Few people would admit to using someone else’s words on their website, especially when that site has been designed for commercial purposes. But the same attitude doesn’t apply to imagery. Today, web and graphic designers regularly use visual assets from outside sources during the creative process, and they do it without losing sleep from ethical dilemmas. The reason is simple: people need visual stimulation and websites need to attract people. And since hiring a professional photographer is out of the question for a lot of companies, finding strong imagery can require a more resourceful approach.
There are plenty of good reasons to pay attention to imagery on your site, but you might be surprised at how many website designers and owners treat them as an afterthought. Consider these potential benefits of images:
- A stronger social media presence, specifically with content people will want to share
- A more memorable and well-defined brand identity thanks to visuals that reinforce personality
- Content that is easier to digest and understand
- An opportunity to introduce the people behind the scenes
- A better use of page real estate through descriptive, relevant imagery
- Greater trust with the user through clear and unambiguous visualizations of products
- SEO improvement with effective use of image alt tags and titles
- More visually interesting pages (of course)
Before you’ve read even a single line of text on a website, there’s a good chance your eye was drawn to some sort of visual cue—a face, a colour, a shape. Consciously or unconsciously, you’re associating certain ideas and emotions with that visual, forming certain attitudes that can influence the way you feel about the website as a whole. When that image is something unique, something unexpected, it sets similar expectations for everything that is to come. That’s all part of making a good first impression, and that’s what the best graphic designers do really well.
The reverse of that scenario is an image that underwhelms and tells you not to get your hopes up. You see it with heavily used stock photos and graphics, the kind that can do more harm than good because—fairly or unfairly—they paint the rest of the content with the same well-worn brush. Good copywriting can overcome poor visuals or design, but it shouldn’t have to (if it gets the chance at all). With the overabundance of web content out there, your message needs all the help it can get.
So how should you approach researching imagery for your new site? Keep these suggestions in mind:
Free images come at a price
Blogs and hobby websites are notorious for using free images—without a source of income, these sites can be forgiven for not shelling out big money on visuals. But if your website needs to do more than relay your musings, or narrate the latest exploits of your cat, then it deserves an investment in time and money.
Although you wouldn’t have to look hard to find sources for free images, there can be several legal hurdles to jump over in securing proper usage rights. Not every photo site, and sometimes not every photo within a single site, follows the same licensing framework. Free images also come with caveats, for example the need to attribute them to the photographer or limited sizing options.
Of course, it’s also difficult to entice visitors to spend money on your product or service when you don’t even view your own website as worth the cost of quality images. Trust is one of the most valuable assets in website design today. Most web users can quickly assess the quality and value of an image without even realizing it—“placeholder” images that serve no real purpose other than to break up text or boost SEO won’t instill a sense of trust in your target audience.
When you compare the many stock imagery websites operating today, you can easily acquire all the assets you need for a very reasonable price. You might also be able to incorporate those assets into other marketing materials, getting full value for your original investment.
If it’s popular, it’s already everywhere
Whether free or for a price, all images suffer from the threat of overexposure: the point at which people start to recognize certain faces or compositions across different websites. Popular search terms can yield hundreds, even thousands of pages of results. When you filter by popularity you’re viewing images that have already been downloaded and used countless times, all across the Internet. Graphic designers often use these kinds of images in early mock-ups to save time, but there’s no excuse for the end product to feature the same unimaginative, oversaturated visuals.
Now it’s not only a question of money, but time: finding a hidden gem can take hours of research, painstakingly sorting through pages of mediocre (sometimes unimaginably awful) results. First, find out whether this service is included in the cost of your website design project. If it isn’t, be sure to get some sort of direction from the graphic designer so you can focus your efforts. Most stock imagery websites allow you to filter results according to pretty specific criteria, so you might as well take advantage of them.
Think outside the box to convey abstract ideas or services
How do you present a concept that defies simple visualization? A product is a product, a team member is a team member, but what about a service, an emotion or a company philosophy? You can always start with a direct query, and you might be pleasantly surprised with what you find. However, be prepared for disappointment. Then be prepared to think outside the box.
Instead of aiming for a spot-on depiction, look for something with a more interesting connection to the message, maybe something that ties in neatly with your company mantra or showcases a sense of humour. Just be sure to avoid the clichés that so many web and graphic designers are guilty of, for example the person standing atop a mountain signifying success, or the impeccably dressed professionals shaking hands while smiling at the camera. Not only will visitors notice your lack of originality, they could notice the very same images on a competitor’s website.
If all else fails, consider a custom illustration to depict your message. The investment might not be realistic for the entire website, but it could strengthen your homepage or strategic landing pages.
Weigh the costs of hiring a photographer against the benefits of having better images
At the end of the day, your site isn’t there just to take up cyberspace; it has to do something. Whether that something is facilitating sales, generating inquiries, streamlining internal business processes or educating people, you need to make sure your site has every chance of doing it well. The cost of website design represents an investment in your business, and whether you realize it or not the success of your business rests on its image.
Professional photography, whether purchased through a stock source or commissioned specifically for your website, sends a strong message about the company behind it. There are limits, though, to what you can find via stock photography websites. In some cases “close” won’t be close enough, and you’re left facing a tough business decision: to enlist a professional photographer or settle for subpar images.
For obvious reasons, ecommerce websites follow a strict set of rules regarding imagery (since you can’t sell an approximation of your product, photography services are the only way to assure people of what they’re getting). But other types of websites often come down to budget, specifically how much is left after everything else has been addressed. The continuing rise of social media and digital marketing should be enough to convince you that some types of content are more desirable than others; interesting, unique images travel well, while their boring counterparts are likely to stay right where you left them.
A dated but illuminating study by Nielsen Norman Group, a leading researcher of user experiences, documented a number of useful finds in this area. For example, while images of real employees strongly attracted the test viewer’s eye, images that were perceived to be stock or “pure filler” were almost completely ignored. There were other noteworthy conclusions, but the major takeaway from the study is that users value content with purpose and relevance; in other words, it’s not enough for an image to break up the web page, it has to carry meaning for the user.
Although the study was conducted in 2010, the findings hold even more relevance today. Stock images and content in general are being produced at record levels. Is it worthwhile to hire a professional photographer to make your website more memorable, to help your content and your message break through the competing noise? Maybe, maybe not. But if you are going to invest in a website design, it’s a question worth entertaining.