I am not a light bulb!

Posted by s.hettrick on 2 December 2011 - 2:56pm

Bulbs.jpgBy Simon Hettrick.

Most people turn apoplectic when faced with someone who “thinks outside the box” or attempts to harvest “low hanging fruit”. And rightfully so. We’ve learned to vilify management speak, because it’s wasteful and verbose, but what about its visual equivalent? It’s time that we start saying “NO!” to meaningless images.

The world of software is a grim place if you need an image for a website. This is down to a fundamental problem: you can’t see software. This leads a lot of people to think “you can see computers!”. But there’s only so many times that you can use that data-centre image - with its banks of cold, emotionless circuitry – before things start to get depressing. And it is this tortuous path that causes some people to embrace stock photography with an incredible level of enthusiasm.

There’s nothing wrong with using stock images. It's difficult not to, unless you have your own photography department. I just advise some caution on the images you choose. Take the image on this page, with it’s clever subtext of being the illuminated one amongst dowdy colleagues. It is a nice image, but it’s completely generic. Anyone could find a concept in their business that this image could represent, so it will end up being used by everyone from management consultancies to electricians, and everyone – absolutely everyone – in between. This genericide is infectious: if you use a generic image, you will add nothing but blandness to your communications.

I have spent a miserable amount of time on stock image websites, which has led me to put together the following rules:

  1. Unless you want to split your audience with your competitors, don’t go for the most popular images (stock websites give each image a popularity rating for exactly this reason).
  2. Isolated images (ones on a white background) are starting to look rather “early 2000s”, so steer clear of them.
  3. Don't choose an image of a keyboard which has “help”, or something similar, on one of the keys.
  4. If you’re representing academia, it’s a little incongruous to choose an image with people in suits looking serious at each other over a boardroom table.
  5. Never ever choose an image with a white, Morph-like creature holding something.
  6. And under no circumstances use the binary tunnel image. It must be the most popular image in the whole technological world.

I now present my alternative. Photos. Actual real life photos of real life things. People don’t connect with light bulbs, they connect with people, or nature or anything else that looks cool. And they’re free! If you go to Flickr and do an advanced search, you can choose images that are licensed under Creative Commons. As long as you acknowledge the author, you can use the image however you wish. (A short legal note: there are exceptions dependent on the licence type, but what you can and can’t do is all made clear on the website. If symptoms persist, consult a lawyer.)

The best thing about photos from a site like Flickr is that they are not staged for use as stock images, so they look natural. They also tend not to be over used, so you won't find your image cropping up in the local kebab shop window. It takes a bit of thought to find a connection between your subject matter and a good photo, but it’s a fun exercise and one which will make your work look prettier and save you money. It’s just a matter of thinking outside the box