In the best designs, all elements work seamlessly together to create unity and coherence—the color palette, font, photography and overall layout function as pieces of one unit to deliver the message at hand.
Of those elements, visual imagery is very often the backbone of a design. It is the instrument used to build the immediate relationship between content and audience. If the image is “off” in any way, it becomes a weak link that hinders the message and weakens the brand.
When pulling together the imagery for a piece, designers routinely visit stock photography websites to find royalty-free, high-quality illustrations and pictures. There are endless libraries of great—as well as not-so-great—images to choose from on virtually any subject imaginable. Because there are so many resources, the search for the right image becomes a quest for the Holy Grail. There are many pale imitations of the right visual out there, so it takes a keen eye, and possibly Harrison Ford, to spot the distinction between a fake and design gold.
So, how do designers spot an imposter? Since we’re looking for a high-quality image to represent the value of a brand, the photograph must be sincere in its gesture and not appear overly staged. Stock photography libraries are chock full of awkward high-fiving, melodramatics and unconvincing set-ups. Sifting through the masses of underwhelming photos takes considerable time and utmost patience, but because a lousy photo can cheapen even the best products and services, it is time spent wisely.
An example of a bad stock photo. The image looks fake and feels sterile.
When image searching, designers avoid the literal interpretation: it’s a booby trap. The image is integral to the task of inspiring, intriguing, motivating and connecting with the target market—nothing will make a design less inspiring than a predictable photo. People shaking hands may scream “teamwork,” but that’s because handshakes have been used to communicate teamwork since the dawn of Photoshop. Think of a clichéd stock photo as the bedazzled cup that the Nazis in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were sure was the Holy Grail. The jewel-encrusted cup was the most obviously Grail-like—and of course, it wasn’t the right choice, and the Nazi holding it disintegrated into dust. Choosing a literal stock photo won’t turn your website or brochure into debris, but it will tell your audience, “Nothing of note here—go ahead and direct your attention to something more interesting.”
An example of a good stock photo. Here we have the same idea as the bad stock photo—people gathered around a set of blueprints—but the image feels more authentic.
Finding the perfect image is not for the faint of heart. There are times when designers feel every avenue has been exhausted. We wander around the stock photo deserts, parched for inspiration, starving for something that doesn’t look staged or corny or contrived. But then—behold!—an image that conveys the right message and supports the brand. Great stock photo searching is a skill. It takes perseverance, thoughtfulness, diligence and creativity. But when you find the right image, it says a thousand precise words.
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