Using photos: a love & hate relationship

I like centering my stories around photos, and there are a lot of free resources available online. Using images can grab the attention of the viewers instantly and might result in better recognition. I usually use Pexels for my work, but Unsplash, Shutterstock, and the others have just as good stock photos. Before jumping into how to use images in data visualizations, here are some rules I like to follow:

  1. Always use high-quality images
    • If your image has low quality (resolution), either search for another one or forget the concept. You can have the best idea in your head, but if you’re using bad images it will spoil everything.
  2. Consistency is key
    • When using multiple images on a dashboard, make sure they have the same style. If you download four different images from the internet, it might look like putting on two different shoes before you walk out the door.
  3. Choose png over jpg*
    • Imagine a scenario when you download a picture of Lady Gaga with a (seemingly) black background to place it on your black dashboard. There are multiple shades of black, and they look different on each screen. Keep in mind that people may have different devices than you do, so make sure to use png instead.
    • *This is only true when the image is not the background of the dashboard.
  4. Photos and icons are not friends
    • 90% of the time, this is an OR relationship. You either choose photos or icons to decorate the visualizations. It’s a milder version of using different downloaded images on the same dashboard but can still result in inconsistency.
  5. Less is more
    • Restrain from overcrowding the dashboard with design elements – it can look cluttered and suppress the information you’d like to convey.
  6. Don’t forget to credit the original authors

Using photos as background images

There are two ways to go about this. You either choose something that has a lot of negative space or tone down the noise. Both options can look extraordinary, but white spaces have a special place in my heart, so let’s start with them.

White space images

When you find an image with a lot of negative space, you can center your viz elements around that without further editing the picture. I started to make a white space collection on Pexels – check it out if you’d like to get inspired. Let me show you where’s your place to shine when you choose these kinds of pics. The grey rectangles represent the areas where you could place your charts and text elements.

Original images by Alex Andrews, Aleksandar Pasaric, Lum3n

I don’t think I’m best practice (most of my stuff is pure intuition), but here’s some of my work where I used white space in photos. The Eastern Bloc viz reflects on an important pain point. What if you want to have more white space, but there’s no more? In cases like this, Photoshop has your back!

I described this issue in a previous blog post, but the keyword is content-aware cropping! Remember to only use this method when your original photo has a more or less seamless background, otherwise, it might not give you the desired effect. You can read more about content-aware cropping on the official Adobe site. Have a look at the miracle it made from Mariyan Atanasov’s incredible picture.

Noisy images

There’s no problem with using noisy images either, the only thing you have to do is toning them down before you start putting your dashboard together. The method is placing a black or white rectangle with low opacity over the original image, and export it together as a new pic. I used this technique in my Budapest viz, have a look at the difference a small overlay rectangle can make:

Since it’s 2021 and glassmorphism is the new shit, you can try this as well. It’s nothing else than a frosted glass effect using a background blur. I’m sure you can imagine how it looks, but here’s an example just in case:


Why do it?

The information age changed our general attention span entirely. Our generation faces much more information to consume, but only have the same time as before. We can focus for shorter periods – there’s a constant rush to select the relevant information from the noise surrounding us. Researches show there’s a phenomenon called the “picture superiority effect” whereby concepts presented with visuals or pictures are better learned and more easily recalled than those without. So don’t be afraid to use images, but don’t overuse them either!

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