Using Photos And Illustrations

by Randy Murray on October 15, 2009

In a previous post A Simple List To Make Your Site Less Annoying, I warned against the use of stock photography. I stand by that advice, but I do think that photos and illustrative art can be used effectively with your text. Here’s the big secret: the image has to contribute to the reader’s understanding and comprehension of your text, not just to make the page more visually appealing.

Let’s compare the topic of using pictures on a web site to the challenges of interior design. Let’s say a client has a bookcase in their room. I have seen examples where an interior designer will fill the cases with books purchased by the yard, all in a particular color, or perhaps all bound in leather, to make part of what they think is an appealing visual design, not to be read.  As mere decor, I find this pretentious and, ultimately, pointless: everyone who bothers to look will see it for what it is. Either use the client’s own books, if the client has any, leaving room for the book collection to grow  — or just fill the shelves with something else that’s more central to the client’s interests.

Now, take, for example, this photo of the actor Jon Hamm. It would be a good idea to use a picture like this if I were writing about Hamm, even better if I were writing about Hamm in this specific role. It’s less relevant if I am writing about iPhones, unless I’m writing about celebrities using iPhones, or perhaps the FBI using iPhones. But Hamm is a good-looking guy and it’s an interesting photo. So why not use it?

Because the eye is drawn to images over words. It’s very difficult to keep focused on the text if I’m bombarded with pictures. Think of those damn flashing, moving, dancing ads you see on some web pages - it’s very hard to keep your eyes on the words with all that going on. So why distract your readers if you don’t gain something from it?

[By the way, I picked this picture of Jon Hamm because I'm a new fan of the AMC TV series Mad Men and I'm just finishing up Season 1 on Blu-Ray, which really does justice to the brilliant set design and costumes.]

Here are a few simple guidelines to help you know when to use photos and illustrative art:

  1. You are referring to the specific image in your text - they purpose of your text IS the image.
  2. The image will allow you to take a shortcut. By pointing to the image you can significantly reduce your description or be more accurate. “It looks like this,” with a picture, might save you 500 words and keep your readers’ interest.
  3. The image reinforces your message. “See, actors playing FBI agents do use iPhones!”
  4. The image provides credible evidence to back up your words. Think “news photo,” like the picture of a house fire. If you’re writing about Steve Jobs, go ahead and show a picture of him.

In general, stock photos, especially the generic variety, are for design, but there are any number of good design approaches that are far better than just throwing a picture on the page.

I’m a big fan of callout quotes. As you can see by the way this callout attracts your attention.

And a word about copyright and images: make sure you have the rights to use the image. If you create it, no problem, but you shouldn’t go to a web site and copy a picture. Both of these pictures comes from where all of the images can be used for no charge and are cleared for your use. There are many sources of free or inexpensive images you can use; why plagiarize?

The Using Photos And Illustrations by Randy Murray, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jeff Goins November 16, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Great blog! Linking to this in a post on Clip art.


2 Randy Murray November 16, 2009 at 7:52 pm

Thanks, Jeff!


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