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:
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 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.
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.
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.