There are many guides and tutorials about Canva that will bring up layers without even hinting at what they are or how they work. Not only will I explain the concept of layers for you here, but I’ll show you how powerful layers can truly be. 

Each element you add to a design in Canva is placed as its own “layer.” Each layer can be moved and adjusted independently, including options to make elements appear in front or behind surrounding elements. Layers in Canva give you more control over the adjustments of individual elements.

My goal in this tutorial is to make you understand the concept of using layers as quickly as possible and give you the ability to create impressive digital designs in no time. I will cover the importance of layer order, how to move layers forward and backward in your project, as well as how to use multiple layers together to create a professional design in Canva. 

What Are Layers In Canva? 

Before we start running, let’s first learn how to walk. What are layers? 

I want to burn an image into your brain that will help you for the rest of your career as a graphic designer:

A stack of paper. This is how layers work at the most basic level.

A stack of paper is created by first laying down one piece of paper. You then lay down another piece of paper. Then another. Then another. 

When using full-sized pieces of paper, the only piece (or layer) you will see is the top piece of paper. So, let’s say you have something important written on the bottom layer that needs to be seen. To see it, remove the bottom piece of paper and place it on top of the stack. It’s the same concept when moving layers in Canva.  

In Canva, we won’t be dealing with full-sized pieces of paper. Instead, think of layers as separate scraps of paper. 

Each piece of paper above is a layer in Canva. So this image is an image of three different layers stacked on top of each other. 

They may not look like they’re stacked on top of each other right now, but check this out:

All I did was move the pieces to the middle of the canvas. If I wanted to, I could move the bottom piece to the top and vice versa. When working on a project in Canva, this is how the concept of layers works. 

How Are Layers Used In A Canva Design? 

Layers are used in a design by manipulating the attributes of each layer and making sure that the order you stack the layers makes logical sense. 

Each one of the images in the picture below is its own separate layer: 

By manipulating the size of these simple images and putting them in the correct layer order, I can design this: 

It doesn’t take artistic talent to put this together. You just need to know how and where to overlap the layers. 

How To Overlap Elements In Canva

Let’s put these basic layering skills to the test. For the sake of example, we will design this YouTube thumbnail from scratch to see how layers work in a real design.

You will learn how to resize, duplicate, reorder and place layers. You will also learn how to make your layers pop off the screen. 

Step 1: Place The Layers 

These are the four elements we will be using to create this thumbnail.

First, let’s stretch out our background layer to fill the entire canvas. 

Place the money picture down and click on it. Click and hold on one of the corners of the bounding box and stretch it to the edge of the canvas. Repeat this action for each corner until the picture fills the canvas. 

Now, let’s place the smiling woman on the canvas.

Next, let’s place the text layer. Click and hold on the bottom left corner of the bounding box to make the text layer fill more of the thumbnail.

Finally, I’ll add the image of the arrows. Since I want to have more arrows, I will click on the graphic and then press the Duplicate Button or Control + D (Win) or Command + D (Mac) to duplicate the graphic. 

I’ll then position both arrow layers to the bottom right corner of the thumbnail and increase the sizes. 

Step 2: Adjust The Layer Order

There’s only one issue I need to fix here, but before we do that, let’s add a new layer to improve our text layer. 

Click on the text layer and hit the Duplicate Button or Control + D (Win) or Command + D (Mac). 

Select the duplicate layer and click on the Effects button, and then select Glitch

  • The Offset option affects how far the effect will stretch out
  • The Direction Option will adjust the angle of the effect

Experiment with the Color, the Offset, and Direction Levers to see what fits your style best. 

Move the duplicated text layer on top of the original text layer. If you take your time while moving the layer, it will snap into place with the original text.

To send the layer you have selected back one level, right-click on the new layer and select Send Backward, or Control + [ (Win) or Command + [ (Mac). Alternatively, if you want to send a layer forward one level, press Control + ] (Win) or Command + ] (Mac)

Now the glitch effect is perfectly behind the original layer. You can now make any changes you want to the original layer without affecting the glitch effect. 

The issue I have here is this one arrow overlapping the text layer. This is a personal preference, but let’s tuck this arrow behind the text. 

Click on the arrow image and press Control + [ (Win) or Command + [ (Mac) to move the layer back. Now it’s behind the text layer.

Step 3: Make Your Layers Pop 

Layering elements is not just about the order but how it looks spacially. 

First, let’s work on the text layer. Open the Elements Tab, and under Lines & Shapes, pick the square. 

Click on the square and bring the Transparency between 35% and 40%. 

Stretch the square into a rectangle that’s just a little bit bigger than the first line, like so: 

Repeat this process for the rest of the lines in the text layer. 

Now the text pops out more from the background layer. 

Next, let’s work on the smiling woman. First, select the woman and click on Edit Image. Select Drop to add a drop shadow.  

The settings are for you to experiment with. 

  • Use the Drop Down Menu to decide where you want the drop shadow, you can choose any direction
  • The Offset will determine how far out you want the drop shadow to cast
  • Angle adjusts the direction of the drop shadow
  • Transparency determines how see-through the drop shadow is
  • Blur adjusts how sharp you want the drop shadow

You can also pick any color you want for your drop shadow. I think white works best for our example below. Press Apply when you are happy with the drop shadow.

The white drop shadow is a subtle touch that pops the smiling woman off the background layer. 

How To Send Layers To The Front Or Back Of A Project In Canva

To send a layer to the front or back of a Canva design, right-click on the element you wish to move and select Send To Back or Send To Front. Alternatively, you can press Control + Alt + ] / [ or Command + Option + ] / [ to move your selected element.

Let’s say you’re working double speed on your project, and your background bounces up toward the top of your stack like this: 

There’s no need to panic. Right-click on the layer you wish to send to the back and select Send to Back. Alternatively, press Control + Alt + [ (Win) or Command + Option + [ (Mac). 

But if you press Control + Alt + ] (Win) or Command + Option + ] (Mac), it will send the layer you have selected to the front. 

How To Group Layers In Canva 

After you finish your project, it’s often best to group similar items to make them more manageable. This is a great way to manage multiple layers that are related to one another. In this thumbnail example, the two separate arrow graphics are being used as one. Therefore, it will make life easier if they are grouped.

I’ll click on the first graphic, then hold down Shift and click on the other arrow graphic. To group the selected layers, press the Group Button or press Control + G (Win) or Command + G (Mac).

Now you can move your selected layers at the same time without having to move each one independently.

The other layers that need to be grouped are the text layers and the rectangles behind them. 

First, let’s lock the background layer to make this easier. Select the money picture and click on the Lock button. Or press Alt + Shift + L (Win) or Option + Shift + L (Mac). 

Once you lock the background layer, you won’t have to worry about moving or selecting it by accident.

Now, click and drag your mouse over the text layers and all the rectangles. With the layers selected, click on the Group Button or press Control + G (Win) or Command + G (Mac). 

Now the entire text design acts as one piece and you won’t have to move each piece one at a time. 

If for whatever reason you need to edit any one of the individual pieces, you can also ungroup them. 

First, click on the group, and then click Ungroup. Alternatively, press Shift + Control + G (Win) or Shift + Command + G (Mac). 

Now you can edit any individual element and group them again if you wish. 

Once you understand how elements in your Canva designs operate as individual layers, it’s easier to imagine your project like a stack of paper. Each element is placed on top of the other to eventually create your finished design.