The Canva-ification of everything

Joan Westenberg
Published in
5 min readJun 16, 2024

Scroll through any social feed for a few moments, and every image seems to blend together into a uniform aesthetic. It’s all pastel colors, clean lines, and minimalist layouts. Sleek serif fonts spell out peppy slogans. Every illustration features abstract, geometric shapes and trendy palettes. Photos have the hazy, filtered look of Instagram.

It’s as if the visual landscape has been reduced to a single homogenous style. And in a sense, it has — thanks to Canva, the Australian graphic design startup that has quietly flattened how the world creates and consumes visual content.

Founded in 2012 by Melanie Perkins, Cliff Obrecht and Cameron Adams, Canva’s mission was simple but ambitious: to “empower the world to design.” The idea came to Perkins when she was teaching graphic design as a university student and realized how needlessly complex and expensive professional design tools like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign were. Why couldn’t creating beautiful visual content be as easy as creating a document in Microsoft Word?

With that insight, Canva was born. The web-based platform, and later mobile app, gives anyone the ability to easily create professional-grade posters, logos, presentations, social media posts and other designs using an intuitive drag-and-drop interface and a huge library of templates, stock photos, illustrations and fonts.

It was a hit. Today, Canva boasts around 170 million monthly active users across 190 countries, who have collectively created more than 20 billion designs. Valued at $40 billion, it’s one of the world’s most valuable startups.

But while Canva has unlocked design for the masses, an unintended consequence has been the dulling of creativity into a uniform “Canva aesthetic.” Because the app makes it so easy to create competent designs, much of its 55 million-strong user base simply relies on the platform’s most popular templates and elements. The result is a visual sameness wherever Canva designs show up, as if the world has been blanketed by an army of aspiring graphic designers who all graduated from the same school.

You can’t blame individuals for taking the path of least resistance. Creating a Canva design takes minutes and requires no skill. It’s fast, cheap and gets the job done for cash-strapped small businesses, students, nonprofits and others who can’t afford a professional designer. An original design carefully crafted from scratch is always going to look better. But why go to the effort when Canva lets you churn out something nearly as good that’s based on best practices?

For Canva’s millions of happy users, that’s clearly a worthwhile tradeoff. The question is whether it’s good for design and creativity writ large. Like the McDonald’s-ization of cuisine or the Ikea-fication of home decor, Canva’s templated approach is pushing visual communication towards a more accessible, but ever more generic mean.

It’s exacerbated by social media, where so much of today’s visual content is created and consumed. Standing out in the ceaseless torrent of posts on Instagram and other feeds is the single deciding factor in many small business’ success or failure. Canva’s most popular templates leaned into the right aesthetics. And then defined them. And because social rewards content that drives engagement, users have every incentive to keep creating more of it, entrenching the “Canva look.”

Where this becomes problematic is for individual creators, small brands and anyone else trying to develop a unique visual identity. How can you stand out when every Canva-created competitor looks eerily similar? Templates are useful as a starting point, but they aren’t a substitute for intentional design choices guided by a clear brand strategy.

And for the majority of Canva users with no design experience, going beyond the template is a tall order. It’s simply easier to stick with the prefab options, especially when (for now, at least) they perform reliably on social media.

Where this leaves us is facing a world that looks increasingly like a Canva template. Anywhere you find user-generated visual content — from your Facebook feed to the flyer taped on your local coffee shop’s bulletin board — chances are it will have that distinct Canva feel: Sleek, bold and blandly appealing, like a generic pop song you can’t get out of your head.

This isn’t to say Canva is all bad.

The company has made design accessible and for millions of users. It’s an open question whether amateur designers are far better off with Canva in their toolkit than without it, but not every design has to reinvent the wheel — if a nonprofit needs a quick poster for their fundraiser, a Canva template will do just fine, even if it looks like a dozen other nonprofit fundraiser posters.

But it’s worth considering what we lose when we allow a single company’s product to so thoroughly shape our visual environment. A world where everything looks like Canva is a world that has sacrificed creative expression for convenience and conformity.

Perhaps this is just the latest iteration of a familiar pattern. From fashion to music to food, capitalism has a way of taking niche ideas, watering them down for mass appeal, and spreading them to every corner of the globe. It’s hard to imagine the “Canva look” becoming as ubiquitous as blue jeans or the Big Mac. But then again, 10 years ago, nobody thought a little Aussie startup would make us all half-baked, amateur graphic designers with all the confidence of Stefan Sagmeister and none of the nuance.

The genie is out of the bottle. Canva has given millions the tools to create, but it’s up to all of us to decide what we do with them — and what kind of visual world we want to live in. One templated asset at a time, Canva is reshaping our aesthetic landscape. The question is whether we’ll be able to recognize anything, once everything looks the same.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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