What makes a website great? Surely it’s a quality of user flow, basic graphic identity such as colors, fonts and composition, but at the first place it is a visual framework and discourse. Text content is relatively easy to manage, UX designer usually only suggests on volume and sometimes discourse, while visuals are essential part of creative direction and need an eye of designer. By visual content I mean any photographs, illustrations and icons which accompany product’s message. Every detail in photography or illustrations will add on to a wow-effect or to a bounce rate. Experience teaches to prepare for negotiations with clients because visuals it’s where we mercilessly cut the costs. Let’s talk about proto-content approach in low-budget setting using some stats.

Visuals in 2017

Thinking of a wow-effect I would refer to this website

or this

We might have different opinion of its aesthetic details, but one thing is sure — it drags attention. Websites are also becoming less based on text and more on the graphics, especially when it comes to landing pages. And with decreasing attention span (some say we are worse than goldfish) it is a trend to stay. Here is a some visual vs. text content examples, where texts mainly represent commands (buttons etc) or very laconic product, service and value statements.

I’m constantly astonished with graphic concepts on Behance where UX designers take visuals to the next level. Lots of negative space, combination of sound photography and graphic elements is 2017’s state-of-the-art we look into. Parallax and icon grids simply do not impress anymore.

Case

Now let´s Imagine a small business website with a total development budget of 4,500 €, which is split between UX designer, developers and a project manager (also a very budget-sensitive figure). It has a custom CMS and say, a user account for clients to access invoices. The ideal website development life-cycle is concept — creative direction — production + prototyping/design — and finally UX implementation (coding). Most clients prioritize back-end over front-end (which makes sense) and creative part goes into a shade. But we still want to make it beautiful. In low-budget projects creative direction and sometimes its implementations is often led by UX designers. Not surprisingly a lot of clients also think that UX designer and digital artist is the same person. But you can envision brilliant visuals, some 3d renders, a combination of photography and graphics but if you can’t create it and it will remain a concept. So the challenge is to find semiotically consistent visuals to complement the message within a budget. And here we turn to free royalty-free stocks.

Stocks

I made this classification of visual content types according to accessibility of free options while working on one project proposal:

  • Icons (easy to find, easy to adapt). Flaticon is the best resource here.
  • Simple Illustrations — infographics and elaborated icons (easy to find, easy to adapt). Freepik.com, Vecteezy.com have good collections.
  • Photographs (relatively easy to find). Unsplash.com or Pexel.com have the best collections.
  • Videos (quite a lot of free videos, but few with specific content).
  • Complex illustrations (elaborated illustrations on specific topics). So far the hardest to find unless it is a flat design you are looking for.

Answering a question “if we can use some free images” I would say “yes, of course”. But it has to be very aligned with expectations from the project. Consistency of free content is one of the main issues, photography series are quite rare and there is a lot of retouch to adjust colors, lighting and general feel of the images. Quality retouch is a professional work and low budget also means that this figure is not on the team. Most UX designers have general image manipulation skills, but results are often not that seamless as of a digital artist.

Of course another problem is how popular is the image we use. Back when Unsplash.com started this particular image tagged by #business was one of the most occurring on the business websites, since the keyword search had only 10 results.

Now we have a bigger variety of any kind of tags but it is still a challenge to find a good rare picture, you will see it later in infographics.

Stats

To understand the scope I looked at Unsplash.com (hence only photography) and compared search results for different tags. And then run some results via www.whereonthe.net — a brilliant website where you can access data on how, when and who used certain images.

Here is a little infographics on business activities and access to related content. I took traveling, lifestyle, medicine and all kinds of services into account to make a chart of the “safest areas” to work with.

Some conclusions:

  • Outdoor travelling is the winning category (who didn’t download gigas of mountains photos for prototypes?)
  • One can get very creative and metaphoric to illustrate lifestyle-related products, since there is a lot of photography choice.
  • Medical services are still outnumbered (yes, wishing there were more dentists in the mountains)
  • Technology is a strange field where there are a lot of abstract general photos but digging into one particular hardware would result in 0 entries. Smart city has the same issue, there are a lot of cities, but very little smart cities on the stock. Probably it’s better to look into illustrations.
  • Country specific photographs can turn into a problem. For example #Canada has 1.4k photos in comparison to 20 of #Bolivia (only because photographer Paz Arando travelled there and licensed photography with CC0)
  • Gay wedding is the least popular free photography, hopefully not for too long.
  • Other results are for you to judge.

Content strategy on a budget

How and who takes care of the content actually became one of my first questions at the kick-offs. Once the basic idea about the website is clear, we talk about content: both text and visual. It’s better bring the topic on from the beginning and be clear about content budget. It is already relevant on the low-fidelity prototypes and concept research stage. Roles and skills of the team should also be very clear, such as understanding that a UX Designer is not a digital artist per se. UX research and gap analysis is a great way to convince a client to increase the budget, alongside with www.whereonthe.net where you can see how many times the image was used. If the budget is fixed and there is no way to sneak product photography session or GettyImages budget, we shall prepare for a long search for images. I would say we should also prepare to have UX design and mockups affected since proto-content approach in a low budget project would mean going for a safest and the most efficient options in design. At the end projects are divided into two main categories: pragmatic and free-to-get-wild ones. Development studio probably won’t get thousands hits on Dribble with pragmatic project but the work will be done, stable version delivered and client satisfied, which is in fact a good outcome. Finally I’m still wondering if image manipulation and digital art is one of the emerging skills UX Designer should master, especially in the beginning of a career.

What do you think? Do you make visuals yourself or have in-house/contracted digital artist for every project?


Photos used in infographics:

  • Gabriel Gurrola
  • Sarmad
  • Helloquence
  • Sebastian Unrau
  • Christopher Campbell
  • Ben Rosett