Photos and Artwork in Designs

Unless the most important information you have for readers is visual – such as a picture of a new product – graphical elements detract from everything else on the page. If you find a layout lacks visual impact, try textual effects.

Do not overuse graphic elements in designs.

Good alternatives to bad graphics include sidebars and pull quotes. If you find a layout still lacks visual appeal, try shading effects or other creative solutions.

Never overuse graphical elements. Graphical elements are powerful magnets in a layout. Designers sometimes lack self-control. These designers follow the philosophy that any art is better than none.


No photo is better than a bad one destroying a layout.

Designers often rush to include terrible photos in a layout. There is a belief that if you have some photos available you should use them. Not always. Photographs included in a layout should meet several criteria:

  • Worthy of appearing in print,
  • Active – avoid poses and stills,
  • Cropped and scaled intelligently, and
  • Aimed carefully.

If these conditions are met, then the photo is probably effective. The first item is self evident. You do not want to include a washed-out, dark, or blurry photo in a layout. The other traits require more explanation.

Worthy of Printing

Darkroom magic cannot save every photograph.

A photo must be worthy before you include it in a design. Do not even attempt to fix truly bad pictures. Darkroom wizards might correct minor problems, but some photos deserve the round file.

Use Action Shots

Many beginning in-house designers assume there are times photos must be passive, such as stills of a product. Publish photos of a product being used. Make sure that whoever is using the product positions the label so that it can be read. You want photos to appear spontaneous – even when they are not. Remember, you are not a journalist so posing a picture is not a mortal sin.

Car dealerships often fall into the still photo trap when designing print ads. Still photos of cars might be necessary due to time and space limitations, but at least one larger photo should be of a car moving. Clients feel better about a product they “see” in use.

Another example of habitual still photo use is real estate ads. If possible, request photos of people living in the house. Exterior photos should also have people doing things – like playing with a dog or gardening. You want clients to think of how any product can be used, not just looked at.

Crop Aggressively

Most photos require cropping, scaling, or both, before they can be merged into a layout. Professional designers disagree which to do first, design a layout or crop and scale photos. It is our belief that a good photo is so rare that it should always be given precedence.

When you crop the photo, remove any dead space or extraneous content. Always crop photos electronically – never damage the original print. Dead space is easy to identify in most photos. Extraneous information, however, can be tougher to identify. Sometimes, what one designer considers extraneous images, another considers important.

On the Level

Crop to straighten defining lines in the picture.

Crop photos after adjusting for any definite vertical or horizontal lines in the picture, not before. Straighten horizons, flag poles, building walls, et cetera. Align on a subject only when artistic license permits.

Scaling a photo allows you to fit the photo to a layout. Some publications, such as catalogs or newsletters, must contain a given amount of text. In these cases, scaling a photo is a necessity. Before scaling a photo, determine the level of detail required. Some photos have to be enlarged for clarity, while others can be easily reduced without losing affectiveness.

Never scale a photo before cropping it. In most cases, you will have to perform a secondary cropping on photos. Always scale photos to fit the widths of text columns. In scaling a photo to fit the proper number of columns, you will change the photo’s depth. The change in depth may force a trimming of the photo.

Aim Carefully

Photographs have direction, usually aligned with action.

Photos are directional. It is the rare photo where objects or people are not clearly favoring one direction. Photos, due to their inherent power, must be aimed carefully. Always aim photos either toward the bulk of body copy or toward the center of the page.

Size it Up

Readers expect large headlines to denote important articles. Likewise, large photos generally indicate importance. If you design a company newsletter and the big news is a new product, then run a big photo of the product in use.

Scale mug shots fairly small, no matter how important the individual is to a story. If you can, replace mug shots with action photos of the people mentioned in articles.

Many, Various, and Different

Effective use of photos requires that you vary the sizes and orientations. Some art should be vertical, other horizontal. Also, avoid symmetrical placement of photos.

Border Patrol

Border all photos with thin rules of 1 to 2 points.

Photos with light backgrounds tend to blend into the page. To prevent a light sky or white product from becoming invisible, all photos should be bordered. Look at any good newspaper and notice how the designers use thin boxes.


Artwork attracts readers – like almost every other element in design. Most in-house designers use artwork in the majority of their layouts. Artwork, traditionally, is more flexible than photographs.

Like a Photo

For the most part, artwork should be used according to the same rules XE "rules"  as photographs. The three suggestions we have for artwork are:

  • Use only good artwork,
  • Aim to associated copy or page center, and
  • Vary sizes, shapes, and orientation.

If the quality is lacking, do not bother. Bad artwork is laughable. While bad photographs are more noticeable, bad artwork draws intense scrutiny. Readers study bad art – at least they forget bad photos.


Maintain a consistent art style. If you like humorous cartoons, use the same style in all of your layouts. If you want serious illustrations, standardize the format. Readers like to know what to expect from a publication.

Wall Street Journal readers encounter line-art sketches instead of photographs, for example. These old-fashioned sketches resemble wood carvings. The Journal looks very conservative, as a result.

Computing Creativity

In-house designers are more productive when as much work as possible can be done using computers. True desktop publishing does not involve cutting out artwork and running to a photocopier.

Create Your Own

Original artwork gives a publication a distinctive personality. There are several different file formats for computerized artwork. For the best results, create artwork using a program such as Corel Draw, Illustrator, or FreeHand. These programs use vectors – mathematical equations – to store images.

Scanning in artwork limits your ability to scale and crop artwork accurately. Try to limit scanning to photographs. Scanned artwork is stored as a bitmap, meaning a collection of dots. These dots produce jagged images when scaled to a larger size.

Resorting to Clipart

Clipart” refers to large books art studious still publish. Designers clip out the artwork and use it in layouts.

Prepacked artwork is known as clipart. The quality of clipart has improved greatly in the last few years, but much of it is still unacceptable. Remember, quality counts.

When purchasing clipart, verify that the artwork is in a vector format. Art stored as vector data scales without degradation. You can recognize vector-base art if the retail package mentions Encapsulates PostScript (EPS), Computer Graphics Metafile (CGM), Windows Metafile (WMF) or any of the major vector illustration programs. Search for Illustrator, Corel Draw, or FreeHand formats.

Artistic Text

Artistic text effects add pizzaz to a layout without highly specialized talents – to be polite. Most computer software features automated text effects. Avoid relying on effects. Because they are easier than ever, almost every in-house designer uses too many.


Distorting text is a form of scaling type – but not in proportion. Tall, skinny text or short, fat text can add visual impact to an otherwise dull layout. Distortion is an easy way to force text to fit within borders.

Node Manipulation

Node manipulation uses properties of scaleable fonts to allow wild distortions. Scaleable fonts are composed of a series of connected nodes. Programs such as Corel Draw can display the nodes of every letter. Moving individual nodes gives designers a lot of flexibility.


Color and shading effects bring attention to a headline, but can also make it harder to read. Use stark contrast to ensure that the text element reamins legible. The safest reverse is white letters on black, but any light-dark combination is acceptable.


Rotating text allows a headline or other text element to run sideways, uphill, or upside down on a page. Anytime you rotate text, you lead a reader’s eyes in a new direction. Make sure the destination is appropriate.

Aligning to Paths

Most illustration software supports the ability to align the baseline of a line of text to any shape. The letters are not distorted, but each letter is rotated slightly to fit the path closely.

Fills & Screens

Shading letters can be accomplished using screens or fills. A screen is a pattern of dots. Dots are used in printing to simulate shades of a solid base color. Screen patterns are described in terms of percentages. A 100 percent screen is a solid fill, while a 20 percent screen results in a light shade of the fill color.


Keep a solid outline when using gradient fills.

Gradually changing color is known as a gradient fill. Gradients are also used to give letters a metallic appearance. When using a gradient, we suggest maintaining a solid outline. Without an outline, a light gradient makes letters look like they are in a transporter beam.


Pattern fills apply wallpaper or texture effects within the outlines of letters. A common pattern fill is “brick.” Fill with patterns that do not interfere with reading the text. For example, a pattern of repeating circles can make the eyes and counters of letters difficult to see.

Three Dimensions

Three dimensional effects are a fad. While nice when used sporadically, 3D is everywhere. Headlines cast shadows, look like stone carvings, and leap off pages. Clearly these designers saw a few nice layouts and followed it off a cliff.

Subtle 3D effects have appeared in printing for two hundred years. Now, every major publication contains at least one sample of 3D addiction. As with any effect, 3D works best when used rarely.


An extrusion effect has text “zooming” to or from a reader. Extrusions appear frequently in advertisements. Looking back through old magazines, we notice that extrusions caught on among designers in the 1950s. Yes, the same decade as car fins.


If you place a penny under a page and rub your finger on the paper, the result is an embossed image. Embossed letterheads and business cards were popular in the 1980s. Now, computer programs can give the same visual effect, without a real indentation.

Embossing is subtle. Ideally, the reader feels like the image is part of the page. Embossed text, including fonts designed to appear embossed, are good for business logos and image materials.


Place a solid line of text just a point or two off-center of the same line in a lighter color. Viola – a shadow. Shadows are another advertising gimmick from the 1950s. However, we like shadows a lot more than extrusions.

Summary & Tips

  • Use photos and artwork only when they add to a design.
  • Crop and scale photos based on the image, not the layout.
  • Avoid trendy effects — trends pass.


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Writer: C. S. Wyatt
Updated: 21-Oct-2017
Editor: S. D. Schnelbach