Be true to your brand: How to choose the right image for the job
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Whether you are a graphic designer, a content manager, or on your company’s marketing team, choosing the right image to complement your company’s message is an important job. There’s a reason the old adage insists that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It is one of the main things your audience will connect with.

How does your organization want to be portrayed? Of course professional, hard working, and dependable come to mind. But what about the things that make your company stand out? Think about how you can you define your conference, campaign, or magazine, and tie it back to your message.

Rule #1: Start Off Right

Make sure you know how this image will be used, so that you screen out any that do not meet your purpose. Visualize your ideal standards and usage so that you can set your sights on getting what you want. You’ll want to think about:

  • Color: Should the color command attention?
  • Background: Should it have large expanses of a uniform background color or texture so that you can place text on it?
  • Orientation: What will work best? If I need an image for a magazine cover, I’m not going to bother looking for landscape (horizontal) or panoramic images.

Now that I have a general idea of what kind of image I need, I’m ready to refine my search according to my rules.

Rule #2: Know Your “Cheesy”

One person’s cheesy may be another’s height of elegance. In this section I’m going to point out how we look for images for our different clients, but if you work in-house, this still applies—different divisions or departments in your company may have their own unique characteristics that must be relevant, and tie back to the main brand. I make it my business to know how each of my clients’ tastes run, and I can guarantee you that they differ. Know what’s appropriate and what’s not before you present your image ideas. It’s your job.

For one client, I know that stock images of people—any people—are considered trite and confusing because they aren’t images of their actual employees. That is important to them. I will always look for an image that’s more symbolic, or doesn’t show people’s faces. I try to evoke a mood or a feeling.

Examples:
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Another client doesn’t mind a good photo of a friendly person. But they also go for a certain kind of illustration—either photorealistic and dramatic, or painterly and sophisticated—so I will include compelling images along those lines as well.

Examples:
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A third client enjoys something more colorful and light to send to their audience. We know from working on a book and email series with them that they will appreciate really good, colorful vector illustrations. Their work carries a very different tone and flavor from the two previous examples, but it is no less professional. (Not to mention, it’s also won us an award.)

Examples:
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Then there are images that are just off limits, meaning a client might not mind, but, as an art director I won’t ever go with it because it hurts my brain and offends my design sensibilities. These include: clip art; pixelated images stolen from the Internet; silhouettes of people, especially with a reflection; generic 3-D artwork of nondescript people with big heads (bonus points if they are gold); art created straight from Wordle; paper dolls; and anybody scantily clad. I’m sure you have your own list of off-limits graphics.

Examples: Just Say No!
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Rule #3: Keep It Positive

Suppose disaster strikes and your company issues strong advice to help your clients make the best of a bad situation. Always go for the positive image. Always.

It may be tempting to search for the scandalous, the horrible, the don’t-let-this-happen-to-you picture, thinking that it will grab more attention. But what are you really reinforcing with that kind of an image?

Here’s an example of possible images for advice in dealing with the aftermath of a disaster:

Set 1:
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Set 2:
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Which set makes you think that the company knows how to cope with these problems in a professional, competent, and positive manner? Obviously, Set 2.

We’ve learned through experience that the best responses follow when your company offers help, recovery, and healing, rather than an image that reinforces a crisis. This goes for natural disasters, recessions, stock market crashes—any kind of hardship. Be uplifting.

And as for the third image in Set 1, I have no idea how anyone would ever think that’s appropriate for anything, unless it’s the cover of a YA paperback novel about a boy who can outrun twisters. I may have to write that book, just to make sure that image gets used by someone.

The Takeaway

One size does not fit all. Make sure you protect and enhance your branding by choosing positive, consistent images that reinforce your company’s vision.

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