Image-led web design (sorry, no puns this week!)

When it comes to finding the starting point for the look of a brand new website, it’s often the photography that will set the tone and direction for the visual design. That’s how it went with the new Cornerstones website, and I have to say I’m extremely pleased to see how the website turned out. All too often, images which have been taken to help tell the story end up squashed, cropped and overlaid with graphics to the point of oblivion. Not so with this project.

Cornerstones home page featuring a photo of one of the main classrooms

The home page features a slideshow to give visitors an idea what to expect

Cornerstones runs a school in Cheshire for young people with Autism and learning difficulties, spanning a wide range of learning and communication requirements. They also have four homes in which boarders live, having their own en-suite bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens as well as gardens, and my task was to reflect the facilities and the likely experience of anyone going there. So far so good, except that while I needed to communicate the friendly, nurturing ethos of the school and homes, I couldn’t let any of the pupils be identified in the shots.

Cornerstones web page showing a montage of photos

A variety of techniques allowed me to show activity without giving away IDs

What I wanted to produce was a series of images which allowed some evidence of pupil activity, but avoiding identification, while also showcasing the bright, friendly atmosphere of the locations. I’ve included some screen-grabs here, but take a look at the site to see how the images and the site graphics work well together.

Exterior of one of Cornerstones buildings

This building was derelict when Cornerstones took it over, but it’s a beautiful home for boarders now

I would like to add that working with the staff and pupils of the organisation was an absolute pleasure and I really enjoyed my couple of days there. I’d also like to include the fact that working with Ghost Limited, the digital design agency who project-managed and built the site (and with whom I happen to share office space) was a pleasure from start to finish.

Still images, still powerful.

Photography is everywhere, but nowhere is it more prolific than on the internet, where it is sprayed over web sites like candy from a smashed piñata, often with no thought to quality, relevance or placement. It’s just a way to break up text, and the general approach is that the cheaper this can be done, the better.

Of course the internet is a visual medium; nobody relishes reading acres of dense text, and the interspersion of text with pictures is more pleasing to the eye, but the over-use of low-cost stock imagery means that the images have become almost invisible, and their impact is lost.

Dark Light

Even a stock-style photo can be exclusive to one client.

The easy availability of this low-cost imagery on the web has caused another problem. Businesses, usually unknowingly, are using the same imagery as their competitors. This often happens because web designers will resort to using micro-stock sites such as istockphoto to source images, using the same search terms for similar clients. The result is a kind of Stepford Wives look to sites across the web and businesses look indistinguishable from their competitors.

If the imagery a business uses doesn’t set it apart from its competitors, what is the value of that imagery? What power will the images have to entice the prospective client to spend money with one business over another?

This ubiquity of imagery has diluted the power of photography on the web, but this isn’t photography’s fault, nor the fault of photographers. It’s just a stage internet design is going through. A bit like stages children go through on their way to becoming adults. Internet design is at the spotty teenager stage. It’s not pretty, not always useful around the house, and doesn’t know what it wants to be. However, this apparently ugly scenario can be made to work in favour of businesses who want to retake the initiative.

What businesses can do, and from my recent experiences are starting to do, is commission more bespoke photography and use less non-exclusive stock imagery. They’re presenting themselves as real businesses with real people, not the West Coast American-looking androids favoured by stock libraries for their blandness and interchangeability. Putting a genuine face to the public instead of hiding behind a sterilized façade means photography can be powerful again.

Designers I speak to are also starting to realise that their wonderful designs tend to lose impact once the generic stock images are plonked in, or they’re having to build the design message around whichever cheap pictures they have to hand. Designers are having to learn how to sell real photography to their clients again or face their designs simply costing their clients money, instead of bringing in sales.

So as the internet emerges from its teenage years, will business once again discover the power of genuine, bespoke photography? In the days of the printed brochure, you rarely had to suffer seeing photos taken by the boss’s nephew, and businesses paid good money to keep their identity unique from their competitors. As the internet goes from teenage to adulthood, so business web sites must mature into truly professional platforms for marketing, not just concentrating on site structure, graphics and text but the imagery too. Those that embrace exclusive imagery will find the extra investment creates a greater return.

It isn’t easy to shoehorn all these concepts into a blog, but if you would like to know more about how genuinely unique photography could help your business, drop me a line. Maybe I can help get your business through puberty relatively unscarred by acne.

Article and photos © Tim Gander. All rights reserved 2009