Simple tips for using images in your designs

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One of the build­ing blocks of an engag­ing design is the effec­tive use of images. Not only do images break up the often bore­dom-induc­ing walls of text, they also offer the per­fect oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­nect with your audi­ence in an inter­est­ing way.

But if you’re new to nav­i­gat­ing design, images can be intim­i­dat­ing. The idea of inte­grat­ing images often comes with plen­ty of ques­tions: What kind of images should I use? Where do I place the images? Should I edit the images, and if so, how? 

Are you ready for the not-so-secret key to image suc­cess? The most foun­da­tion­al rule of using images in your design is this:

Every image should be three things: inter­est­ing, unique, and pur­pose­ful in adding con­text to your design and content.

This means that most of the time, the same-old stock images sim­ply won’t cut it. But with a good stock pho­to start­ing point and a few easy tweaks, images can con­tribute to engage­ment and aes­thet­ics alike. Here’s how:

Travel Photo Collage

Begin with a quality image.

Odds are, you have a bet­ter eye for images and design than you give your­self cred­it for. Have you ever seen a web­site or oth­er brand mate­r­i­al, then noticed that the images were obvi­ous­ly gener­ic stock pho­tos? That’s the neg­a­tive impact of a poor­ly-select­ed, low-qual­i­ty image.

That’s what makes image selec­tion the most impor­tant part of using images in any design. We spend a LOT of time look­ing for the best image for our designs. If you have the bud­get, strong­ly con­sid­er hir­ing a pho­tog­ra­ph­er to take that per­fect pho­to. It will also guar­an­tee that your pho­to is unique.

If you need to use stock pho­tos, choose a pho­to that’s unique, while still being rel­e­vant to the top­ic. It should offer some sense of authen­tic­i­ty, telling a sto­ry that’s spe­cif­ic enough to build con­nec­tion while open enough to have wide appeal. The rela­tion­ship between the image and your mes­sage should be sub­tle and clear, rather than over­ly literal.

For exam­ple, let’s say you’re build­ing a web­site for a brand in the trav­el indus­try. If you were to run a quick stock image search for “trav­el,” a pletho­ra of images pops up. Sure, you could always go with what seems like a safe bet – some­thing like an air­plane mid-flight, or a close-up of the arrivals and depar­tures board at the air­port. But if you were the view­er, would those images actu­al­ly make you feel any­thing? Prob­a­bly not. 

Instead, what about a cre­ative­ly-cropped shot of a fam­i­ly dressed for a trop­i­cal vaca­tion, walk­ing hand-in-hand through the air­port to reach their gate? It still clear­ly rep­re­sents trav­el, but in a much more under­stat­ed and gen­uine way.

Make a statement with bigger images

Make a big statement. 

When it comes to design, the overused adage is often true: big­ger is bet­ter. Large images have a much more pow­er­ful impact, par­tic­u­lar­ly when they’re used in a way that com­mands attention. 

Keep in mind that big images also come with big demands. First, you’ll need to make sure that the orig­i­nal stock pho­to is high-res­o­lu­tion, oth­er­wise you run the risk of a dis­tort­ed or pix­e­lat­ed image. If you can find vec­tor graph­ics (as opposed to raster graph­ics), those are ide­al for enlarge­ment. Even the tini­est flaw will be notice­able in an over­size image, so use a crit­i­cal eye when con­sid­er­ing your pho­to options.

creative cropping

Get creative with cropping.

One of the most use­ful tools in edit­ing stock images is the abil­i­ty to crop. With crop­ping, you can alter the size and shape of the pho­to. But even bet­ter, you can cre­ate a clear focus, inten­tion­al­ly using the image to com­mu­ni­cate exact­ly what you want. 

This comes in espe­cial­ly handy in find­ing a pho­to that fits your mes­sage. Instead of elim­i­nat­ing stock pho­to options that have extra­ne­ous ele­ments or aren’t quite the per­fect match, you can put crop­ping to good use and widen your pool of options.

Image filters

Play with filters.

One of the basic prin­ci­ples of design is the impor­tance of cohe­sive­ness: when you look at the final prod­uct as a whole, all of its ele­ments should make sense togeth­er. But how do you work around a stock pho­to that just doesn’t mesh with your design vision?

Exper­i­ment with fil­ters or pre­sets, which can alter the col­or­ing of an image and make it a seam­less addi­tion to your design. The “style” of a pho­to can change dra­mat­i­cal­ly with just one click, cut­ting down on the time and effort required – and you don’t even have to be a pro­fes­sion­al editor!

Use the photo as a background.

A sure­fire way to make any design look pro­fes­sion­al is to give it a lay­ered look, adding a sense of dimen­sion. Adding a pho­to to the back­ground is an excel­lent way to cre­ate depth, not to men­tion change it up from a stan­dard sol­id col­or. If you are adding type on top of your image, try to place it in  the soft­er focus (or blur­ry) areas. 

Be care­ful with how much you add onto your back­ground, because you still want the image itself to come through. Too much “stuff” will cre­ate a clut­tered result that con­fus­es the eye. Once you hit the right bal­ance of back­ground and lay­ers, the result is a mem­o­rable, aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing design.

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