DIY Graphic Design

While it may be difficult to believe, a long time ago there were no personal computers! When I was in high school, there were only six computers in the entire school, where six special students (“geeks,” when that was a derogatory term) worked in Computer Math, an advanced class. The regular students never saw a computer, much less touched a keyboard or mouse. Later, while attending the University of Wisconsin--Oshkosh for graphic communications, I saw no computers there either. Instead, students used a cool type-printing machine to cut and paste different type-faced headings into projects that we toiled over on drafting boards to create. My professor had predicted that in about 10 years this work might be done on computers! Three years after graduation, I returned to school at Fox Valley Technical College to learn the trade of computer graphics. Having absolutely no experience on a computer of any type, much less a Mac, I soon dropped the course and headed in a different direction with my career. 

Twenty-four years later, I am now faced with understanding a computer-graphics program and tasked with producing all printed marketing materials for our county parks department, as well as revamping some online content for printability. Why? Tight budgets, more information being produced online, “doing more with less,” and my graphic communications major from long ago.  So … what to do?

The Formidable Information Systems Department

Those employees working in the public sector know exactly what I mean by the term “formidable” when it comes to Information Systems (IS) departments. The people there are very territorial (understandably, being entrusted with keeping a myriad of information safe), and also not incredibly patient with non-geeks (“geek” now being a complimentary term). Thus, my first foray into learning a new computer-graphics program from an online course was short-lived. The result was unsuccessful.

After that, I was on my own in the world of software. I do have a personal computer and have had one at work for several years, but never have I had to produce ”copy-ready” marketing pieces and material for public consumption (and scrutiny). So which software is best? Actually, that question is fairly to answer.

Seek The Right Program

Employees who already use a specific brand of software in their daily work environment are probably comfortable with that brand’s ”language”: the organization of items between different types of programs, the help function, and the organization of files. If your brand of choice has a graphics program, you might start there. I tried several brands—big names, not-so-big names, discount off-the-shelf-type brands from big-box stores—but none provided much success. Some programs needed specific hardware, a certain amount of memory or data storage, or some ”combination of the alphabet” items I was told by the IS department our computers did not have. But I needed to create brochures, flyers, and posters/banners, not just birthday cards and name tags.

The IS department notified me that the county had Microsoft Office Suite.

“Yippee,” I said, “so how does that help me?”

Apparently, Microsoft Office Suite—with which I am very familiar—includes a graphics program that is currently on the county system, though I didn’t have access to it.

“You mean I don’t have to buy a license for another program, have IS install it, and then learn it from scratch?” I received an emphatic “No.”

“What do I have to do to access this miracle?”

 “Reboot—it’s now on your desktop,” I was told. 


 I won’t endorse any specific product, but my advice is to go with what’s familiar to you. It’s also a plus if there are others using the same software for help and occasional tips.

Start At The Beginning 

You probably already have copies of items (professionally designed, printed, and expensive) that you are now being tasked with reproducing. Begin at the beginning. Update the text of current materials (a graphics program is not even needed for this part), then update any photographs. Our department has a digital camera for such occasions, though a camera phone will work as well. Once the text and photos are updated, you’re set to upload them. Depending on the agency’s rules, photo downloads may have to be accomplished via the IS department, but those who can connect their camera right to the computer can load those photos. The graphics program will automatically put the photos in the correct file for you to use, and the same thing can be done with word files. You can try templates that will give an entire marketing program a general theme, plenty of clip art, general theme photographs, and tips that pop up occasionally in some programs.

Pace Yourself

Don’t be frightened. You’re not going to create the Mona Lisa of marketing material overnight, so pace yourself. I found the For Dummies books to be a great help. There’s one for almost every software program on the planet, and written in a language most people can understand. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment. Unlike the programs of yore that were designed for commercial printers, these new software programs are—well—easy! They do all of the difficult stuff for you; all you need to do is add the content. And professional results are provided from your color printer/copier. I’m using the general-services department within the county for producing large numbers of a particular product, though with online content easily accessible, I need fewer actual hard copies than before. For small runs of flyers or site-specific notices/brochures, I use a color printer in the office. The only outside purchase I had to make was the glossy paper needed for the “extra-fancy” brochures.

Once you get the hang of it, I know you will become as addicted to a graphics program as you are to that app on your phone with the candy pieces or the ticked-off birds. And your marketing materials will look professional, be easy to update as needed, and won’t cost a fortune to print. Best of all—they are made entirely by you!

Vicky Redlin is the Program Manager for the Winnebago County Parks Department in Oshkosh, Wis. Reach her at