The Busy Writer’s Design Toolkit

Most blogs still depend on tired old stock photography. But what if you could create unique, scroll-stopping visuals without any expense or real skill? What if you could create content marketing images that made the reader smarter—and made you a better writer?

Every graphic on the Animalz blog was created using free tools (and without any design expertise). Here’s how it happens.

Stock Photo Failings

It’s worth considering why featured images have become a standard part of most editorial processes. There are good reasons. Images can:

  • Snare the reader’s interest in crowded places like social feeds or email roundups.
  • Break up walls of text, transforming long-winded essays into something that feels less intimidating and more approachable.
  • Explore key ideas, helping to explain and elaborate upon the article’s core idea. Chosen carefully, a good image will leave the reader smarter than they might otherwise be.

Crucially: stock images do none of these things.

Most stock images are too generic and overused to hook interest (when was the last time you stopped scrolling to revel in the majesty of “man using laptop in coffee shop”?). When confined to hero images at the top of a page, they do little to break-up long chunks of text. Stock images rarely have any bearing on the article’s core idea: take the writing away and the image probably means nothing.

We still use stock images (they look pretty on our blog homepage), but most articles on the Animalz blog are also accompanied by simple diagrams. They typically fall into one of three categories:

1. The 2x2 Matrix

If you’ve ever seen an Eisenhower box, you’re familiar with the humble 2x2 matrix. It’s a way of organising qualitative data into two simple variables—like market growth rates and market share, or in the case of the Eisenhower box, urgency and importance—and exploring how they interact. (You can think of it as two spectrums, overlaid one on top of the other).

We’ve used a 2x2 matrix to highlight the different characteristics of library- and publication-style content:

Your Blog Is Not a Publication

(Although this matrix would be more convincing if we had named categories for Volume/Depth and Quality/Breadth)

We also used a 2x2 to explore the strengths and weaknesses of GPT-3. We used GPT-3 to generate articles, a type of content which is generally long and factual. But there are obviously other types of content. The opposite to long and factual might be short and creative, like poetry. There are intermediary states: content could be long and creative, like novels, or short and factual, like news stories.

These different states can be plotted on a 2x2:

GPT-3 is the Sparring Partner You Didn’t Know You Needed

The 2x2 matrix is a potent tool for thought. It allows you, the writer, to take a vague question—like “how good is GPT-3 at writing content?”—and make it more specific, providing a framework for exploring how the model interacts with core variables—in this case, length and factual accuracy.

2. Graphs

At their heart, graphs are a way of representing the relationship between two elements, like pageviews and time.

There are two types of graphs we use on the blog. There are those that show real-world performance data, typically showing how some desirable element—pageviews, backlinks, revenue—has changed over time. You probably know about these kinds of graphs:

How 360Learning Grew from 0 to 76k Pageviews Through SEO Experimentation

(Read to the end for a quick process for making these graphs.)

We also use graphs to show the hypothetical relationships between less concrete things, like performance metrics and audience sentiment

The Pageview Paradox: How Great Results Cause Poor Performance

Or value delivered and stage of the buying process.

Media Strategies Aren’t as Crazy as They Seem

Like the 2x2 matrix, this process requires you to distill your topic into two core variables, and ask yourself: if I change one variable, how does the other respond? Graphing the dynamic turns an abstract relationship into something visual and intuitive.

3. Flow Diagrams

Many articles describe processes: sequences of events that lead to a useful outcome, like search-optimizing a blog post or creating a dunning sequence to prevent involuntary churn.

Flow diagrams are a simple way to illustrate these processes, showing the sequence of events and the relationship between the different elements involved. We used a flow diagram to illustrate the thesis, antithesis, synthesis writing structure:

Persuasive Writing In Three Steps: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis

We also used simple flow diagrams to help illustrate different types of content arbitrage, ways to turn low-value content into something more lucrative:

Content Arbitrage: Shopping at the Thrift Shop of Ideas

And we used them to highlight the different ways search engines could operate:

The Winner Doesn’t Take It All: ‘Information Gain’ and the New Future of SEO

If you're struggling to piece together flow diagram, it can be helpful to think of your topic as a journey: where does it start? Where does it finish? What needs to happen along the way? And what would happen if we took a wrong turn?

A Quick Workflow

There are two parts to creating these images: knowing what to draw, and then being able to draw it. Here’s the workflow that I use to create images for the Animalz blog:

1. Sketch Ugly Ideas on Paper

I keep a pen and paper handy to sketch quick ideas as I’m writing. These rough sketches function as thinking aids, providing new ways to approach the topic as I write.

2. Draw Favorite Concepts in Excalidraw

When I’m finished drafting, I use a free sketching tool called Excalidraw to quickly digitize my sketches. Exporting as an .svg file creates a vector image—something that can be scaled up or down without loss of resolution—which makes the next stage easier.

If I want to include a graph of real-world performance data, life is even simpler. I view the data I want to include in Google Analytics—filtering to whatever timescale and view I’m interested in—and export the data to a Google Sheet. From there, I create a chart using Sheets' built-in tools, and then export the graph as an .svg file.

3. Import into Figma

I use Figma to tidy-up images and help them conform to our company branding. That typically means adding in our fonts, recolouring the image with our brand colours, and exporting the image in dimensions that will work well on social media. It’s a quick and free process:

Tools for Thought

Stock images, for all their ubiquity, do little more than blend into the background. They tick the “featured image” box found in so many content workflows, but do little else.

Great diagrams however—2x2 matrices, graphs and flow diagrams—do more than just break-up long sections of text: they are powerful tools for thought, helping you to refine your ideas and helping your reader to understand them.