A great social media marketer today and an awesome advertiser in the 1960s have much in common.

David Ogilvy, the father of advertising, was famous for spending an inordinate amount of time on headlines. Why? Because that’s the line that people read the most, so it mattered a lot.

Ogilvy was a master at stuff like this — prioritizing what was really important.

If he lived through the age of social media, I’m fairly certain Ogilvy would say something like:

On the average, many more people engage with images as read the copy in social media posts. When you have crafted your social media image, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.

Images have never been more important in social. They’re the key to driving greater online engagement, much like a great headline in advertising.

The only issue here is that if, like me, you aren’t über-skilled in graphic design, creating eye-catching engaging images can be difficult. So how can non-designers like me still create incredible images for social media? One way is by learning simple, repeatable design principles.

Here are 3 key design principles that will help you create engaging social images every time!

pablo social media images

Principle #1: Create a Simple and Balanced Layout

This is what the table in my Airbnb looked like this morning.

Simple social media images

This is what the table looked like about 30 seconds later. Notice any difference?

Simple social media images

Both images contain the same items. Nothing was removed from the table, yet the second picture — with a slightly altered layout — just feels so much better, at least to me!

The lesson here is simple — the layout of elements in your images makes a huge difference.

Take a look at these two basic examples.

Simple social media images

Simple social media images

Doesn’t the second image look a lot better? This is because of two design principles related to image layouts — proximity and alignment.


As Bakari Chavanu explains:

Proximity means grouping elements together so that you guide the viewer to different parts of the message.

In the examples above, the first image places the icon and text in very close proximity. This prevents each element from standing apart and fulfilling its role.

  • The icon visually communicates surfing.
  • The text communicates details about surfing.

Applying the proximity principle means that the viewer should clearly be directed to the icon and then to the text. This allows the viewer to better understand what’s being communicated. 

In the second example, text is only grouped beside text.

Social media image design

Applying the proximity principle adds unity and continuity to your images.


Proper alignment of the elements in your images helps to maintain balance.

Again, take the surf school images as an examples.

Simple social media images

  • The top of the icon and the text are aligned in both images.
  • All the text is aligned only in the second image.
  • The bottom of the icon and text are aligned only in the second image.

These small differences all contribute to making the second image feel more balanced and engaging.

How to Create Simple and Balanced Images

  1. When you have different elements in your image (e.g. text, icons, illustrations) think of what role they play in your image.
  2. Keep some sort of alignment with these different elements, whether it’s vertical, horiontal or diagonal.

Principle #2: Colour Makes All the Difference

Leslie Cabarga, author of The Designer’s Guide to Colour Combinations notes:

That a poor choice of colours affects us subconsciously is a fact observed by many real estate agents. Potential buyers viewing a house with ugly wallpaper will often reject the whole house. I recall as a child not being able to eat in a certain restaurant whose walls were painted a pale, 1950s green.

image creation app

Colour is not just a visual element — it’s also emotional. And because colour elicits particular emotions it can often determine whether or not people are drawn to your images.

This isn’t to say that it’s as simple as staying away from particular hues. What it does mean is that it’s crucial to think about the role that colour plays in your creations.

That role is simple — to create contrast in your images.

Callie Kavourgias describes this colour and contrast function:

Contrast creates conflict between elements to attract the eye to a specific place and is the most effective way to add visual interest….it allows you to highlight key elements in your design.

Here are a couple of simple examples.

Each pair of circles has the same colour in the centre, but each appear different. You might even notice depth changes with different colour variations.


Social Image Contrasting colours


Social Image Contrasting colours (1)


This contrast shows that the perception of colours used in your images can be dramatically different based on how you combine them. 

That’s a key principle when it comes to colour and contrast: keep it simple because less is often more.

It’s important to pick the right colour combinations, but how do you know which colours to pick?

How to Choose Contrasting Colours

One fantastic tool that I recently discovered to help with this is Paletton. It automatically picks contrasting and complimentary colours so that you don’t have to think about it too much.

social media image app

In this example, I chose red as my primary colour (represented by the uppermost dot on the colour wheel) and asked for monochromatic colour scheme (a colour scheme based on various shades and tints of one hue).

When I hover over the different boxes on the right I’m provided with the hex codes (like ‘FF6B6B’ seen on the right side of the image above), which I can then use in my designs.

social media image app

In this second example I also used red as my primary colour, but instead asked for a triadic colour scheme (three colors that are equally placed in lines around the color wheel). Again, I’m able to pick contrasting colours that go well together.

Another tool I use quite frequently is Brand Colors, a collection of official colour codes from world-renown brands.

social media image

Hovering over any colour (such as I did here with the Addvocate brand) reveals the hex code.

When I’m stuck and can’t think of a great colour combination, I’ll often go to Brand Colors for some inspiration.

These types of tools are life-savers for non-designers like me.

Principle #3: Choose Fonts That Are Readable and Consistent

It’s probably an over-used analogy, but picking a font is kinda like selecting which clothes to wear.

Your choice of clothes echoes parts of your personality and style. Walking into a meeting wearing a suit versus wearing a t-shirt and short-shorts will leave people with quite different impressions about you.

Similarly, when you use fonts in a social media image they communicate a key message about you and your brand.

Let’s use an example. Here are two social image alternatives — which one do you prefer?

Social media image comparison (1)

I lean towards the image on the left because:

  • It’s easier to read.
  • The 2 fonts seem more complimentary

This doesn’t mean the other image is horrible, but it does illustrate the importance of focusing on the role of text.

pablo social media images

Max Luzuriaga, a web designer and developer sums it up well:

What do you do with type? Read it! So why do so many people make it so damned difficult to do just that? Be it tiny font sizes, crammed line-height, or just plain ugly fonts, it seems that a lot of people out there are determined to not let you enjoy their content!

By making your type readable, you immediately jump ahead of at least half of the competition, which is fortunate, really, because it’s not that hard!

This begs the million dollar question — how do select which font to use? Here we can lean on the sage advice of Dan Mayer:

Just as with clothing, there’s a distinction between typefaces that are expressive and stylish versus those that are useful and appropriate to many situations, and our job is to try to find the right balance for the occasion.

While appropriateness isn’t a sexy concept, it’s the acid test that should guide our choice of font.

Most of the time, one typeface will do, especially if it’s one of our workhorses with many different weights that work together. If we reach a point where we want to add a second face to the mix, it’s always good to observe this simple rule: keep it exactly the same, or change it a lot — avoid wimpy, incremental variations.

pablo images

The best part about choosing fonts is that you don’t even have to do much work.

  • Sites such as Font Pair reveal which fonts go well together.
  • A simple Google search (e.g. best fonts for business quotes) provides excellent examples for you to copy.

How to Select Fonts for Your Images

  1. Simple is better than fancy.
  2. Be consistent — use the same font repeatedly.
  3. When adding a second font, go for something really different but equally simple.

Over to You

Let’s keep the advice flowing in the comments section below:

I’d love to learn from you! Jump in and let me know! 🙂

Create-the-perfect-image-with-PabloAre you looking for a simple image creation tool? Try Pablo.

Featured image from Unsplash; teaser icon by Jozef Krajcovic.

Looking for a better way to share on social media?

Schedule, publish & analyze your posts across the top social networks, all in one place.

Start a 14-Day Free Trial
Written by Roy Olende

Product Researcher at Buffer. Master negotiator (convinced the most incredible woman in the world to marry me). Prototypical Kenyan dad. Arsenal fan since ’89.

  • Ryan Smith

    Great post! Really appreciate you tackling the fundamentals of design here. I think we often get stuck searching for the free tools available to “hack” this process. Which, ultimately leads us to quicken a process that is truly meant to be an art.

    • Roy Olende

      Thanks, Ryan — so kind of you to say. I’m definitely guilty of hacking the process when the fundamentals are often more effective. Cheers!

  • Rac

    I so appreciate how well you explained these important tips and the great examples you provided. Finally I get it. Could you recommend someplace for me to find a chart with the pixels sizes for images for each of the different social medias. The ones that I have found have conflicting information.Thanks

    • Roy Olende

      Thanks for reading, Rac! In terms of a resource with all the sizes, here’s an article from Buffer that might be helpful — https://blog.bufferapp.com/ideal-image-sizes-social-media-posts

      • Rac

        Thanks Roy for taking the time to respond so quickly and with such a helpful link. It was just what I was looking for.

  • Robson Nkadimeng

    What’s actually great about this edupost is the brevity in content and appropriate graphic examples. Not too long and too cramped with info. I’m a self taught designer and a marketing student. I’m very confident about
    your simple yet effective guide.

    • Roy Olende

      Oh wow, thanks for the kind words Robson — made me smile here! 🙂

    • Paula

      Robson, I agree Roy’s article is excellent – clear & to-the-point. I’m NOT intuitive about computing as you are, since you’ve self-trained. I need courses &/or training specifics for computing proficiency. I’m a professional writer, want to create an informative, funny blog (my product) but am held back by this frustrating ignorance – I struggled quite awhile w/ posting scanned photos!
      Is anyone familiar with where or how I can (very affordably) update the tech skills I need – designing, creating memes. etc.? I don’t even know how to add text to a photo, argggggh. I also can’t figure how to work on & build the blog until it’s polished & ready to ‘premiere’. How ARE blogs in-the-making kept from public view until ready?
      Obviously, I need LOTS of help; any suggestions/referrals/tips… will be extremely appreciated.
      Thank you,

  • kalpana

    Thanks for Valuable Information.
    BenErg is a new Digital Marketing Agency specialized in web design & development, digital marketing services like SEO, SEM, SMM,content development

  • damilola oshifowora

    Very very perspective. I work as a social media strategist and for a while I used to think the design of the font really mattered, until I tried another Legible though not quite as “sexy” font as the one before. And you know what? Post engagement changed!

    So thanking you for solidifying my experiment.

    • Roy Olende

      Awesome to hear that, Damilola. I’m always so tempted to go fancy with the fonts, too!

  • Niall Sullivan

    Really useful post. Thanks 🙂 I currently use Meme generator and just recently easel.ly which I have found really useful.

    I looked at Pablo and looked very easy to use. However there are a few things missing which are stopping me from using it, due to not being able to customise it for my company’s brand:

    1. No option to upload custom font
    2. Only a small selection of colours

    Very good for a free tool though!

    • Roy Olende

      Thanks for reading, Niall! And great thoughts on Pablo — really love this sort of feedback. 😉

  • Vinodh Ramakannan

    Really good article Roy. Just took a look at Paletton, its awesome. By the way I am using buffer and we love it. I would also recommend to take a look at http://goo.gl/thfWz0

  • smallbusinesswebsiteadvice

    Great advice and article, Roy! As someone who struggles with creating good images, I appreciate all the insights!

    • Roy Olende

      So happy that this could help in any small way. 🙂 Cheers!

  • Beth Staub

    Great info. Great stuff. Thank you!

    • Roy Olende

      Thanks for reading, Beth! 🙂

  • Great post Roy! These are really easy things and social media manager can handle. Fonts should be the easiest, but so many over-complicate it. I really like Picmonkey and unique pictures. Have a terrific Tuesday and I’ll be sharing this with my network today!
    Cheers to all Bufferers from around the world! 🙂

    • Roy Olende

      Thanks for the oh-so-kind words, Steve! Have an awesome week! 🙂

  • Jasmine G

    This was awesome and super helpful! Thanks for sharing Roy!!

    • Roy Olende

      Wow, so kind of you to say, Jasmine 🙂

  • Great tips Roy! Indeed, content marketing depends on how engaging and creative your content is. One doesn’t need to become a designer to create a creative content, he just must read this blog. 🙂 Simplicity is the key, it makes the content more readable, understandable and not complicated. Next is, balance to the text and then relevance of the pictures to the text. Thank you for sharing your tips! 🙂

    • Roy Olende

      So glad to share them, Lorie! Thanks for reading. 🙂

  • Jack K

    Roy this is a great article. I think effective design isn’t about showboating your skills, it’s all about how clearly you’re able to communicate. In other words, put yourself in the reader’s shoes and anticipate what you want them to feel, then reverse engineer it.

    As Steve Jobs once said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”

    • Roy Olende

      So true, Jack! I need to remember that! 🙂

  • Ricardo Mietti

    So much interesting Roy, thanks for sharing with us.

  • Al Woolhouse

    Brilliant – have just been researching complementary colour combinations and this tool is a great find. Very nice article – thanks Roy.

  • Mathew Rolfe

    Excellent post – so helpful, cheers Roy. Awesome links to the colour sites too – i might even be in danger of picking a decent look for my new website!

  • Claire Chalcraft

    Thanks Roy – great article. Super helpful and clear with no waffle. I will be sharing it with my secondary (high) school students to help them get to grips with the essential design basics. Thanks for sharing.
    We have been using Typorama on phones in class as well as Pablo too of course!
    http://www.apperto.com/typorama/ Claire ( @CMCinSwitz )

  • Good article! (Get rid of the daisy.)

  • Roy, Thanks for the info on Paletton and BrandColors. I’m often mystified as to which colors complement each other, so these tools are helpful.

    Another way I’d use BrandColors: Let’s say I’ve written a tutorial about Buffer for my blog, and I want to create a shareable graphic to promote the post. I could grab the hex codes for some of the Buffer brand colors and use those colors in the graphic.

  • Gillian Whitney

    This was a really helpful post. So appreciate all the great tips AND all the great web resources.

  • Ari Flewelling

    Thanks for sharing. I’d love to see Pablo integrate more color options for text to build on these tips.

  • Skin Plus

    Thanks for sharing those useful tips, Roy.

  • Haris Mustofa

    thanks for the tutorial it is interesting to grow my blog at http://www.teknografis.com

  • Awesome post, Roy Olende!

  • Excellent article with great advice on tools to use. I like the idea of having the brand color codes. It will help when I’m trying to communicate with a customer who doesn’t have a pantone card, now we will have a non-digital common base. Thanks!

  • Thank you Roy for taking the guess work out of choosing colours and fonts. I appreciate the time and effort you put into this article!

  • Sarah Steele

    Thanks for this great article (especially helpful for those of us newer to this!)! Canva has been useful to me for pairing free images with great text options.

  • Thank you, Roy, for the great tips 😉

  • Graham Downs

    I just don’t get images. They’re distracting, and I personally switch media display OFF in my TweetDeck columns. They’re just a waste of space – if I really want to see the image, I’ll click the tweet to open its details. Twitter’s a TEXTUAL medium.

    Anyway, that rant over, I just don’t get images. I find them difficult to process, and would much rather read text. For one thing, in your surfer image examples, I was convinced that you were going to say “Isn’t the first image just a lot better?” It was for me. The second one required more effort for me to process, because I didn’t know there WAS any text in it until I’d finished scanning all the way to the right. I have tunnel vision (Retinitis Pigmentosa), so I can’t take in the whole image – either the first or the second – with a single glance. I have to scan the image from left to right, top to bottom. While this process probably only takes a few hundred milliseconds, it’s still a deliberate effort on my part… but at least I don’t have to do as much work to notice that the text is there on the first image.

    A favourite saying of graphic designers is “people think in pictures”. Well, not me. I probably did before I learnt to read, but I was reading fluently by the time I started school, so I can’t remember such a time. I think in WORDS, and I can read a sentence far quicker than I can figure out a picture. If it’s one of those complex wildlife pictures with a snake in a tree or something, I could probably read this entire COMMENT before figuring it out.

  • Jakub Grigar

    Great article, Indeed, content marketing depends on how engaging and creative your content is.
    check my websites if you need a website developed

  • Starlight Social

    Fabulous article, thanks Roy!

  • YinxFed

    Thank you for this, Roy! I feel that I am rather later to the party, but your post remains relevant. Particularly as I am in the midst of creating a few e-learning projects. So thanks again!

  • Agata Anna

    Great article Roy; I think this is what many social media users who rely on visuals need – the basics! Less is truly more and this kind of advice works across all mediums. Thanks for putting it together so well.