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You Probably Need a Stock Imagery Style Guide

Let’s be clear about stock imagery. It’s not objectively bad. In fact, it can actually be pretty useful…in certain conditions. It can save time and money. But it’s important that we understand the conditions under which stock imagery can be most effective and consistently control them. And it’s even more critical that we understand what we’re saving by using stock imagery. If you get nothing else from this article, let it be this one thing: sourcing stock imagery can save you time and money you otherwise would have spent on production, but it does not change the fact that art direction — from you — is still necessary.

Most of the clients I’ve worked with in my career have overestimated their ability to do the ongoing art direction their initial design requires. When going through the process of designing their website or overall design system, they create layouts which include all kinds of unique imagery that feels very much at home with the surrounding design. But with that initial decision comes the presumption that whomever created that first round of imagery will be on-hand to do it again and again — with every new piece of content others publish on the site. That is rarely true. It’s at that point that marketing teams fall back on stock imagery. It’s also at this point that their brand’s visual language is made diluted and noisy by the intrusion of disconnected visual aids.

But that can be avoided.

What is a Stock Imagery Style Guide?

A stock imagery style guide is basically a form of art direction documentation. It should serve as a surrogate for a designer’s eye at the content level, and provide governance in order to preserve brand consistency as a website’s content grows and evolves. It should document all the dos and don’ts that an art director might practice out of instinct so that others can produce content that remains visually in-line with the brand.

What Should a Stock Imagery Style Guide Include?

Really, it should be as detailed as you think necessary. In other words, I think a stock imagery style guide’s complexity should be determined by the complexity of the design system that governs it. Depending upon how rigorous your rules for color palette, typography, and layout, that could mean a significant difference from one style guide to another.

Generally speaking, however, I think an effective stock imagery style guide should include at least three main categorical parameters. They are:

  1. Content Guidelines that help content creators identify the right kinds of images from a general topical perspective, as well as narrow in on the content in the images themselves and filter out things that could be too influential on a prospect’s experience of the material the image(s) accompany.
  2. Aesthetic Parameters that specify the way a design system might extend to imagery — identifying the colors, textures, image types and treatment, and typography most appropriate to a website’s visual language.
  3. Layout Requirements that specify the sizes, aspect ratios, and position of images when inserted into content.

Download An Example Stock Imagery Style Guide

The best way to show how this can work is to look at an example. So I’ve created an example style guide that you can download. In addition to providing some more detail on these three main parameters, it also shows how they can be documented in a way most helpful to those who will use it later. Keep in mind that all directives it contains are example directives — possible requirements or restrictions but by no means specific ones we recommend. We recommend creating a framework like this; what it contains is entirely up to what you deem appropriate to your brand.

A Bit More Detail on Content Guidelines

While the other two categories are relatively self-explanatory, I wanted to share a little more detail on content guidelines.

Specificity of Images

It goes without saying that an image used to support an article should be topically connected to the writing. But in practice, it’s just not that straightforward. This is especially true for marketing content for professional services. If an article is about effective collaboration, how do you illustrate that without defaulting to a generic image of people at a conference table, or shaking hands, or happily looking at screens together? This is where a more detailed topic list can help, as well as a list of dos and don’ts. You want an image to be just specific enough for your use, but in most case, not so specific that it feels out of place.

For example, rather than a standard medium-focus shot of people gathered around a conference table, you might impose rules that helps a content creator zoom and crop that image. This eliminates elements that you may feel are distracting from your purpose. In this case, we’ve eliminated faces and the majority of the subjects’ bodies so that it hints at an action, without feeling too specific. A choice like this, coupled with tinting the image, will help a piece of sourced stock imagery feel more at home on your website.

The kinds of rules that might help a content creator with specificity could sound like these:

  • images should be about ___, ____, ___. (Provide a coherent topic list.)
  • Limit specific details in your imagery that do not relate to our brand or the article’s content. These might include faces, logos, devices, software interfaces, specific places, etc.
  • Crop appropriately. Images depicting office collaboration should be either medium to close distance, focusing in on actions rather than immediately recognizable scenarios (e.g. instead of a full group seated at a conference table, a tightly cropped image of a hand moving over a tabletop strewn with documents).
  • Do not choose images that overemphasize the specific traits of people, such as gender, skin color, size, etc.
  • Avoid easily recognizable (i.e. nameable) people, objects, or locations.

It’s less important that you adopt these specific rules than that you draft rules that are similarly structured.

Consider the Lead Image/Title Relationship

Another thing to consider in your imagery selection process is how that decision will “graduate” through the publication process. For example, you may have an article titled “How to Document Personas” that uses a baking metaphor. Within that article, you’ve chosen to use an image of a freshly baked pie. While that makes sense in context, most content management systems and social media sharing tools will pull an image from an article to display alongside a title.

For example, on a content hub landing page, you may see that article in a list with a thumbnail next to it. Or, when it’s shared on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, you’ll see it in your feed with an image as well. What you want to anticipate is how effective that image/title relationship will be. An article titled “How to Document Personas” is listed next to a thumbnail of a pie, that may be too enigmatic (at best) to be helpful for prospects considering reading it.

A Stock Imagery Style Guide Should Make Everyone’s Lives Easier

…while also making the content experience more effective. The goal here is not to impose rules for rules’ sake. Instead, it’s to anticipate the reality that websites are often designed by one team and nurtured by another. The team responsible for creating content often lacks the specific design and art direction skills originally used to create the website’s design. So they need a tool that can bridge the gap — one set up for their success in properly stewarding the site and its design over the long term.

This article is the final entry in a series that will guide you through applying the principles of Prospect Experience Design for yourself.

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