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December 05, 2006
A picture is worth a thousand words, more or less
A few weeks ago our project team was reviewing beta version .95 of Web site X, when we realized that we each had different reactions to some of the photos used in the project. While person A felt that photo 1 invoked a certain mood, person B felt something else. Given that site X requires a certain amount of precision we decided to explore other options such as purchasing stock photos pertinent to the topic.
Today Greg Szorc commented on the forums about a photo choice on another Web site. In this case Greg and I had entirely different reactions to the chosen image. Thus today I thought I'd write about choosing photographs and images for Web sites.
Why I prefer including images on blogs and Web sites
I use images on my sites for the following reasons.
- Images can add or enhance the meaning of the written message. The addition of a map—to the page offering directions to your office—helps users who are more visually inclined. A photo of your building gives them something to look for that will be easier to spot than just a name or address. If you use your site to explain a scientific process, a diagram could help clarify your description.
- Pictures offer a visual clue to the topic. Users often make pretty quick decisions when looking for information on the Web. In deciding which page has what they need they may quickly skim a number of sites. Careful choice of headlines, subheads and images can give users the clues they need to decide if they've found what they want. As the headline above indicates, a photograph or picture can convey an idea more quickly than can words alone.
- Photographs and illustrations serve to break up the copy, offering visual pauses to ease the reading process. If I'm reading a novel, I don't want the distraction of too many pictures. They could interrupt the flow of the narrative. But people still find it more difficult to read long chunks of text on computer screens. Eventually technology will overcome this, but in the meantime images, headers, and lists all can be used to break up copy into easier to read chunks.
- I have easy access to photos. Since 1999 I've taken between 15,000 and 20,000 pictures on campus, not to mention everything else I've shot. While many of these are dull (you have to take many pictures to get 1 good one) they still give me quite a few options. With digital cameras becoming more and more affordable, and services like flickr, it is now relatively easy for any of us to begin building our digital libraries.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: so is meaning
As Wittgenstein showed us with his duck-rabbit, it is fairly easy for us to interpret images (and words) differently. When viewing a picture or even reading a sentence, each of us brings with us our own personal experience. An Indonesian and a Scandinavian could both find a photo of a snowy field to be beautiful, but they would also have distinct reactions based on their past history (or lack thereof) with snow.
Or, reflecting on more recent experience, one who skidded in today's snow might look at a photo of a new Michelin tire with more desire today, than say, last July. Today the photo might make me covet the tire. Last July it might have made me think, "When was the last time I checked my air pressure?"
Given that, how do we choose an image that serves one or more of the above goals for all of our users?
In the past I've always just followed my instinct, but I think that when doing so I've usually chosen to either pick a very specific image, unique to the page, or something so general that a breadth of interpretations will be fine.
If I'm creating a site for an event that will feature Dean Kamen, I'll try to post a photo of Dean Kamen. If I'm making a page about Cleveland weather no single shot could say it all, but a photo of Lake Erie in sunshine shows that it's not always dreary, while the accompanying text clearly acknowledges winter.
Alas some topics are more ambiguous. On this entry, for example, I had no idea how to choose an image that would reflect the idea of trying to choose an image. I could have taken a photo of a collection of photos or I could have made a slide rotation that featured many images. Instead I decided to do a visual pun on the headline and shot a photo of my associate Lisa's word magnets. And yet the more I think about it, the more I think I should have spread a pile of pictures on a light table, added a jewelers loupe, and taken a picture of that.
So many choices. What do you think? How do you choose what images to use? Have you ever received questions or feedback on your choices? Do you find some topics require more care and precision than others? When do you prefer to eschew images altogether? Perhaps together we can come up with some parameters that will make this process easier for everyone.
p.s. Although images add value, please be mindful of those with vision impairments. Don't rely on images alone to communicate something important. Instead be sure to include alternative text.
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