Useful Resources for Designing on a Budget

 By Matt Slabaugh

“Mom, can I have a cookie?”

“Sure thing honey.  Here you go.”

“But this is oatmeal; I wanted a chocolate chip one.”

“Well Sweetie, beggars can’t be choosy.”

That was the first time I heard the phrase “beggars can’t be choosy,” though it certainly was not the last.  Of course my mother was teaching me that if you want something for free then you need to be willing to take what you’re given even if it’s not exactly what you wanted (though today oatmeal is one of my favorite cookies).

I’m a Graphic Designer, and like most in this profession I do not create ads for Nike, event signage for Red Bull, or page layouts for Wired Magazine.  I do not have access to star athletes, big budgets for helicopter aerial shots, or the luxury of being on-site at a photo shoot explicitly for my cover design.

Though, today I generally have a stock-photo budget, I try to use it as little as possible.  In part to keep the cost of my projects down and I always prefer to use “real” shot whenever possible over a staged one.  So I’ve developed a toolkit of sorts composed of go-to sites, handy tricks, and other resources for designing on little to no budget.

All of the sites in this post offer free design resources but always triple check the copyright information before using something in your project.  Now that legal is out-of-the-way, let’s get to it.

The One Stop Shop

If you have time to visit one site Smashing Magazine  is a fantastic catchall.  From Photoshop brushes and icon sets, to tutorials and best practice articles, this site has everything you need to keep your skills sharp and your tool box full of goodies.


Font Squirrel is my personal favorite.  Not only is everything free but all of there fonts are available for commercial use.  This is a great resource where everything is professional grade and ready for you to use.  Don’t forget to tip the staff and donate to the author.  Even if it’s a $5, it helps them continue to provide you with a high quality products and require nothing in return.  is another good site; however you need to be sure to read the copyright information carefully because some of their fonts are labeled for Personal Use Only.

Sometimes you have a design that’s almost there, buy you feel it just needs that one extra little element, or ornament to be more precise.  Briar Press has a section where they offer over 700 free ornaments for you to use, and might be that piece you’re looking for. 


At this point you should know that just about anything you can think of has a Wikipedia page, and that most of the Wikipedia have at least one photo.  But, did you know that many of those photos like the one below of a locomotives roundhouse (original size 11.5×9 inches at 300 dpi) are available under public domain?  Even  the ones are still under copyright are usually only under Creative Commons (i.e. as long as you attribute the author you can use it however you’d like).  All the photos shown on wiki pages are stored at Wikimedia Commons, a great resource to check when looking for something specific.


Speaking of Public Domain, the Library of Congress has done a great job of converting and making available a ton of their images in digital format.  Going for an Americana look?  Want the original city plans of a major city for background?  The Library of Congress might just have what you need.

If you need more recent photos of a particular city, their Convention and Visitors Bureau site is worth a glance.  Just about every city has a CVB, and a quick e-mail asking for permission to use their photos will usually be met with a Yes reply.

Vector Images:

Vecteezy is a good site if you’re in need of vector illustration.  I have found many backgrounds and one-off elements that would have taken me hours to create otherwise.

Need some icons but want a little personality to go with them?  You could do a lot worse than The Noun Project  Everything is free, but just like most of these sites you’ll need to check attribution requirements.  This is an open community where anyone can submit an icon but, event with the multitude of authors you can mix and match to create entire sets that work together seamlessly.

I check at least one of these sites every time I need something, but always keeping in mind the words of my mother: if I want something for free I need to be able to work with what I’m given.  Though with these sites, more often than not I find the oatmeal cookie is what I wanted after all.

Don’t see your go-to site on the list?  Let me know in the comments. I’m always on the hunt for great resource sites and interested in what other designers use.


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