Top 5 design tips on how to avoid image disasters

Tenby Bay, Wales © Vanessa Marchant

If you are commissioning a designer to create visual media for you, on or offline, there is a good chance you will need to supply them with imagery and a logo. How you supply these can make the difference between your finished result looking really good, or just amateur. Depending on the final output your designer may have to follow very tight design restrictions. This means, if you don’t supply the assets in the format they need, you may incur extra charges further down the line.

1. Photography

If all cameras were created equal, and all photographers too, this would not be an issue. But I have seen it all, everything from professionally taken and retouched packshots (with glorious shadows and reflections), to pixelated screen grabs at 3kb in size. At the start of any job it is essential to know what the final output will be. If you will be printing as well as uploading online, there are certain file-types and sizes that will need to be available. It is important for you and your designer to have this conversation before agreeing a price for the work. If you change your mind part way through, and add on an extra type of output, be aware this may have far reaching implications on the look and price of your job. The general rule of thumb is, anything taken on a digital SLR will give you a much better result, and have a much wider range of uses, than something taken on a standard camera phone. For instance, if you want to use your image on your website, brochure, event flag and a banner, a standard phone image is very unlikely to be high enough resolution. The best, most versatile, photographs will have been taken by a photographer using a high-end digital SLR with a professional lens.

Keep an eye out for my blog on jargon busting for a full explanation of terminology.

2. Logo vector graphics

Logos are normally set up as a vector graphic. If your logo was designed by a branding agency you were probably supplied with a logo toolkit. This will contain your logo in multiple formats, ranging from flattened web ready .jpg and .png files, to fully editable .ai or .eps vector graphics. These should all come in RGB, CMYK and, if applicable, Pantone colour options. If you have no idea what the differences are it may be tempting to file them away and just use a standard .jpg for everything. However, all the file types have uses, and that usually comes down to how something is being output. If it’s going on the web, an RGB .png is the most versatile option. If it’s being used in Word or a Power Point deck, an RGB .jpg is probably the way to go. If it’s being printed, the CMYK .eps or .ai files are key. And if it is being screen printed or vinyl cut (for clothing or for signage) the Pantone .ai or .eps files are essential.  You need to ensure your designer has access to all these files if you want your brand mark to look good in every setting.

To help clients better understand file types and their uses I will be posting a blog on this topic soon.

3. Compression and social media

When an image is loaded onto a social media platform it is compressed by an algorithm. This ensures the social media site is not slowed down by large image files. By this I mean, when you view an image on screen it is made up of tiny coloured dots of light, that create the illusion of an image. To view something on screen it is only necessary to have a few dots, to get a pretty decent impression of the image, hence the compression. However, if that image were to be used on a billboard poster, you need far more dots of pigment colour to fill the space convincingly. If you took a compressed social media image, and enlarged it to fill a billboard, you would literally end up with huge squares of colour that no longer look like an image at all. When supplying your designer with images don’t use the ones from your social media sites. Go back, and find the original camera files, even if you are only going to use them online.

This image shows how a photograph starts to breakdown when essential information has been removed by compression.

4. Screen grabs and web images

If a designer asks you for images, do not download them from websites or social media sites (this has legal ramifications if the image isn’t your own anyway). You need to send them the original file from the photographer, camera, or phone. They will then be able to tell you the largest size this image can be used on screen and in print. The only exception to this is if you download an image from a photo-site designed for this purpose. If you choose an illustration for your brand, created in a vector format, it will be infinitely scalable and can be adapted to use across multiple outputs, without losing any clarity. This is a great option if you know you don’t have access to good photography and will need to output in multiple ways.

Screen grabs can have a place if you are creating an instruction manual, for example, and want to show the stages of accessing an online interface. The screen grab’s clarity and size will be reliant on the type of computer and display used to take it. Your designer will be able to advise on this.

5. The gold standard

If you have been through a branding process with a creative agency, you will probably have a visual identity that goes hand-in-hand with your brand mark. By this I mean a palette of colours, typefaces, and visual elements – the visual vocabulary that depicts you as a brand. When these elements are used together, the communication is unmistakably yours. How to use these elements is often outlined in a brand guidelines document. You should also have a set of digital files containing all the assets, including photography (if you commissioned or purchased it).

If you haven’t gone through this process you might not have anything ready to go, particularly if you are a small start-up. I can see why something as in-depth and thorough as a branding process might seem an extravagant expense, but I cannot stress enough how much money and time (therefore money) it will save you in the future. Imagine cooking a recipe for the first time but without a recipe, or any ingredients. It will take infinite botched attempts to get anything half decent. The same is true of design, the more effort you put in at the beginning, the better your long-term results will be.

So to summarise, the best way to avoid image disasters is to have a clear scope of your job at the outset. Consider all possible end uses, even if you don’t intend to action them immediately. Talk to your designer and take their advice on the type of imagery to use, based on those end uses. And lastly, the more you invest in your brand’s visual assets at the start, the more polished your brand will look, and the better value the assets will be.