How to get great graphic designs using stock images

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“A picture is worth a thousand words,” the saying goes. No matter what you’re designing, an image can grab attention and deliver your message better than carefully crafted text. With the affordability of high-quality, royalty-free imagery—wherein one fee grants you unlimited usage for promotional purposes—you have no excuse not to use imagery in your designs, even if you can’t create it yourself. Here are the kinds of images to look for and how to use them for greater impact.

Use striking imagery: You have precious few moments to grab someone’s attention, so use unusual, powerful, and colorful imagery (and when appropriate, humorous imagery). If you can’t snag a person’s attention, they won’t read your text. This is especially true in direct marketing and Web marketing: Because it’s unsolicited, getting a reader to notice your piece, much less read it, is particularly difficult.

Let the image(s) tell the story: If you’re promoting a person, place, or thing, then anchor that image prominently in your design. For example, when you’re promoting a speaker for your computer club, make that person’s head shot the focal point. When you’re touting a product, pair a product photo with imagery of people using it. This arrangement helps your audience visualize using your product, which boosts sales.

Top: These photos promote Canada’s Whistler Mountain as a ski destination better than any text. Bottom: Placing ski photos in a horizontal line leads the audience’s eyes straight to the product shot.

If you don’t have a good product photo, try finding a stock image instead of staging a photo shoot. For example, if you’re promoting a piano store, a photo of piano keys might do the trick; for a cooking school, a photo of spices separated into individual bowls might work. It’s also important to make sure that the image you pick sends the right message, as the following example shows. If you’re at a loss as to what kind of imagery to include, consider any “tools of the trade” that people use in that particular business. For example, a tailor might use a needle, a landscaper might use a mower, and a carpenter might use a saw.

Top: These two ads communicate different messages—the store on the left feels affordable and kid-friendly, while the store on the right feels elegant and expensive. Feathering the edges into an oval vignette and using a script font also help to create an air of elegance. Bottom: Here we’ve used something commonly found in this fictitious kitchen store—wooden spatulas and spoons. Used as a background at a large size, the image is striking.

Add an unusual background: Photographers know the importance of including a foreground, a middle ground, and a background in their photos for establishing depth and leading viewers through the image—and the same is true of graphic design. By adding graphic elements to the background of your piece, you make it more engaging. For example, in addition to text and photographic (or illustrative) elements, try adding texture to solid-color backgrounds through the use of imagery and bars of color to highlight important information.

Try to use at least three graphical elements in your piece, not counting the text, as shown in these before (left) and after (right) versions of two fictitious ads.

Go big or go home: Attractive imagery used at a large size can have a big impact. The same is true of imagery captured at an interesting perspective, or images cropped in an unconventional way. For example, if you’re promoting a pet store, you might use a big yet unusual image of one of the pets you serve.

Top: The cuteness of this dog against a clean background makes the text impossible to ignore. Presenting a quote from a dog also helps; it’s out of the ordinary and unexpected. Bottom: Enlarging the stock image of a burlap background in this fabric-store ad gives it impact.

Use conceptual imagery: Have you ever seen an image of a money tree? How about a businessperson pulling their hair out? Because this kind of (Photoshopped) imagery is out of the ordinary, it can be visually interesting on its own. This is where royalty-free stock imagery really shines; since most stock images are used in advertising, contributors to stock-image collections have become experts at communicating concepts in clever ways.

Top: Get more bang for your stock-imagery buck by using the same image twice. For example, place the image once at normal size and then place it again in the background at a large size and with reduced opacity. Bottom: Stock imagery is also great for communicating hard-to-explain concepts, such as cloud computing.

Include faces for an emotional connection: Whenever possible, use faces in your design. This helps people identify with the company, product, or service that you’re promoting. When you place the faces of your target audience into the design, they are more likely to connect with it in an emotional way.

Top: Using faces in your design helps people form an emotional connection with your company, product, or service. Bottom: If you’re selling a product, try pointing the face directly at the product in order to draw the viewer’s eye.

Designing with imagery is useful and lots of fun. And when you use high-quality stock-imagery services such as iStockphoto or, even the act of finding the perfect picture can be inspirational.

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