-professional marketers running their social for those smaller accounts start to get bored, and idle hands are the devil’s playground, right?

JG
Right.

J.S.
So, they were like, man, I’m tired of using the same Canva template let me go in and see what I can change and update. And, oh, Canva just released some new templates, they sure do look pretty. They’ve got a very “Joanna Gaines look” to them. Let me change them to our brand colors and slap our logo on it and now it’s branded, right, because we’re using our colors and our logo so it’s branded now. Well, no. No, your brand is more than just your colors and your logo, there’s a lot more that goes into it.

So, yes and no. So, yes, create custom Canva templates that people can drag and drop their content into but also enforce the fact that they have to stick to those templates. And if they want something different, they need to come back to you, rather than going rogue and trying to make something on their own in Canva because they’re not… my biggest beef with Canva is, one, they market themselves in this way, you know? They say we’re going to make graphic design accessible to everyone. It’s easy to do graphic design! No. Graphic design is hard. That’s why we have graphic design schools and people go and get degrees in Graphic Design, you know? It is a profession, and it’s a profession that requires a lot of training and receives very low pay. We need to respect our graphic designers and respect there, work for one, and hire them, and budget for them. And also we have to realize that not just anyone can do graphic design. It just like, I think, any creative position. People assume that just about “anybody can do it,” and that’s not the case. It does require time and training and effort. Canva isn’t graphic design, it’s cut and paste.

JG
Yeah, I kind of view Canva as… So there was a whole slew of these products that started coming out that, you know, wanted to “democratize graphic design” or, like you said, make graphic design accessible for any person whether they know it or not. I think that kind of started with sites like 99designs, Fiverr to some extent can be used this way. But there was a time when you started a new business if you had a startup, for instance, what did you do for branding? Well, you didn’t have any capital to go spend $1,500 on a middle-tier, maybe low-tier freelance graphic designer who actually could create something nice for you. You thought, man, I’ve got 25 bucks in my pocket. I’m going to see if I can get a logo for $25. And then what you would get is someone pulling out a template that they had in a folder, that they’ve used for 1,000 other bids on 99designs, tossing in your business name, maybe changing the font, maybe not changing the font, switching up the colors to ones that you liked and presenting that. But you’re looking at a concept that thousands and thousands of other people have been pitched before and most likely, if it’s one of the better-looking ones, that thousands and thousands of other people have used for their own business identity.

And Canva is the sort of tool that takes that concept and says, “well let’s cut out the middleman,” we don’t need to have someone, you know, if this person is just pulling up a template that they’ve created and throwing in different colors and everything so we can just create a user interface for the normal person to do that and charge them that $25 every month so that they can do it themselves. And there’s, like you said, J.S., there’s so much that goes into design as a professional, whether it’s, graphic designer or any other sub-discipline within design.

I’m a designer, most of my friends are professional graphic designers, that is what they do for a living, and doing this, I think, it hurts the industry. It hurts the profession, for one, and that’s always been one of the bigger arguments against people using 99designs, is that it really does hurt an industry of people that have spent years studying this. That it’s not just drawing pictures. It’s people that have studied color theory, they’ve studied semiotics, they’ve studied how design affects emotion and affects how you’re going to convince people to take actions. And when you kind of take away all that knowledge, commoditize design just ends up looking like the same old thing because it’s a couple of people’s vision of what will work for everyone.

J.S.
And let’s compare it to another field. Our staff photographer — we have one staff photographer — because his schedule is packed every single University event, every single thing, we get photo requests, “we want the photographer there,” “we need the photographer here.” Well, why can’t you take your own pictures? You’ve got a camera in your back pocket, right? You know, or we can loan you a camera. It’s because they realize that the difference in quality between photos from a professional photographer versus what they can do, themselves as amateur photographers is a drastically huge difference. I don’t understand why they don’t apply that to graphic design as well.

JG
[sarcastically] Well, J.S., what about Instagram filters? Can’t you just throw a filter on top of a photo? [laughs] That’s. Do you remember, like three or four years ago, it might have been longer than that, honestly, but when newspapers were firing their photography staff and going to just, like, any reporter out there carrying an iPhone can take a picture and eventually hit… Did you ever see that?

J.S.
Oh, yeah. I’m currently I’m reading No Filter: The Inside Story of Instagram right now which we will make it a Thought Feeder Book Recommendation of the Week, right there. It’s worth the read.

JG
All those newspapers ended up hiring back their professional photographers, well not all of them, but the ones that are still considered legitimate journalism hired back their staff photographers because there’s a real skill and art, and there’s a lot of knowledge that goes into taking a good photograph. One that communicates what you need it to communicate and supports what’s written in an article. You don’t just say, well, I’m gonna switch all this photography to candids, taking on a slew of different phones with different white balance settings and at different focal lengths.

J.S.
Exactly. You know, and part of it too is Canva is not foolproof, even using the templates. If you do not have a basic understanding of graphic design, you’re not looking at a lot of the details, you can have a lot of slip-ups. One thing, I’m not just railing against Canva. I’ve taken the time. I’ve played with it. I’ve done a lot of things inside Canva, so I’ve got inside knowledge of its strengths and weaknesses. And a lot of the trendy fonts right now people use because they think, Okay, that looks nice, that’s the one Canva proposes so I’m going to just automatically use what’s in that template. And I think one of the biggest culprits and worst fonts in there is called Brusher. It’s like the, it’s not as bad as Comic Sans but it’s getting there, where the letters, the lowercase “b,” and the lowercase “n” is very difficult to, they look like a “D.” The end looks a bit like an “R” so if you write the word —  I ran across the word “deans” somebody spelled out in Brusher, and I couldn’t tell if it was “bears.” “deans,” or “beans,” and an amateur designer is not thinking of those sorts of details. A lot of times they just think, okay, it’s Brusher font, this looks nice. This is what everybody’s using right now. Yeah. Maybe it’s not the right typeface for you to use.

So, there are so many design pitfalls that you can step into even within Canva’s templates. And then onto the fact of… We talked about homogeneity on last week’s episode and do you really want your program looking like every single other person using Canva out there? You need that differentiation, you need something unique that’s you. Canva is not branding,

JG
And I think on the flip side of that statement in particular. Do you want your program looking so different from the rest of your university branding, that it sticks out as probably something that looks unprofessional and terrible and unappealing? Because that happens a lot, too, you know? And you’ll get, especially with underfunded departments where they’ve got, you know, a faculty person dictating to a student worker what an ad or share card should look like. And they look in the stock photo collection that’s on Canva, maybe they add a photo filter and then, like, ehhh I don’t really like this… Do you know what I think this is like? It’s like the new media version of when we let faculty and random staff edit their web content and ended up with purple text and brush script fonts and all that junk that would show up on our websites.

J.S.
Joel. Will you allow me to take a sip of my tea?

JG
Of course [laughs]

J.S.
Because this sort of thing happens all the time at universities. Where we have programs who don’t want to comply with university branding because “we’re different.” And “we’re special.” And one thing we have to remember is that the limitations that we put on us ourselves through branding — what our brand colors are what our brand fonts are what are our look and what our tone of voices — that’s not a weakness, that we’re taking away crayons out of your box, that is a strength. The brand is your strength, not your weakness. Those smaller programs on campus that want to be their own thing, they are doing so at their own risk of losing the strength of the overall brand of the university. And by using Canva templates they’re even diluting it even further.

So, Canva has currently, at last count has more than 4 million users. 4 million people are using Canva right now. And all of those users have seen all of the templates that Canva has to offer. They know what Canva content looks like, they’ve seen the template that you’re using, and when they see it they know it’s there. So, maybe, while non-Canva users may not know what all those templates are they certainly have seen them out there before and all of a sudden all this content looks the same, and your content is now lost and drowned out in a sea of Canva templates. And that’s not what you want no matter what colors you change it to, no matter what if you slap a university logo on it, it still looks like that content that’s out there.

Okay, all right, um, soapbox J.S. week. All right.

JG
Well, I think there’s —

J.S.
I just gotta say I’m — Joel, if you haven’t noticed, I’m a little passionate about this. I just, a little bit, like, when I see a Canva template used on a university account my blood pressure goes up just a little bit and the little vein in my head starts going, pop. Because I see it all the time, and it’s not, I mean, there are no… sigh

Social media people are overworked. We have to crank content out constantly. We may or may not have access to graphic design teams and half of the time, your graphic design people are working on print projects which, somehow, people think are magically more important than anything digital so you’re on your own creating your own assets. Well, okay, here’s what I’m going to advocate for social media people who have to create and do their own graphic design, rather than using Canva. This is going to take time and effort, but, go to your supervisor and say, “Look, I am responsible for creating digital graphic design content. I do not have the training for it. I’m not a graphic designer, allow me a certain number of hours a week to spend some time on skill shares.”

We’re on university campuses, audit Graphic Design 101, heck, let me watch some YouTube videos if I have to. But make it that professional development to learn just the fundamentals of graphic design. You don’t have to be the next Paul Rand or Saul Bass, but just learn the basic principles of it and make that a part of your job. The return on that investment will pay back tenfold. Yes, it’s going to take a lot of time to learn how to use the Adobe Suite at the beginning. But at this point for me, I’m not a professional graphic designer but that’s what I had to do. And I can turn out something that looks really good and looks really professional in a matter of minutes now, and a lot faster than I could personally use Canva. And it’s branded to the university, and we own the content, it’s not something that belongs to Canva.

JG
Yeah, yeah, I think, going back to your comments on you know the restrictions of university brands I think in a lot of ways, there’s a level of flexibility if you get real graphic designers in. There’s a lot you can do with your brand standards of typography, of photography style, of colors. You know, a limited color scheme, that actually provides a ton of flexibility. It’s when you break out of those guidelines or break out of that fence when you really get in trouble with trying to design something good.

Because for the most part, universities don’t normally just hire a fresh-out-of-undergrad designer to do a full University rebrand and redesign. It generally doesn’t happen. They generally spend a ton of money to have a new logo created, or to have their color palette adjusted or whatever else. And they’re paying real professional designers, in the majority of cases, to spend time, to spend all of the knowledge that they have acquired over the previous decades to making something that will fit any number of circumstances, and that’s able to progress and develop and evolve along the way as general aesthetic styles kind of change.

When Bravery Media goes in to do a website redesign, we look at a University’s brand and we say okay we know what the brand style guide is, we know all the parameters that we have. How do we take what’s here and start to progress it along a little bit? We don’t say, “we’re totally going to make this dark red a really bright red and we’re totally, you know, we’re going to change all of these fonts to something completely different,” because that affects the overall look.

But as you pointed out, you know there are a lot of these departments and schools that want to look entirely different or want to have their own identity within a university. There are some places that do this really well. You can look at some of the some of Cornell’s schools or some of Harvard’s schools that, especially on the, on the more arts-side of things or maybe on the architectural side of things, they’re creating departmental or school websites that have a distinct look from the main University website, but feel related and in the family. And don’t feel slapdash together or unprofessional or they definitely don’t feel like they’ve come out of a template.

J.S.
And that’s because they’ve had a designer help them, that’s why

JG
Exactly, exactly.

J.S.
Do you really trust a… I’m trying to think of an area to pick on. Do you really trust a World Languages department to build their own brand? That’s not what they do! That’s not, and they shouldn’t. It’s not their responsibility to know how to do that. That’s what a trained graphic design, marketing, branding expert is for. So, yeah, trust the professionals.

And then on top of that, if you’re in one of those positions and you do reach out to a professional, listen to what they have to say, you know? We all have opinions on what we like and what we don’t and what we think our program is or isn’t, but the marketing people and the designers, they know how to sell your program. They know how to brand your program. Listen to their advice. I think one thing that happens is, especially with Canva is the marketing office will go in and say hey let us design something for you, we’ll create a professional and that that team makes something and it looks good and it’s branded, but then that department says, “Well, we don’t like that. We’ve got a student worker who’s Gen Z” — or they’ll probably say millennial when they mean Gen Z — “and can do it.” And that student worker will create something that is just obscenely… I don’t want to pick on student workers. They have to learn somehow. Like, I don’t want to rail on student workers. But they’ll create content that is not professional because they’re not professionals yet. They’re still students. And they’ll say, oh okay well we’ve got it now! And that person that student worker probably made it on Canva.

And, and we have to get beyond that. We have to have marketing offices with some authority to say, no, you are not using this because it one it’s not good for your program, but also it weakens the institutional branding. Overall, we have to work as one institution. I often say in meetings, if I work for Nike, and I design a shoe but I don’t like the Swoosh, I can’t say no, I’m not using this Swoosh, I want to make my own thing. Nike is gonna come in and say you better put that Swoosh on there, or you’re not working here anymore. And I think universities don’t have marketing teams, don’t have that level of authority but boy do they need it.

JG
And we’ve railed on Canva this entire episode. I just want to state for the record that I am against most mass-templated design products. I’m against Squarespace. I’m against “premium” WordPress themes. Do you all remember when everyone could tell when you had a WordPress site because you were using that theme that everyone else used? The WordPress look was a thing that people talked about a lot. And that’s the problem with, I think, this whole move to democratize design in general. It’s really that you’re not getting something unique. You might like it, but it’s not helping you in the same way that — we talked about homogeneity last week, in general, in higher ed. You’re now when you use Canva or use a Squarespace template or use a WordPress template or, you know, anything that hasn’t been professionally customized or professionally, originally designed for your brand, all you’re doing is extending that homogeneity to the entire, the entire world instead of just being, you know homogenous within higher education. You are now diluting it everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, everywhere. In every sector. You are just, you are just noise. That’s all you are is noise. Bland unappealing noise.

J.S.
Two, and you know, this is mostly inconsequential to some extent, but I often think about how dated Canva templates are gonna look in five years. And granted most people are using it for ephemeral content, for flyers on the wall, for social media content, but for the most part, you know is, is ephemeral. But a lot of Canva’s content ends up on the deepest darkest recesses of your University website. And it’s gonna stay there for a long time, and it’s gonna, in five years like… Did you ever watch, which is the Night of the Living Dead movie where they’re in the mall?

JG
Oh yeah.

J.S.
Like and you look at the signs in the mall from like 1981, or whatever, like, that’s what Canva content is gonna look like it’s kind of just look at this, this dated look that just says late-00s, early-20s, and we’re gonna cringe it’s gonna be like the JNCO jeans and slap bracelets of social media in 10 years.

JG
Hahaha! Hopefully not together.

J.S.
Let’s go off on all old brands we were in high school? Some Mossimo, No Fear.

JG
Airwalks.

J.S.
Oh, man, I loved Airwalks.

JG
I miss my Airwalks.

J.S.
Okay, so one, if you use Canva or if you used Canva in the past, I don’t want this to feel like a personal attack. And I’m sure at some point during this podcast, if you’re still listening, you’ve thought, “Oh my goodness, like, no, no I’ve used Canva. I’m proud of it.” It’s hard for us to look at things critically. We all, you know, when I started out in the field I was not a designer and I was kind of trying to learn as I go. And there are alternatives. And like I said, it takes time to learn, but allow yourself to learn because graphic design is something that is really, you know, it’s a wonderful outlet. Learning to appreciate it is something that is very rewarding and also, man, why not invest the time into it, and add to your personal skillset and really learn how to do graphic design?

I know we’re all busy, but if you took one hour a week to watch a Skillshare or watch a YouTube video or just read a book on graphic design, in a year you would be at a level so far advanced of all of the others that are still using Canva templates. That’s going to add to your value to your institution and your position. And honestly, right now, where we’re seeing universities have furloughs and layoffs, the more skills you can have, the better off you are going to be in the long term, and nobody, like seriously, if you’re putting “I know how to use Canva” on your resume… that’s not getting you anywhere. Invest in yourself. Learn graphic design. If your job entails you to create this sort of content, learn how to do it yourself rather than using templates. You owe it to yourself, you’re good enough, you can do this. Go forth and conquer.

JG
Go, team.

Thanks as always for listening to the Thought Feeder podcast, you can find us wherever you get your podcasts, and we would appreciate a follow, a subscribe, a rating, a review, whatever you can give us! We are @ThoughtFeedPod on Twitter, and you can also find us at thoughtfeederpod.com where all of the episodes are listed with links to every possible subscription service that we are on. Thanks again for listening.

Thought Feeder is hosted by Joel Goodman and Jon-Stephen Stansel and edited by Joel Goodman.

Thought Feeder is sponsored by University Insight.

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