A Complete Guide to Visual Content: The Science, Tools and Strategy of Creating Killer Images

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Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 8.27.58 PMWe love setting goals for improvement here at the Buffer blog, and one of our most recent challenges has been this: Every post gets an original image.

This might not sound like such a tall task until you consider that Courtney and I are journalism majors whose skills lie in painting pictures with words and not so much in painting pictures with Photoshop. We try our best, in the name of visual content.

You’ve perhaps heard of visual content? The term seems to be everywhere these days. We come across it all the time as we’re curating content, and it seems that social media strategies now consider visuals as required elements.

As visual content on social networks has grown, so too has the emphasis on storytelling with pictures. Indelible, craveable, relatable images have become a high currency in the world of content marketing, and the push for visual content seems to only be getting stronger.

So what are you to do with this new focus on visuals? I’m happy to share with you some of our favorite ideas, tips, and tools.

First off: Why visual content is so important

Here are some telling stats on just how big visual content has become and how it’s changing the way we all approach marketing.

Sixty-three percent of social media is made up of images. That means nearly two-thirds of the updates you see on social media are visual content, according to a Citrix report from January.

Nearly half of all Internet users have reposted a photo or video they have found online. An equally intriguing stat from the same 2013 Pew Research Study is that 54 percent of all Internet users have posted an original photo or video that they personally have created.

Pew research visual content

Content with relevant images gets 94 percent more views than content without. This oft-cited visual content stat is evidence that visuals have been vital to online success for some time. The original study from content platform Skyword came out in 2011.

Ninety-four percent equates to almost double the views, and the boost is noticed across all topics and categories.

Skyword visual content analysis

Tweets with images receive 150 percent more retweets. We ran the numbers on this ourselves, comparing tweets from our Buffer account to see exactly what difference images made. The results are striking! Retweets, replies, and clicks all benefit from images. We first ran this analysis back in November, and we continue to see these stats bear out in our tweets today.

Images are the No. 1 most important factor in optimal social media content. This according to an ongoing research survey conducted by Software Advice and Adobe. More than 80 percent of survey respondents pointed to images being “Very Important” or “Important” for their marketing optimization on social. The runners up in terms of importance were hashtags and usernames.

Social optimization survey

The brain processes visuals 60,000 times faster than it does text. We are wired to take in visual content faster and more effectively than we are words. Ninety percent of the information sent to our brains is visual; we’ve been trained to consume visual content as quickly as we can.

The-Importance-of-Visuals

To recap, many of the big, important stats on visual content are summed up nicely in this infographic from Matter’s Studio-C. The stats below paint a strong picture of how vital visuals are for marketers.

Matter_Survey_Infographic_V4

4 lessons on the psychology and science of visual content

We love breaking down topics into the origins of why something works (or doesn’t work), and these deep dives often lead us into psychology and science. I found the same to be true for visual content. There’s a lot of neat psychological and scientific explanations for why visuals can be so powerful and what goes into creating an awesome image. Here are four of my favorite learnings.

1. Visceral reactions to visual content

Have you ever fallen in love with a design but couldn’t explain why?

These visceral reactions are some of the strongest connections we can make to visual content. When we feel a visceral reaction, we are responding from the part of the brain responsible for survival instincts and fight-or-flight responses. The response is subconscious. It originates from the central nervous system whenever we’re stimulated by vital factors like food, shelter, danger, or reproduction. We might not be able to explain why we love a beautiful design because our conscious thought hasn’t yet caught up with our subconscious.

The trick with making visceral reactions work in visual content is being aware of the feelings that your images and video evoke. If you can elicit a survival-type response—pictures that hint at safety by showing a home or a field, for instance—you may be able to tap into a visceral reaction.

Here’s a photo that earned a visceral reaction from me, possibly due to the feeling of security with a key and the calming colors.

Dan Farrelly Key

2. Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a method for composing the elements of an image to be visually pleasing and to be in sync with the way our eyes prefer to scan an image. Photographers know the Rule of Thirds well; it is a foundational piece of photography.

The way it works is by dividing an image into a grid of thirds both horizontally and vertically. Basically, put a tic-tac-toe board on an image.

rule-of-thirds

The tic-tac-toe board creates intersections of lines, and according to Rule of Thirds, these intersections are where the eye is most likely to be drawn.

The design lesson here is to place your key elements along these intersections. Avoid placing a key element right in the center.

3. Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio is where the ratio of a smaller segment to a larger segment is the same as the ratio of a larger segment to the sum of both. Confusing? It’s quite a bit easier to see this one explained in a graphic, like this one from Vanseo Design:

Golden Ratio

This ratio could appear in terms of width and height of an image or in the way that a blog page is composed with the main content and sidebar. (There’s even a handy tool for figuring out the Golden Ratio for web typography.)

For images, this ratio creates a Golden Rectangle. The Golden Rectangle, when you dissect it into smaller and smaller Golden Rectangles, forms a spiral shape that is often present in nature, architecture, and art.

Golden Rectangle

To find the Golden Ratio for an image you’re creating, you can apply a little algebra to the height and width. For example, if you know that the height of your image will be 400 pixels, you can multiply 400 x 1.618 to find the width: 647 pixels.

To check if your image is “golden,” you can divide the width by the height. Depending on how you divide, the golden answer will be either 1.618 or 0.618.

4. Fibonacci Sequence

The Fibonacci Sequence is a series of numbers where the next number in the series is the sum of the previous two numbers. Here’s how the sequence starts:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144 …

These numbers are found commonly in classical creative works and in nature, and they have a neat tie-in with the Golden Ratio. Dividing any number in the Fibonacci Sequence by the previous number will result in an approximation of the golden number 1.618—the basis for the Golden Ratio.

The grid below is shows the marriage between Golden Rectangles and Fibonacci Sequence numbers.

Fibonacci Blocks

Ross Johnson of 3.7 Designs has a lot of neat tips on how science can inform design. Here’s his take on the Fibonacci Sequenece:

Patterns based on the sequence are intrinsically aesthetic and therefore should be used in the composition of our designs. This sequence can be used to create visual patterns, create shapes, organic figures, build grids or dictate sizing and ratios.

9 major types of visual content

What are we specifically talking about when we talk about visual content? I sometimes lose track of this myself. There will eventually be an end product to a visual content strategy. Here are the most common ways that marketers create visual content.

  • Eye-catching, creative photography — think stock photos or Instagram pics
  • Video — YouTube, Vimeo, or Wistia embedded right into a post or shared directly to social media
  • Screenshots — helpful images of your product or workflow
  • Infographics — visual information, either super long and meaty or bite-sized and informative
  • Data visualization — standalone charts and graphs (example)
  • Comics — relevant comic strips or cartoons (example)
  • Memes — popular memes customized to fit the context of your post or update (example)
  • Visual note-taking — casually-designed layout of ideas, typically text-heavy (example)
  • Miscellaneous graphics — images that complement the content, e.g. the images in the above section on Golden Ratio and Fibonacci Sequence

While thinking about the ways to fulfill a visual content strategy, you’ll also want to beware some of the common pitfalls of visual content. Kathryn Aragon does a great job summarizing the trouble spots to an unfocused visual strategy.

Images should not be:

Inserted willy-nilly, just to have an image.

Trite or overused stock photos.

Thought of only as share-bait.

Boring or irrelevant.

It may also be helpful to keep in mind how your visual content will be displayed across various social networks. Take Twitter’s inline images for instance. The default viewable portion of an inline image is 440 pixels wide by 220 pixels tall. Images outside this 2:1 ratio will risk getting cropped at inopportune places, like this example the St. Louis Cardinals’ timeline.

Twitter inline image

Media Bistro has a great collection of all the sizes you need to know for visuals on all the major networks: Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube. Here’s a peek at what they suggest for a Facebook sponsored post. (Click through for a complete view of all the helpful image dimensions for all networks.)

Facebook sponsored post dimensions

6 best tools for creating visual content

Canva

As a non-designer, I am quite dependent on the amazing tools at Canva to get a lot of my design work done. The setup with Canva is super easy. You can choose from a number of premade templates or design your own from scratch. The drag-and-drop interface makes it quite intuitive to add different elements, and each of the elements has advanced options for editing as well.

One of my favorite features is that the elements align to grids automatically. You can line up a series of elements with relative ease.

Canva screenshot

Bonus tip: For super fast image adjustments like cropping or scaling, I’ve found BeFunky to be an indispensable tool. You can upload, edit, and save an image without even signing in.

PowerPoint

A go-to tool for many amateur designers is presentation software like PowerPoint. If you think of slides as images, it’s easy to see how this tool could be useful for building out visual content. You can set images as backgrounds, add text and typography, and place icons and graphics.

When you save in PowerPoint, choose to save as an image, and you’ll be set.

Bonus tip: For a cloud version of PowerPoint, you might be interested to try Google’s Presentation tool found in Google Drive.

Google Presentations

Skitch

Screenshots are perhaps the easiest way of adding visual content, provided you have a reliable screenshot tool. We use Skitch, a product of Evernote, for our screengrabs. Skitch has some helpful annotation features that look good and are easy to implement.

Skitch screengrab

Bonus tip: If you’d rather run things lean, you can use keyboard shortcuts to do simple screengrabs:

  • Windows: Print Screen places a screengrab onto your clipboard
  • Windows: Print Screen+Windows key saves a screengrab into a photo folder
  • Mac: Command+Shift+4 lets you choose the area you’d like to grab for your screenshot
  • Mac: The above command followed by Spacebar lets you take a screenshot of an active window

Photoshop

Of course I couldn’t help but mention the most popular image creation tool out there: Photoshop. If you have the time, skills, and resources to use Photoshop for your visual content, then you’re likely to find a lot of helpful features and tools to building pretty much anything you could want.

Bonus tip: If you’re after a free version, you might want to try Gimp, which has a lot of similar features and tools but is completely free.

Infogr.am

If you’re interested in creating infographics or interactive visual content, Infogram‘s free web app might be what you’re after. Their interactive layouts allow you to embed charts, videos, photos, maps, and more.

Place It

With Place It, you can create some really striking visuals for promotional content of new tools and services. You can add your product’s screenshots right into awesome-looking stock photos and even interactive backgrounds. Here’s what the Buffer Blog would look like when added to a Place It graphic:

Tips on making visual content that people will love

I’ve come to rely on a lot of little tips for making visual content for Buffer blog posts. It’s great to have a few tricks in your pocket when it comes to design. Here are a few of my favorites.

How to Make Images That Stand Out

Design with grids

The Rule of Thirds highlights the importance of grids when it comes to framing a photo. Grids can also play a big role in creating images that look great. In this sense, you could look at creating a collage with many images in a grid or placing a frame around a photo. Grid techniques give order and professionalism to your images.

Grids

Bonus tip: It’s much easier to overlay text onto a grid of images. The text really pops when it rests on top of solid lines.

Find a good photo filter and use it consistently

Why might a filter come in handy? When you’re pulling images from a wide variety of sources for your blog, filters can provide a sense of consistency across the visuals. A consistent filter could even make your posts more recognizable in social media, which becomes especially important as timelines fill with visuals.

Take a look at the following two pictures, before filter and after filter:

Before:

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 2.41.29 PM

After:

Screen Shot 2014-05-22 at 2.41.55 PM

Set a color palette and determine your brand fonts

If your brand doesn’t have a set palette of colors or two to three go-to fonts, then now might be the time to find some. Consider how the colors and fonts that you choose portray your brand. One thing to keep in mind might be the psychology of color: Colors trigger different feelings for us. This image from PowerText shows how different colors (and different logos) tend to make us feel.

Color emotion guide

Bonus tip: When you’re designing with color, keep in mind the concept of semantic resonance. This basically means that, when possible, use colors that fit the topic you’re talking about. In infographics, this would mean displaying data about Google+ with a red bar and data about Twitter with light blue.

Choose a striking stock photo

We’ve come across a huge number of free stock photo sites in our search for visuals for the blog. It’s often difficult to decide what exactly makes for a good photo. When we’re searching at Buffer, we tend to think abstract: If we’re doing a post on Facebook followers, we might try a search for “lines” or “queues” rather than a search for the Facebook logo. When choosing the right picture, you can keep in mind many of the lessons relayed from the psychology and science of visuals: Search for visceral reactions, go with bright bold colors, look for the Rule of Thirds and the Golden Ratio.

Bonus tip: Social media agency Laundry Service found that Instagram photos make for more effective advertising imagery than stock photos. Might be worth experimenting with for your next campaign.

Build a helpful, humorous infographic

Writing on the Harvard Business Review blog, Gareth Cook of The Best American Infographics mentioned a few key areas of the most successful infographics. Cook believes that the key is to distill lots of information into an easy-to-read, intuitive layout:

Give people a sense of all the data that’s out there, and enough context, without overwhelming them.

And being humorous doesn’t hurt either. Some of his favorite infographics are heavy on the whimsy. Here’s an example:

Is Life Good infographic

 

What is most important for you when creating visual content?

As we’ve pushed forward with visual content for the Buffer blog, we’ve learned a lot and continue to experiment with new tips and tools. We’d love to hear what you’ve discovered, too!

What types of visual content do you most enjoy? Which are the ones that work best for you? It’d be awesome to hear your thoughts on the topic. Share any and all ideas here in the comments.

P.S. If you liked this post, you might enjoy our Buffer Blog newsletter. Receive each new post delivered right to your inbox, plus our can’t-miss weekly email of the Internet’s best reads. Sign up here.

Image credits: Dave Chapman, 3.7 Designs, Pew, Skyword, Crazy Egg, The Next WebVanseo Design, Hong Kiat, Dan Farrelly, Wikipedia, PowerText, Chang-JJ, Mighty HiveDeath to the Stock Photo.

  • http://www.techacker.com/ Anurag Bansal

    Thank you for this elaborate post on the importance of images to create an impact on blog posts and social sharing.
    I personally found Canva and Infogr.am to be extremely useful. I have used Canva to create Twitter header image, Google+ featured image and Facebook cover photo. It is one of the most feature rich useful tool that I use on a daily basis to create graphics for my blog posts.
    I recently stumbled upon Dreamstime WordPress plugin that enables you to add a stock image directly to any post in WordPress editor, really useful and quick.
    The information about filters and the use of appropriate images are spot on. I have found many blogs using images without any relevance to the content. It obviously makes sense to find images that relates to the article.

    Thanks again for this information rich article, Kevan.

    Cheers
    Anurag Bansal

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Great tip about Dreamstime! That one sounds really interesting. :)

      Glad to hear there are more Canva and Infogram fans out there!

  • mschmidlen

    THANK YOU, this is an AWESOME resource!

  • Meredith Gould

    You always have the best posts! I teach and train this stuff and still learn lots from you. Very grateful. BTW, to your list of image editors, I’d add Ribbet.com. So much easier than Photoshop or Gimp.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks, Meredith! I’ve stumbled across Ribbet before. Might need to give it a second look thanks to your awesome recommendation! :)

    • http://www.techacker.com/ Anurag Bansal

      I am also checking out ribbet.com right now… Seems pretty cool. Thanks for the recommendation.

      • JoanneSchoturd

        as Thelma explained I cannot
        believe that a stay at home mom can make $7420 in four weeks on the internet .
        more info here R­e­x­1­0­.­C­O­M­

    • http://www.paulparsons.me/ Paul Parsons

      Never heard of this before, great find – thanks for sharing.

      • gladyswray

        like
        Jacqueline implied I’m taken by surprise that a mom can earn $8130 in 1 month
        on the computer . see post C­a­s­h­f­i­g­.­C­O­M­

  • http://intentionaltravelers.com Intentional Travelers

    Another great resource. Thank you. I would just add PicMonkey to the free online graphic tools. It’s super easy to use.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      PicMonkey! Great suggestion. Yes, that’s an excellent resource, too.

  • Agnes Dadura

    I would also add GIFs to the list. Recently very popular on G+. Checking some of the tools you’ve suggested. I also like to use Adobe Illustrator, as vectors are more flexible than photos, but it takes time to practice with it (I am still learning myself). Good news is… loads of free tutorials on the Internet!

  • VA Staffer

    Good stuff, I love the rule of 3’s – great work on this post! The only thing I find sad is the inevitable truth of what this means – the world is literally being dumbed down to images and we’re all foolish if we don’t plan our marketing around it. I miss the days where people actually “READ” things, instead of look at a few pictures and went to the next thing. At least with info-graphics I feel we can at least add something back in those lazy brains!

  • Abbey Hambright

    Love the tip about using a filter to unify photos from different sources. Very clever.

  • http://www.pushconvert.com/ PushConvert

    Finding good photos is a most times very frustrating for me, do have any good source for images that can be used by blogs & websites onlne?

  • http://www.asanayoga.de/ Robin

    Good tipps in it, Kevan. I like to work with lot’s of visual in my blog too. That helps people to understand and manifest knowledge more quickly. And of course increases sharing rates. Buzzfeed (and more pages like this) use image hover share buttons. I use it too and this has increased my share rates. Have you ever tried to use a image hover share on images? I curious why buffer blog is not using it. There might be some interesting insight, I’m not aware of…

  • http://hubskills.com/ Partha Bhattacharya

    This article is one of the best I’ve read on the subject. Thanks a lot, Kevan.

  • http://www.kaemmerergroup.com Carol Kaemmerer

    Kudos @kevanlee:disqus for this great content. Love your infographic on how the brain processes images so much faster than text.

  • virnieva

    Just a fantastic blogpost! Thank you!!! Thank you for share information…this way!

  • http://www.smartdraw.com Emese Gaal

    Lots of good tips here! Since the
    human brain processes visuals 60,000 x faster than text, visual content tells
    more effective stories that engross viewers in your message. I work at
    SmartDraw and we know that rich visuals and storytelling is so much more
    efficient than words alone. A recent infographic we created says 60% of people
    are visual learners which supports your statistic that 63% of social media is
    made up of images. (bit.ly/1oNQdtC)
    Thanks for sharing these ideas.

  • Anita B Wade

    An amazing resource Kevan – thank you so much, I have learned so much from this post alone!

  • IwanoMai

    Yes, visual content is very important. When are Buffer going to be able to post to Instagram? I’d have thought that was a priority for you guys.

    • Courtney Seiter

      Hey there! We’d really love to be able to integrate with Instagram; it’s definitely on our dream list. I’ll keep you posted!

      • IwanoMai

        Thanks, Courtney. It’s on my dream list too!

  • Amy Robles

    You seriously rock, Kevan! I didn’t know about Ribbet or PlaceIt, I’m checking those out now. Thanks so much!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks so much, Amy! Glad you found a few new sites to try. I’d love to hear what you think! :)

  • http://www.paulparsons.me/ Paul Parsons

    Great article… as always :-)

  • Nirmal Dayani

    Truly insightful, love the 1.6 principal !

  • Sass

    Thanks Kevan, I’ve just read several of your posts and they are all fantastic! Much appreciated.

  • Karen Cioffi

    This is a great post, lots of useful information on using visuals. I use screen-shots in my blog posts and use Logo Creator to create my own images. I just started using memes – people love to share them. Love the “Is Life Good?” image!

  • Matthew Geller OD

    Definitely a great post. @kevanlee:disqus do you have any content on post length that you like to refer to?

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi Matthew! Thanks for the ask! Yes, I like to mention this one: http://blog.bufferapp.com/the-ideal-length-of-everything-online-according-to-science

      I think it’s about 1,500 words or 6 or 7 minutes to read. That’s the general guideline I tend to share about post length. How does that feel to you?

      • Matthew Geller OD

        In all honesty if its a “guide” post, I write until the guide is complete. If its a more general post then I try to keep things extremely concise. People will do anything to have their problem solved. 1,500 sounds typical for where we are at on optometrystudents.com and http://www.newgradoptometry.com – keep up the great work @kevanlee:disqus!

  • adsy.me

    Hi Kevan, great article. I invite you to read the article I’ve just published on Medium re: the impact of “Snap&Go” applications on imaginative storytelling http://bit.ly/1mA3oJI and also to give our own app a try on http://adsy.me It’s a mobile web app to create… mobile web apps #becreative

  • http://www.themilitaryleader.com/ The Military Leader

    Thanks for the comprehensive article!
    My topics on military leadership tend to be serious in nature, so I’ve tried to design my website with lighter colors and a big header picture to grab attention. (www.themilitaryleader.com)

    Question:
    I am refining a leader development product I plan to launch this year. Can you recommend any graphic designers who can polish it up while adhering to some of your above suggestions?
    Thanks again!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi there! I’ve heard folks have great success in seeking out designers on Dribbble or on grabbing some quick help via a service like Fiverr. Hope one of those might be of assistance to you!

      • http://www.themilitaryleader.com/ The Military Leader

        I’ll check them out, thanks!

  • Vanessa Choot

    Kevan, wanted to let you know I have read several of your posts on the Buffer blog and find the content you post very helpful. It’s real, practical findings, backed by stats and very relevant to the work I am currently doing.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi, Vanessa! Thanks so much for leaving this comment. Really glad our posts have helped you. If I may ask, what kind of work are you currently into?

      • Vanessa Choot

        I worked in a digital advertising agency for 3 years working mainly on CPG brands, before switching to “client side” to the shopping centre industry. Back when I did community management I did have the opportunity to use (the paid version of) Buffer and have been following along on this blog ever since :)

        Here’s my linked in: http://ca.linkedin.com/in/vanessachoot :)

  • http://www.SmallBusinessBigMarketing.com/ Tim Reid

    What a brilliant post. Thanks. So much blogging GOLD, Kevan. I’m keen to know how long it took you to put together (if you don’t mind me asking :0) My key take out is there are some key things to get right, but don’t wait for them all to be inline; instead, just start blogging!

  • Ulrik De Wachter

    Thanks. Makes me realise – a facebook share always picks up the blog post picture, twitter doesn’t unless you manually add it. There’s an opportunity if tweets could automatically pick up the link and picture of a blog post!