Find out what graphic designers and web designers should consider when looking for images and how to choose the best images for your design projects to have the most impact. Also find out where to find stock images that you can legally use.
When you look for images for your design work, how much time do you spend looking for the right image—the one that takes into account the relevance, style, how it will be used and so forth, so it has the most impact?
Images play a huge role in our graphic design work. It’s about selecting the right images to tell a story, to evoke a feeling, to provoke an action, to connect with the reader. The wrong or poor-quality images can hurt your efforts.
So I want to give you some tips for finding good images for your design projects.
The Importance of Images in Design
First off, let’s get into why images are so important.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Everyone knows the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” And it’s true!
We can process so much information from a photograph in just a few seconds. It takes much longer to read or to have something read to us to get the same information.
People comprehend information in different ways, and images are more effective for some people. Plus, they are more memorable than words.
Images help us understand information.
Images can help us understand information.
Think about infographics.
Someone can try to describe in words alone how something works or we can use images or icons to help demonstrate this. This makes things so much clearer, so much easier to understand.
Images create an emotional connection.
Images create an emotional connection. They are more personal. It’s harder for words to do that.
Think about those animal shelter commercials with Sarah McLachlan. Don’t the photos of the shelter animals just gut you? I donate to local rescues and shelters. I’ve also volunteered with some. That’s my cause. So those photos just gut me.
When our design work reaches people on an emotional level, it connects with them. When that happens, they are more likely to take the intended action from that design, whether that’s to buy something or to donate or to share a post, to volunteer or something else.
Let’s say you’re working on a design project where there is a lot of data—for example, financial data in an annual report. It’s very cut and dry.
But maybe the point of sharing this data is to show the efforts spent on fundraising and how donations are desperately needed for the organization to continue their work.
Could you present this in tables? Sure. Pie charts? Yep. Either will do the job to convey the information.
But if you were to present the same information with some photos or icons, something more visual and personal, think of how much more of an impact that would have.
As I always say, graphic design serves a purpose. It’s not art for art’s sake.
Images entice us to read.
Images entice us to read. What would you rather sit down and read—the dictionary or a magazine?
One is a bunch of text (and small at that), and one includes a lot more visuals.
Images also give your eyes a break. Tons of text without images (or enough white space) can feel overwhelming.
Someone is more likely to read something with images than a ton of text.
Images encourage sharing.
Images encourage sharing on social media. This is crucial for social media posts, where the sole purpose is to get engagement, shares and likes, so they get more attention and reach more people.
Posts with images get much more engagement than text-only posts. According to Hubspot’s 42 Visual Content Marketing Statistics You Should Know in 2017, Facebook posts with images get as much as 2.3 times the engagement of text-only posts. That means those posts are more likely to be shared.
Infographics are liked and shared on social media three times more than any other type of content.
Not only that, but photos showing people’s faces attract us more than those that do not show them.
Think about it. Aren’t you more likely to share a post with a meaningful image rather than it being just a text post? This goes back to an image being worth a thousand words, especially when people are scrolling through their feed quickly and don’t necessarily have time to read.
Images make a statement about a brand.
High-quality, relevant images can leave a positive impression about a brand. It shows they understand their audience, and that builds trust with them.
The opposite is also true. If the images look poor quality, that can make the brand look unprofessional. If the images are irrelevant to the audience, that causes a disconnect, which affects the bottom line.
What Makes a “Good” Image?
When looking for an image, there are several things to consider to figure out if it will make a good image for your design project.
The first one is image relevance. It’s always important to really understand the purpose of the work and what the client or your place of work is trying to accomplish.
How do they want to come across? How do they want people to feel?
When searching for images, ask yourself if the image is relevant to:
- the purpose of the work,
- the messaging,
- the demographics of the audience (gender, age group, etc.)
This is also important if there is more than one audience or the work is being produced in more than one language.
For example, let’s say you’re designing an ad in English that targets older white women and you’re also working on an ad with the same messaging but in Spanish.
You wouldn’t want to just use the same image of a seemingly white, non-latino or non-Hispanic woman in both ads.
For the ad in Spanish, you’d want to find a photo that is more relevant to latinos or Hispanics.
Why? So that they relate to it.
Image style is another thing to take into consideration when looking for images.
Is the type of image in line with the brand’s style? If the brand usually uses photos, you may not want to change styles and use an illustration and vice versa.
When it comes to icons, you want to use same style that is normally used for the brand. For example, some icons are more like line drawings, some are flat, some are more like 2D cartoons and so forth.
But the brand style could also mean you only use photos that have backgrounds with solid colors, or that the people are a bit comical or never looking right at the camera, or maybe you use only custom photos or illustrations.
Copyright and licensing considerations
Copyright and licensing are another consideration. Always, always, always check the rights and the license to use them.
First off, don’t think that because you found it in a Google Images search that you are free to use it.
Most images are copyrighted and therefore not able to be legally used without purchasing a license or obtaining written permission.
If you do otherwise, you open up your client and yourself to potential legal issues. I once had a client ask me about a stock photo after the stock company sent him a letter demanding thousands of dollars for using the image because it wasn’t under his name.
His previous designer had actually purchased it, and he was able to prove that. I am sure it also helped that my client was a lawyer. I think he was able to resolve the issue without paying. But this is an issue and I’ve heard about it from several designers.
Some stock image companies will let you buy a license and then designate the client as the one licensing it, instead of you. But I prefer to have the client buy the stock images to avoid potential issues.
Sometimes you find the perfect image but the licensing fee is cost prohibitive, so it’s not even an option.
Some licenses say you can only use the image for so many impressions, which could be a print quantity or impressions on a website.
Who’s going to track that? Who’s going to license the image—you or your client? If you pay for or license the image, are you going to be held responsible by the stock photo company if your client exceeds that?
These are important things to think about!
Some photographers or stock companies may require you to include a credit line with the photo, so always pay attention to that.
And if clients provide you with images, tell them to make sure they have gotten any necessary permission from the photographer. I actually put this in my contracts—that they’ve gotten permission to use the photos.
It isn’t a big deal to add in the necessary permissions, but it’s something to plan for and include space for somewhere in your document or on the web page it’s being used on. It’s not very practical, though, for a social media image.
Depending on the situation, permission may also need to be obtained from people who may appear in the photo. I think that may only pertain to photos not taken in public, but don’t quote me on that.
Still, the point is: you don’t want to be responsible for using a photo of a person in your design work if your client was the one who was supposed to obtain that permission.
There are also technical considerations for photos you find or that the client provides.
Resolution is another factor.
Is the image high enough resolution for whatever dimensions it will be used at in print or on the web?
I can’t tell you how many times a client has provided what seems like the perfect image other than it’s way too small to use in print.
Clarity is another factor. Is the photo in focus and not blurry?
OK, so how about crop.
Does the photo have enough space to the side or above the subject matter to put text, if that’s what you plan to do? You may have to Photoshop in some background or somehow tweak your design to compensate for that.
How about adjustments? Will you need to adjust the color of any elements in the photo?
When I think about photos for the podcast and for social media for my brand, I want to use blue and orange as much as possible, so sometimes it comes down to adjusting colors that are used in the image.
But also, does the photo have a lot of distractions in the background? How easy will it be for you to minimize or remove them? If it will be difficult, it might be easier to just find a different photo.
Where to Find Quality Images
So where to find quality images, especially ones you can legally use? There are lots of options.
The obvious option is stock images.
The price for stock photos varies greatly: they can be free, low or high cost, or based on a subscription model. Sometimes it depends on the size or how you plan to use the images.
For instance, editorial use can cost more than most typical commercial licenses.
There’s also custom photography.
You or the client could take the photos, or they could pay a photographer.
You might also find good images on Flickr or another source that might be free or at a cost to use.
If you are sick of the same stock photo sites and need some other stock image resources, be sure to check out my Stock Image Directory.
You can filter by type of image, cost and even subject matter. I plan to add many more options in the future. If the one you like isn’t listed, be sure to email me and let me know, so I can add it to the directory. If it’s helped you find images, I’d love to hear that as well.