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Design 101 | Don’t Write a Thousand Words, Use a Compelling Image

A silhouette of a pair of hands forming a heart and behind is a purple light shining through

Writing can be tough, especially if you’re writing for your own business.

Your words need to inform, convince and compel your readers to act. It’s a tall order, but it’s much easier to accomplish if you pair your words with an image that does some of the work for you. An image can speak a thousand words, but only if you choose it and use it carefully.

The most compelling images ask the viewer to make a mental leap to connect what’s in the image to the words you use. Straight illustrations of your topic work, too, but aren’t as engaging.

Here are two examples:

Let’s look for an image to illustrate the headline “The Career Counseling Services Group Will Show You the Way to a Bright Future”

brand marketing with straightforward images is the easy way to go
brand marketing with a conceptual image presents a stronger message than just words

There’s nothing wrong with the image on the left. It’s a good illustration of career counseling. There’s the woman, looking like she’s giving advice to the man across the desk. It’s probably similar to the first image that comes to our minds when we think “career counseling.” But why go the easy route?

The photo on the left is OK, but it’s limited by a couple of things:

  • It’s specific to an ethnic group and may cause viewers to feel excluded
  • It looks like a stock photo (because it is)

The photo on the right doesn’t illustrate the concept of career counseling outright. It invites the reader to place themselves in the image. They imagine themselves opening the door, and are drawn to know more about the future that awaits them on the other side.

The difference is that the first image is literal, and the second image is conceptual.

Related: The 3 Reasons “Speaking Images” Will Transform Your Marketing

There’s a time and place for literal and  conceptual Images

If you need to show a product you sell, your goal is to use an image that shows your product clearly and in the best light possible. A good, clean, high-resolution literal image is essential.

But if you want to engage your reader in an idea, a conceptual image is the way to go. The way to choose conceptual images is to think about the response you’d like to evoke.

Ideally, you want your reader to be able to engage with the image in a way that resonates with their everyday experiences. You want them to make an emotional connection to your words through the image you’ve used.

Focusing on what’s important

To really make that photo you’ve selected speak volumes, hone in on the important elements, and crop out the non-essentials. Here’s an example of what you can do with an ordinary stock photo.

brand building with images and how you can make them stronger
brand strategy includes focusing on the key parts of your photos

Look for the part of the image that really tells your story, and crop out the rest. Be ruthless! If it’s not on topic, crop it out.

You don’t need fancy image editing software to do this: you can crop and do some very basic image editing right on the web. Try for a free web-based solution that will let you crop, brighten and apply some simple effects to your image, and then download the results.

Finding compelling images

There are lots of stock photo sites on the web. They offer everything from photos that scream “stock photo!” to photos that offer some conceptual possibilities. One way to find conceptual stock photos is to add the words “concept” or “abstract” to your search terms. This will help bring up images that are a little off the beaten path, and may be more interesting.

Great sites for stock photos This is the site I go to first. The search capabilities are great, the selection is vast (and growing) and you can even search by color and composition. (If you want to run your text along the right side of a photo, you can search for photos that have open areas along the right side, for example.) Another excellent (and vast) collection of high-quality images. I haven’t used this much, but it looks promising. It claims to have the least expensive stock photos, and the quality looks good.

Free stock photos

stock.xchng: The granddaddy of free stock photo sites. The free offerings are shown along with tempting paid offerings from a sister site, but if you can resist the urge to upgrade to paid, there are plenty of good images here. Don’t let the name fool you. A morgue file, as I learned in art school, is where one keeps photo and image references to be used in the future. This is the Internet’s morgue file, and is assembled by creative people and freely shared.

Questions about using photos in your marketing? Let’s talk about it in the comments section. Ask away!

Design 101

This is the ninth in a series of ten lessons called “Design 101.”

The last lesson will talk about how you can create a “cheat sheet” for your business that will make all your marketing materials more effective.

Want to learn more about design? Check out my Classics: The Design 101 Series of videos on my YouTube channel.

Pamela Wilson

Pamela Wilson is a marketing advisor, executive coach, author, and keynote speaker. She's the creator of the Offer Accelerator Program. Learn more about Pamela's books, and read reviews of the tools used to run this site.
Pamela Wilson coaches people in midlife to build profitable online businesses
I’m Pamela Wilson

In 2010, at the age of 45, I started this site and grew it into a business that offers freedom, flexibility — and consistent revenue.


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17 thoughts on “Design 101 | Don’t Write a Thousand Words, Use a Compelling Image”

  1. Thank you Pamela this has been really helpful. I’ve booked marked this page. I have just spent an afternoon looking through istockphoto and haven’t found anything I wanted for under 15 credits, so this has come at the perfect time!

  2. I find istockphoto’s search feature works as a pretty good overall “image thesaurus” when you’re looking for an image that conveys some emotion.

    Another great (free) web based photo editing resource is Picnik

    Thanks Pamela!

  3. Thanks, Pamela. Good resource list for me to keep on file! I’ve used dreamstime quite a bit — good search, very affordable.

    Question: Is there any fairly easy way to give an image a transparent background if one is not so great at Photoshop?

    Sometimes I see an image I want to use, but it’s on a background of, say, a square of blue sky, and I just want it on a web page with no background. Is this a skill that a non-graphics person can expect to pick up with not too, too much time/effort? Or is this one of those “don’t try this at home” graphics things that would take me forever to learn in Photoshop? It’s not something I would do all that often..but when I want it, I really want it!

    • It’s not easy, Sandy. I wish I had some magical software that would make it simple! To silhouette a photo (drop out the background) in a way that makes it look natural is a skill that has to be practiced. Otherwise your photo will look like you cut it out with nail scissors… not good.

      I use a Photoshop plugin from OnOne software call MaskPro for really complex photos. I mask simpler ones by hand, then soften the edges a little, and save them in a format that allows transparency (.jpg doesn’t).

    • Hi Ije! You can get the series delivered to you if you’d like to read them one-by-one over time. Just sign up in the upper right corner. Thanks for stopping by.

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