We writers tend to think our words matter far more than the images that accompany them. We forget that most people do, in fact, judge a book by its cover—and a blog by its visual design.
This is my eleventh assignment for the Content Standard, which requires writers to submit a featured image with each post. Before publishing my first 10 posts, the editorial team switched out the images I chose. And I don’t blame them one bit—I’ve never been very good at it.
Before I got into content marketing, I was a journalist, and design consistency was never my responsibility. I gave it a shot once when I served as Web editor for a women’s business magazine. During a site redesign, I uploaded dozens of new articles, all of which needed images. The design team was busy with the magazine, and I knew a little about the visual brand guidelines from sitting through art meetings for each issue.
So, armed with an iStock account and zero experience in graphic design, I went to work. I thought I’d done a decent job—that is, until I sat down with the art director. A kind and loving colleague, she told me in the nicest way possible that these images wouldn’t do. Then she brought several CDs with quality artwork that represented the visual brand she’d worked so hard to create, and told me to pick from those.
“It’s not your fault, sweetie,” she said. “You’re a writer. This isn’t your job.” Back then, she was right. But not anymore, at least not for brand storytellers.
As content marketers, we understand the importance of editorial consistency in branded content creation. Design consistency is just as important, and it’s our job now, too. So we need to be good at it.
On second thought, that all depends on the picture. A well-chosen image that’s relevant to your content and consistent with the brand certainly adds value to your words. In fact, content with relevant images gets 94 percent more views than content without good visuals.
On the other hand, a poorly chosen image might just keep people from scrolling down. Worse yet, it can make your website, blog, or social media campaign look like a patchwork quilt, rather than a purposeful and unified visual design.
That’s a problem, because branded content and images are better at engaging customers. Just consider the research from design firm Visage, at right.
Deviating from visual guidelines for a single post might not seem like a big deal, but for the long-term perception of a brand, consistency matters.
The brand marketer’s challenge is finding enough quality images to keep up with the sheer volume of content writers now produce. Purchasing original artwork or photos for every post gets expensive fast. Some companies create a database of commissioned artwork or quality stock photography for content marketers to use, but with multiple writers pulling from the same inventory, redundancy is inevitable—and can make a brand look cheap.
Many content marketers have turned to tools like Canva and Pablo by Buffer. Graphic design software makes it extremely easy for anyone to create original images for blogs or social media channels—even those of us without any real idea of what we’re doing.
As a result, visual brand guidelines are taking a big hit.
Visual mapping expert Chuck Ferry sums up the situation in his post, “Make Your Content Stand Out with a Signature Brand Look.” He writes:
“In many cases, development of a visual to support content is only a last-minute afterthought. In that case, “fast” DIY tools enable bloggers to quickly churn out an image that may be unique, but is often unconnected to their brand.
The same goes for stock photos, which have become a quick, easy source of visual pablum. They add a visual element to the content they support, but don’t connect it in any way to the brand itself. In other words, if the image was taken out of context of the blog post it’s supporting, no one would know it was meant to represent your brand.”
Faced with this dilemma, how can content marketers take responsibility for design consistency? By getting as creative and brand-focused with our visuals as we are with our words.
For content marketers without graphic arts experience, now is the time to start learning. You don’t need a degree in design to find or create polished branded images. But you do need to understand brand guidelines and the basics of design.
Where do you start?
Find out everything you can about the brand’s artistic vision. What emotions or values do you want to convey? How do you want to make readers feel—about the company and themselves? This usually matches the brand’s editorial guidelines for voice, but if you’re not sure, ask.
Also ask about key design elements. Fonts and colors, for example, say a lot about a brand—whether it’s playful and fun, warm and inviting, or serious and traditional. Designers have usually put a lot of thought into what they want these stylistic choices to convey, so it’s important information for content marketers to have.
Typography is key to visual design—not just what fonts and colors you use, but how you use them. Graphic artists spend years studying the subtleties that separate amateur typography from polished, compelling word design.
Don’t have that kind of time? Valentine Proust, creative director at Paris-based Fontyou, offers a fantastic introduction to basic typography principles in “The 10 Commandments of Typography.”
For example, commandment number two is “No more than two fonts family shall you combine.”
There are now dozens of apps that let content marketers take boring stock images and turn them into unique works of art by layering them with typography, applying cool filters, or editing them in interesting ways. But unless you know what you’re doing, you’re likely to end up with an image that resembles what my 6-year-old would create using my iPhone.
Kevan Lee, a content crafter for Buffer, shares image composition basics for beginners in his post, “A Complete Guide to Creating Awesome Visual Content,” including the rule of thirds, the Golden Ratio, and the Fibonacci Sequence. He also lists several apps you can use to apply these artistic principles.
A final word of warning: As you’re experimenting, remember to keep brand guidelines front and center. Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo were both phenomenal artists, but very few companies would have hired them to create branded visual design.