The other night, I was in dinner hostess disaster mode.
It was the end of the day, and I was tired and hungry. We had almost no food in the house, I hadn’t had time to go to the grocery store, and on top of everything we had a friend coming over for dinner that night. This dear friend had just returned from an extended trip overseas and I really wanted to make something special and comforting that we could all enjoy together as a welcome home dinner.
And then, in the midst of the chaos, I accidentally discovered a new cooking hack and saved the day. Get ready for this…
I got some sausages cooking in a frying pan and made a bunch of pasta, then pulled out a jar of pasta sauce I had bought a while back. Pasta, sauce, meat; it would be a bit boring but still good. But then as I was heating up the sauce, I thought, “What if I add some cream cheese?” Before I could stop myself or overthink it, I pulled out the cream cheese and added a big dollop to the sauce, then stirred it around while it melted.
The combo of creamy / tangy cream cheese with tomato sauce and pasta was out of this world. It made our sauce look rich (because it was) and a little more pink than red, and it made it taste like really good restaurant food. Even my toddler ate it, and she normally turns up her nose at marinara sauce (she prefers her pasta as butter with a side of pasta).
While I’m not crazy about the cheesy name (get it), I am now CRAZY about the flavor combo. Who knew something so simple could be so good?
I steamed some frozen vegetables we had in the freezer to go with the pasta and we ended up having a great meal that night. It was delicious; it was comforting; it was fun; and it was so easy for me to cook. No one had to make a last minute run to Safeway (or Domino’s).
So what does that have to do with content marketing and branding?
Well, what I just described to you – add cream cheese to pasta sauce from a jar to take it from so-so to amazing in 2 seconds – is the perfect example of a “hack” – “a clever solution to a tricky problem” (thanks, Urban Dictionary).
If you Google “content marketing hacks” or “branding hacks” you’re bound to find a lot of Really Good Advice. “Here are 34 amazing content marketing hacks!” or “52 social media hacks that will supercharge your business!” etc etc.
But the thing is, do any of these fit the definition of the term of hack?
I don’t think so. IMHO, and I know I’m adding on to the definition I mentioned above, but go with me, a hack is supposed to be something that actually makes your life easier. It should be something that not many people know about, that’s easy to do IF you know the right trick/technique, that is relatively simple, and that is maybe a little bit weird but will actually work.
If you just get a lot of [admittedly really smart and helpful] advice that is going to take hours upon hours every week to execute, I don’t think that counts as a hack. It’s just more Good Advice. There’s a place for that, for sure, and I’m the first to admit I have a lot to learn from a lot of smart people out there on the Internet. But when you’re a solopreneur trying to make things happen in the margins of your busy day, you need something a little bit sneakier than advice would require you to dedicate all of your time to branding.
So here’s what I want to share with you today: My 6 best hacks for creating beautiful and unique imagery for your business for your brand.
These are hacks because they are easy. Easy to execute, cheap, and won’t take much of your time. And they are hacks because they might be a little bit weird and a little bit counter-intuitive at first.
At the very least, they may not be what you would’ve expected me to say when it comes to building a beautiful brand.
Wait – let me back up a little bit for a minute.
Why am I qualified to tell you about branding hacks?
After all, I’m a content marketer and a blog ghostwriter. What does that have to do with branding and creating beautiful imagery?
Well, above all I am an entrepreneur. Like many of you, my business has gone through many twists and turns as I built it from the ground up beginning almost exactly 4 years ago as of September 2016.
I’ve learned a lot of things the hard way and I’ve had to do a lot myself, including things that I never thought I would have to learn how to do.
And isn’t that just life as an entrepreneur? We wear a lot of hats; but more than that, we’re constantly being pushed out of our comfort zone and learning new things, doing things we probably wouldn’t choose to do if it weren’t necessary as entrepreneurs. In other words, we do things that we don’t like for our own business in order to avoid doing other things we don’t like for someone else’s business. The reality is being able to control my own brand and make the best decisions I can for my business is, for me, one of the most important parts of career freedom.
Maybe we don’t always make perfect choices, but we have the freedom to try to learn from our mistakes and to do better the next time.
And that to me is worth all of the trials and tribulations that come along with entrepreneurship.
I tell you all of this so that you know why I have thought so much about branding and imagery and come to these conclusions that I am about to share with you. Because there have been many times in different seasons as an entrepreneur when I have had to do all of the design myself. And as a self-taught graphic designer, I know how to use Adobe Creative Suite products pretty well now, but that doesn’t mean that I always create things that look good.
And that doesn’t mean that when I create things that look good they actually make my business look good.
And that brings us to our first takeaway – it’s not a hack, but it’s a HUGE lesson: Just because something looks good does not mean it’s going to ultimately contribute to building a beautiful brand for your business.
In fact, you could spend (and I have spent) hours slaving away on a beautiful image for your blog or social media post and ultimately still not contribute anything to your brand. That’s tragic. That’s like me spending all afternoon slaving away on a fancy dish for dinner with my friend, and then when she arrives and takes a bite, it’s dried out and flavorless, or it’s some weird fancy dish that she doesn’t really like and wasn’t expecting to eat at my comfortable house with my family.
In the same way, it’s possible to slip away and spent a lot of time and money on gorgeous designs that ultimately don’t accomplish what we really want.
As a business owner, the first thing that you want with any imagery for your business is to build a beautiful, strong brand. If your imagery and your graphic design don’t work in that direction, they are not accomplishing their purpose.
If you’re ready to cry right now, I’m with you. I look back on the many hours I’ve spent in Photoshop and various apps trying to make things for my business and it just breaks my heart.
I wasted so much time trying to come up with blog post images and social media images that were clever and creative and pretty and unique, but in the end they didn’t really build my brand.
Don’t get me wrong, each image, page, and post might look good on its own.
But they didn’t contribute to building a beautiful brand for Alana Le, the marketing consultant.
So let me share with you some of the hacks that I have learned the hard way in the last 4 years as a solopreneur. These branding hacks are great ways to make sure that your brand imagery is actually beautiful AND that it’s building a brand for you.
My Best 6 Tricks to Creating Unique and Beautiful Imagery for Your Business
Visual branding hack #1: Relentless consistency
Is visual consistency a hack? I’d argue that it is. It’s easy to do, but most people shy away from it for fear of being boring. In fact, the more consistent you are with your brand imagery, the easier it’s going to be to create images for your brand. You don’t have to make any big decisions for each new image. You simply use your template or look at the images you created before and make something that matches those.
This means using the same filter again and again; choosing the same colors over and over; always going with the same fonts, the same font sizes, and the same types of images.
A lot of people are going to think that sounds boring. And yeah, it might feel boring – to create. But it won’t look boring. It will look professional, attractive, and it will look like you know what you’re doing. Here’s how I use consistency and templates to easily create blog post and social media images that go together:
Consistency – relentless consistency – is the key to beautiful brand imagery that all fits together in an attractive, seamless way.
Visual branding hack #2: Color overlays
So, consistency is great. But what does that mean practically? What are the actual things that you make consistent? That’s a great question, and consistency includes colors, fonts, font sizes, types of imagery (for example, all images of people or all images of fresh flowers), and image size/dimensions. But I’m going to give you my favorite hack for accomplishing consistency with minimal work: color overlays.
Color overlays are one of the most embarrassingly easiest ways to make your brand consistent. You can take a bunch of different photo with pretty much any content and any brightness level, and use color overlays to make them look like they all belong together.
(You should be able to create a cover color overlay in most photo editing apps but definitely in Photoshop and I recommend learning to use Photoshop if you’re going to be creating a lot of images for your business.)
Color overlays are way to put a transparent colored “screen” over any image.
This does two things really well:
1) It makes different images look like they go well together, so that if someone sees a bunch of your posts together in one place (say, on Pinterest), they will send a consistent, attractive, professional message.
2) It makes it easier to read any text that you put on top of the image. And that’s a big issue. Legibility is huge when it comes to good branding.
A note on the importance of legibility:
If you have a lot of beautiful images but then you clutter them up with unattractive text, too much text, or simply illegible text, it will look busy and will be hard to read the text. So basically you took a great image and then messed it up with too much text and it’s not legible anyway! Ouch.
So here’s what you do instead:
You look at your brand and come up with a set of colors to use for your imagery.
This is especially important when it comes to blog post featured images and social media images.
For example, my logo is plain black. But the accent color on my website is coral. So I use a coral overlay on most of my images.
It’s nothing fancy, and you might feel like “wow, that’s a lot of pink!” But if you know me, you would know that it definitely represents my personality and brand well. And the important thing is not that you find a lot of color everyone will love. All that matters is that you choose a color that people will begin to consistently associate with your brand.
Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what color you choose, as long as it’s not hideously ugly and as long as it’s a color that eventually becomes associated with your brand.
Let’s say you have a website that uses lot of light blues and greens. Choose an even lighter blue or light green shade for your overlay, and every time you make a blog post or social media image, add that color overlay to the image.
How do you do a color overlay?
In Photoshop open up the photo or copy it into your template and select the layer that the photo is on. In the example below, I’ve added the photo to a new layer in my template. As you can see, it’s a gorgeous photo but the template text – the blog post title, my website URL – are pretty much impossible to read.
Then go to Layer Style, Color Overlay and then you’ll see a little color box.
Select the little color box in order to choose the color you want. I usually paste in the hex number that’s that #down at the bottom with a six character code. You can copy the that text number from another of your brand related images – anything that has the colors that are typically used on your brands like for example your logo or you can even take a screenshot of your website and then copy the color from one of those.
Then look at the opacity % and adjust it to something that looks good. You want it to be see-through enough that you can clearly see the photo behind the overlay, but opaque enough that you can see text easily when it’s overlaid on the photo. By the way, you can change that anytime so pick up number – for example, 60-something % – as a starting point and then press Okay.
And we’re done! The text is visible and clearly legible, and the beautiful image shows up too – without overpowering the text.
Visual branding hack #3: Styled stock photography
We’ve talked about consistency and we’ve talked about ways of color overlays to achieve it.
But what are you actually trying to be consistent with? What do you actually use those cover color overlays on?
It comes down to imagery, of course. That’s the title of the blog post. But where do you get all these images? And how do you know which ones to choose?
First things first: Try Unsplash. It is an amazing source of beautiful free images, and I don’t know what we all did without Unsplash. There are also other great free sites like Pixabay and others, and you can also pay for stock photography if you have a budget for it at sites like iStockPhoto.
But how do you take it to the next level?
Styled stock photography.
Write it down. Memorize it. Google it. This phrase will change your life.
“Styled stock photography” simply means that a photographer put together a bunch of different objects or maybe just one or two specifically to create photographs with a certain feel that you can use for your business.
If you run a business that has physical products, you probably already have styled photos for your products.
For example, if you make a lavender body scrub you might’ve hired a photographer to take pictures of your body scrub with little bits of fresh lavender on a nice white background to use in your shop images.
But if you don’t run a business with physical products, you probably don’t have images like that already. And if you’re like a lot of people, you probably assumed that service businesses don’t have any need for style photography. You couldn’t be more wrong.
Styled stock photography is simply about creating a super attractive, high-quality picture of your brand.
Let’s be real – if you buy that lavender body scrub, you’re probably not going to find sprigs of fresh lavender in your packaging. It’s not about a literal interpretation of the products and what you’re getting. That really would be boring, and people would scroll right past.
It’s about the feel of the product, of the brand. And that is certainly something that you can do even with the least visual business on the planet.
That said, doing custom styled photography shoots can be really expensive. If you’re trying to do everything yourself, you probably don’t have enough money to pay for your own custom photo shoot yet. After all, if you had that kind of money, you wouldn’t be doing all this yourself, would you?
Here are a few of my favorite styled stock photography shops on Creative Market:
There are so many beautiful photographs out there that you can buy to use for your brand, often in bundles that cost between $10 and $20 for a bunch of gorgeous photos along a consistent theme.
There’s also Shay Chochrane’s stock shop, which runs a little pricier but is always amazing:
And finally, Wonderfelle recently launched her Styled Stock Society, which I am pretty excited about because it also offers some really beautiful options and gives members 30 new styled stock photos per month (!!):
You can use them for blog post images, as the main image on your home page, or to share on social media. Of course, this requires you spending a little bit of money but it could be worth it, especially if you have more money than time right now.
But what if you have more time than money? (Been there!)
If you take a look at a lot of the stock style stock photography out there, and if you’re decent with a camera, you might be able to get some of the way there yourself.
Here’s what you do to make your own styled stock photography:
Go to the dollar store and buy a piece of plain white poster board. Go to the grocery store or Target and get a mix of small items that are connected to your brand feel – snacks, flowers, plants, stationary – or just “shop” around your house. Come home and set it all up in an area that receives a lot of natural light but not direct sunlight, to minimize shadows. Preferably set it somewhere out of the way that a toddler or pet won’t be able to reach (good luck with that).
Then play around with the placement of the objects on the poster board and take a bunch of pictures from an overhead angle. Take WAY more pictures than you need, because sometimes you might not realize something looks off until you are editing it in Photoshop or a photo editing app like VSCO.
(If you’d like a more in-depth tutorial, check out this one at PinkPot.)
The DIY method is a great way to get styled photos that are unique to your brand and look really good, but without spending a ton of money. But if you are not artistically inclined AT ALL, and/or if you are pressed for time, you might want to just go the ready-made route. Consider yourself warned. 😉
The moral the story: you need styled photography, whether for your social media or for your blog or website.
The question is just where are you going to get it.
Hire a pro to do a custom styled shoot for your brand, get pre-made photos from a source like Creative Market, or do it yourself. The choice is yours. And have fun with it!
Visual branding hack #4: Lots of white space
We’ve covered images; we’ve covered how to make them consistent; and my primary trick for doing that, which is using the same color overlay or filter every time.
But another trick to making sure your brand imagery always looks good is definitely just that – a trick.
It’s ridiculously easy, it’s very counter-intuitive (if you’re not a visual person), and not many people will think to do it on their own; but it will make a massive difference in the visuals on your site and social media.
What’s the trick? White space.
This has got to be the most underutilized design tactic on the Internet.
This is a great way to make sure that the images and colors that you do have pop and look amazing, while making sure that your text is easy to read and clear as well.
Worried that it might feel boring?
That’s the last thing you should be worried about!
If your images look good and they’re consistent, and your copy is both high quality and easily legible, no one’s going to worry that there’s not enough content on the screen. They will be too busy focusing on the content itself, which is what you want.
But on the other hand, if the opposite is true – if your images look bad and there’s too much text and content on the screen at once – it will definitely be noticeable and distracting.
So this “hack” simply means to always err on the side of minimalism and make sure there’s plenty of white space around / in all of your content.
Oh, and if you’re not using a white background, that’s okay; you just need blank space of any muted color. That’s what matters.
Visual branding hack #5: short paragraphs
We’ve talked images; now let’s talk copy.
How can we apply the same principles to make sure that your copy looks good?
Because visual branding isn’t all about imagery.
After all, in today’s content-heavy Internet universe, a lot of what we see on the web is not just images but the text that accompanies them.
You might have to one to three images in a blog post, but 2000 words or more for the actual post.
That means the text itself – the way you present it – will have a huge impact on the visual experience of your content.
Here’s a simple hack that I’m shocked more people don’t use: Short paragraphs and short sentences.
This is the same idea of the “lots of white space” approach. Make your text appear simple, minimalist, and easy to read. Your audience can scan from short paragraph to short paragraph much more easily than they can navigate a solid block of text, and you better believe that will affect your dwell time.
Visual branding hack #6: Pull out quotes
Another great way to break up the copy and to make it more visually appealing and easier to comprehend is to pull out quotes and make them bold or italic, or even a larger size using the quote format that comes with your theme. My personal preference is to make them bold, since it’s easy to read and doesn’t require repeating a sentence.
Sprinkling a few important bold quotes throughout the text will draw that the eye and can make it easier to comprehend the content; but not only that, it will also make the page appear more visually balanced.
This is most important for blog posts. You can’t do this with most social media updates (using all caps for important sentences will come across as tacky most of the time), but you can do this with the images that you share on social media if you’re including text overlayed on the image – just use a different font, size, or weight for the most important word(s) on the image.
I hope these simple (but effective) tips for DIY branding and imagery are helpful to you. They are each concepts I have learned the hard way and wish I had known sooner. I wanted to pass on these lessons because I don’t want anyone else like me spending ages on visual branding only to find that the time was wasted!!