Portrait of Michael Latour, Special Olympics champion, 2008

The basics of meaningful visuals

Visuals can do a great job at engaging audiences and at generating traffic and opportunities. It does not mean, however, that any visual will do the job. Like your copy, they should follow high quality standards, work with your strategy and in context, and be fully optimized for your channel of choice.

Answer these questions honestly

Whether original or stock, you want to choose the appropriate visual and format for your audience and medium. Ask yourself: Does this image work with -and complement- my copy? Does it convey the right message? What am I trying to accomplish here? And remember: content consumption is now vastly driven by mobile (just take a look at this chart from eMarketer!), so make sure your visuals work on a smart phone and tablet screen!

Good photography happens with love and resources

When using your organization’s originals, make sure you have the rights to do so and the captions to go along. Being lax in your photography consent guidelines or captioning, and not investing the appropriate resources (people or software tool) to properly manage your image library will reflect poorly on your organization, and can harm your bottom line (sales or reputation).

If you lack original photography and have no budget, there’s good stock and lots of options out there to find what you need. I usually search first in Flickr for creative commons licenses (so many collections, like the Met who shared 375,000 images in February). If you need images on a regular basis, get a subscription with a service like Shutterstock for example. If your needs are mostly local, get a local photographer on a retainer. Or spend a bit of time finding a photography or design student ready to work for the experience. Quality is imperative: print needs high resolution, and web needs good optimization.

Infographics can be gold, or just meh

Be careful with infographics. When done well, you’re golden. With tools like canva, they’re easy to create and save as templates for future use across your team/organization. But there are many pitfalls: too much or too little copy, elusive data, poor aspect-ratio (i.e. cut off  where it shouldn’t!), or simply not readable.

It seems obvious but… be creative

Do what is not expected with your visuals: use bold colors, drawings, real people (!) or no people (!! hint: the always uninteresting group photo at a conference), street art or other visual art form, add value with meaningful quotes and data, or surprising angles and filters that can be adapted or work across channels. On the web, think about using dynamic visuals, like gifs, animations, and data visualizations. While few have the resources to pull off work like The New York Times Flowing Data team, data visualizations can speak directly to your audience and be as simple as a dynamic chart based in Google. The bottom line: visuals are part of your narrative.


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