How to Use Images and Pair Them with Headlines

March 2021


Design samples from Twirling Tiger Media

Illustrations (left to right): ©Raul Allen; ©Robert Neubecker. Art direction and design: ©Twirling Tiger Media.

In prehistoric times, people relied on images alone to convey a story. In the Information Age, images have great significance in every form of communication along with words. It’s a designer’s job to present both imagery and words together in impactful and original ways.

Connecting with an audience using high-quality images that are paired with content raises the profile and perception of a business, which in turn, builds trust and respect. Here’s how to grab and hold the attention of your audience using images and pairing them effectively with words.  

Cater to your audience

Based on the information you know about your audience, make imagery relatable and interesting for them.

Theme-related imagery

Aim for novel images that encapsulate the overall gist of the story, or that are information bearing, such as product photos or infographics.

Business woman walking on a tightrope balancing weights on a pole

Break up a lengthy headline in a dynamic way, or collaborate with your editor to shorten it. (Illustration by ©Jonathan Reinfurt)

Imagery placement and visual hierarchy

For both printed pages and digital pages, the natural sequence for reading involves a very specific order based on the movements that our eyes make when viewing a new page—moving from left to right (in English-speaking countries). This sequence dictates that we first look at the image on a page (depending on the size). Next, we scan the headline, and then read the body copy. If the image and headline are not cohesive or lack interest, the page will likely be abandoned. 

Picking up the pace

Imagery with captions or sidebars containing useful information peppered throughout the body copy can keep the reader engaged with the content.

Crazy-creative solutions and stock art

Ratchet back on the crazy-creative concepts that may only satisfy you and not your audience. If you need to use stock art, avoid the clichéd images such as the iconic image of team members raising their hands in victory, or a group of workers looking forward and stiffly smiling. …That’s just not real.

Young professional man and woman

Hire a professional photographer and always select a flattering photograph of your subject. (Photograph by ©Jonathan Timmes)

People in imagery

Pictures that contain people can create strong human connections. However, avoid crowd shots of people because they lack someone for readers to focus on. Don’t enlarge faces bigger than life-size. 

The Nielsen/Norman Group’s online usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, and Kara Pernice Coyne, director of research, stated, “When choosing between equally informative photos of people, be sure to use ones of ‘real’ people, smiling, looking at the camera—not models which tend to been seen as photos accompanying ads.”

Avoid generic solutions

The Nielsen/Norman Group’s Coyne recommends designers avoid generic pictures that are often used just for the sake of having a picture. When images are used superfluously, they create visual barriers leading to frustrated readers.

Quality counts

Using blurry or grainy images leaves an unprofessional impression. Use high-resolution images.

Colors and contrast

An image is the first thing readers will see, so make sure it grabs their attention by being bold and colorful. A former graphic design mentor of mine stressed how contrast makes an image more distinguishable. (Think of how dull Ansel Adam’s black and white photos would be if they lacked contrast.)

Lush plants and flowers surrounding a headline

Create targeted and relatable imagery for the story and your audience. (Illustration by ©Mark Fredrickson)

Original visual works

There are scores of professionals in the creative community that can provide very specific images to suit your assignment. Original works are unrivaled in their uniqueness and how they fit with your content. And, the cost may not be out of your reach for photography, illustration, icons, graphic design, video and much more.

Copyright awareness

Found an image on the internet that aligns perfectly with your concept? Images are copyrighted by law, so you will need to find the owner, seek permission to use it and be prepared to pay for its use, along with publishing an attribution.

About that headline …

Online users will read only two-to-three words in a headline. Whether the medium is online or print, it’s important for editors and creatives to collaborate in order to arrive at that perfect union between words and imagery. A disconnect between the two will only confuse and annoy your audience.

Image SEO

Optimize images to avoid contributing to slow web pages. Alt tags on all images should clearly describe what the image shows.

Impress your audience and keep them engaged with carefully chosen images that are well-aligned with the story.

Our team of creatives is here to help you with any questions about this process.

—Maureen Joyce