Choosing Images is an Art Form

Whether you’re designing a presentation, an online course, or just updating your blog, your choice of images can add meaning to your message, or completely distract from it. At worst, poorly-chosen images can diminish your credibility, distract your audience, and even get you into legal trouble (!!!), so it’s important to choose images with care.

Look and Feel Count for a Lot

Whether or not a picture is worth exactly a thousand words, it’s clear that images give our brains a lot of information to respond to. This means there are lots of ways for images to seem “off”, unprofessional, confusing, outdated, unappealing, or off-topic. In other words, there’s a lot that needs to go right for your images to look their best. We’re all used to seeing professionally produced images all around us, so amateurish or ineffective pictures can stick out, drawing attention away from your message.

Images need to be the right size and resolution for the space they appear in to avoid pixelation and layout issues. They need to be properly lit and color balanced, in focus, with a clear subject, and without distracting artifacts, blemishes, or background mistakes.

Of course, you want to match the tone and feeling of your images to the presentation context and audience. Homemade smartphone images may be fine if you’re presenting on a hands-on project you built or a live experience you attended. However smartphone snaps might look out-of place in a presentation about fashion, architecture, or art, where higher production values are expected.

Choose Images that Deepen Meaning

In addition to having nice-looking images, you want to have images that stick in the mind, deepen the meaning of your presentation, illustrate the key concepts in ways our words often fail to do.

To do this, don’t just mindlessly Google “year end report” and grab whatever images come back. Instead, think of a compelling metaphor for your subject matter and search for images on universal themes that illustrate that concept. Year-end reports are not just about spreadsheets and bar graphs — they can be about universal themes like reflection, celebration, improvement, regret, accomplishment, renewal, rest — you get the idea.

Think about how you want your audience to feel about this information — is this year-end report full of good news or is it disappointing? Does this report signal big raises for everyone or does it mean we’ll have hard work ahead of us next quarter?

Then think about what physical objects would best communicate your metaphor to your audience. Since physical things are easier to find images of than abstract ideas, you want to think about something specific you can search for that will illustrate your core metaphor. If your year-end report feels like a victory, then search terms like “finish line”, “race winner”, or “party celebration” will return more evocative images that communicate that idea.

Let your images communicate the feeling behind the facts and figures, and your audience will remember that feeling long after the facts and figures are forgotten.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

~ Maya Angelou

Inclusion and Representation Matter

It’s no secret that certain groups of people are over- and under-represented in our popular media, creating a warped impression of who is (and is not) valued in the minds of the viewer. You as a visual designer have a responsibility to be aware and responsible in how you portray different groups of people.

The truth is that the world is a diverse place, and your work community (internal and external stakeholders) vary along a variety of dimensions, including age, sex, race, sexuality, ability, creed, and more. When people don’t see themselves reflected in the published materials from their work, school, or business partners, they may (rightly) conclude that nobody is thinking and caring about their experience.

When you choose images, you should make a conscious effort to accurately reflect the existing diversity in your communities by positively highlighting different members of diverse groups. This doesn’t mean that you have to feature every conceivable type of person in every image you create — that’d be absurd. If you approach every image you use with a commitment to feature diverse faces and bodies in your work, you create a broad message of inclusion across your work portfolio.

To do this well, you may need to confront your own assumptions about what a “business professional” can look like, or what kind of people are really buying your product. Your gut assumptions are often incomplete and inaccurate, so you need to stay open to collecting real data about the people you’re representing.

If your organization has demographic data about its employees or customers, it’s a good practice to use this data to make sure key groups are represented proportionately to their makeup in the community. You may even review national and international census data so you have a general sense in your head of the percentage of different groups that make up each city, state, country, industry, etc. These may remind you of people you don’t come into contact in your own daily life, but who make up a significant portion of the community you’re speaking to.

More than anything, I think you need to accept the basic idea that all people are beautiful, valuable, and worthy of dignity. If you start from that intention and challenge yourself to bring more and more people into your idea of who makes up “us”, and let your work reflect that, you’ll be on the right track.

Pay Attention to Brand Style

If you work in an environment with an established brand style, you will need to adhere to the requirements of their style guide. At Autodesk we’re fortunate to have a comprehensive style guide, with guidance on everything from use of colors, voice narration, subject matter of images, typography, graphic elements, video, and more. We also have a lot of pre-existing brand assets we can leverage rather than creating them new every time — logos, slide decks, video transitions, icons, stock images, 3D models, etc. This makes it easy to know what’s expected, but it also means we have to commit time and energy to familiarizing ourselves with what exists and how to use it.

I’ve also worked in environments with less structure, and environments with no guidance at all. Depending on the context you’re working in, you may either have to learn to work within existing rules or to form your own methods for bringing consistency and quality to all the visual work you produce. Once you’ve understood and internalized whatever brand guidance you’ve been given, you may even have room to innovate on those ideas in a way that will be acceptable and consistent with the overall established look and feel.

Respect Copyright – the Basics

Hopefully I’m not the first to inform you that images are protected intellectual property, and you need to respect the rights of the creators of those images. In other words, you can’t just grab an image off of Google and expect that it will be OK for you to use that in your own creative work. Doing so can get you into legal trouble, but it can also just reflect badly on you if your audience sees that you’re not using images with care. You’re a professional now, so it’s time to either create your own images, pay creators a fair price for good quality content, and/or use media that is licensed for free reuse.

For more information on copyright, check out the great guide below:

Where Can I Search for Images?

I have a hierarchy of image searches I go through, ranging from free to costly, so that I can use as many free images as possible while maintaining high standards of look and feel.

Free / Self-licensed

First, I search through our internal image management system where the company keeps a library of approved, licensed images. These are high quality and free to use, but the selection is smallish and doesn’t always cover every situation.

Alternately, I consider what would be involved in creating the images from scratch myself. Can I do a quick photo shoot or easily sketch out an image that will work using the image creation tools at my disposal? Can I communicate my ideas using existing icon libraries or do I need real photographs?

Free/ CopyLEFT licensed image searches

If I don’t find what I need from internal sources, I next search repositories of Creative Commons licensed images that are free to use with attribution.

Unsplash is my first choice, since it has a fairly large selection of attractive images on a variety of topics.

Pexels is also a nice place for free stock photos and video.
Creative Commons Search and Flickr are nice too, though a bit more finicky to search.

Paid Stock photo search

Through work I have an Adobe Stock account, where I get 10 images prepaid per month. So while the selection is huge and uniformly high quality, I search here only as a last resort when I can’t find images in the ways above. That way I can only pay for what I need, and keep costs low when I’m finding good quality images other places.

What NOT to Do

We have all sat through presentations where people make all manner of image sins. Here are a few of the worst:

Don’t use a watermarked image

Nothing says “I stole this” like a watermarked image. It looks terrible because it’s supposed to — if it’s watermarked, that’s a sign that they expect you to purchase a license to use it. Either pay for a clean version or use another image.

Don’t use mismatched images

Ever seen a slide like this, where it’s obvious that the speaker just Googled the main topic of their presentation and then pasted the first five results onto a slide? Mixing clip art, photos, color, black and white, and different art styles — it’s a dead giveaway that someone isn’t taking care with their visuals. Not to say that it CAN’T be done skillfully, but most of the time it happens more through carelessness than intention.

Don’t leave JPEG backgrounds in if they add no value

JPEG images do not allow transparency like PNGs do, and people will often drop a JPEG onto a different colored background, leaving a telltale box around their content. At worst, this can take up room unnecessarily on your slide and crowd out other content. At best, maybe you can integrate that box into the overall layout and make it work. But you should learn techniques to remove backgrounds from images for those times when you want just the object and not the background behind it. Here’s a free tool to do that, but you can also learn it in a full-featured image editor like Affinity Photo or Photoshop. You even have tools do this within MS Office or Apple Keynote, so use them! It makes a big difference.

Make sure any text is legible and on-topic

Some images you find will have text in them. In this case, the text needs to be easy to read and should add some value to the rest of your presentation. You don’t want to have text in your image that people have to squint to read, or text that takes attention away from your larger message. In the example above, one of the images has tiny, illegible text, another uses slightly different words than my slide, and a third shows that it’s a school report card — not even a year-end report — and is basically off topic from the presentation.

Beware content “crashes”

I often see people put too many elements into an image without taking care that each will display fully and clearly.

One common image fail is what I call “the double-half-fade”. It’s where you want to put two pictures in the same place but you don’t know how to lay them out, so you just put one on top of the other and turn down the opacity a little, creating a weirdly mashed-up mess.

We work in an HTML5 responsive eLearning authoring platform that can display text on top of images. The layout re-forms to fit whatever screen size it’s accessed on, but that means there’s a danger that the overlaid text will cover over some part of the picture, rendering both illegible.

Don’t be afraid to walk away from a bad image

“One mediocre image in the hand is worth two good images in the bush.”

~ No one ever

I know that when you’re under a time crunch, you might want to go with an imperfect image rather than doing a couple more searches to find one that really pops. Don’t give up!

In short, give a damn

I tend to go to extraordinary lengths to find images that delight, inspire, and inform. I do this because I think it matters. The people I know who struggle with it often just don’t care as much, don’t see it as a high priority or a good use of their time. Of course, caring isn’t all there is to it, but none of the rest makes sense if you don’t care A LOT about your message, your audience, and the experiences you design. So be unreasonably overzealous about doing great work.

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