Speaking Bot: A breakdown of how web writers can use Google to concept visuals
Storyline Longform is a series of in-depth articles that explore narrative approaches to web writing and design. This week, we look at the right way to use Google searches to find stock photos and graphics for the websites you write or design.
Design relaxes me. Words I struggle with. While I can easily limit my writing time to the three hours I allot myself in the morning, working with colors, type and visual concepts is like slipping into a creative black hole where I’m happy to get lost for hours.
I should probably mention that I’m a writer, which explains why I don’t feel the pressure a graphic designer might when confronted with the task of, say, summing up a complex text with an original idea. As a writer, the text is the grueling ascent. Figuring out how to make it look good and to visually structure information in a clever way is the journey back down the side of the mountain.
I like design for other reasons, like type hierarchy. What a great thing it is to be able to show meaning and nuance just by the way your order and style text. You can say so much more with so much less.
I also enjoy concepting banner images a lot more than thinking up titles. Though the creative process is pretty much the same—assigning succinct meaning to a nuanced text in a way that simultaneously serves as a hook—visuals are always smarter, and more multidimensional and impactful. This is why no matter how successful a title is, the visual is usually what we remember.
In last week’s blog we looked at fonts and how you can make them work for the web texts you write. This week, we’ll be looking at concepting visuals. Because if you learn a little about that, you'll work better with web developers and designers, and one day maybe even take on whole website projects by yourself.
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Think like a bot
What if the Google search bar spoke a language you could understand? Just think about it. You wouldn’t need to struggle to verbalize the images you were looking for anymore. The perfect train of words would just materialize out of the tunnel—female hipster in hat looking at laptop—as if an AI algorithm had just plucked it out of your head, and violá, you would have not only the right visual to accompany your text, but the exact one.
Female hipster in hat looking at laptop is actually not too far off the mark, because that’s the way images are archived by actual human beings for Google’s legions of web-crawling bots, which in turn act as your personal brain librarians every time you search for…well, a female hipster in a hat looking at a Mac.
What are you actually looking for? You could be looking for a banner image for a manuscript editing service that caters to millennials. You could be summing up a straightforward blog post on the working habits of nomad freelance copywriters in Berlin or an ironic post on Instagram users.
CONCRETE TAGS, NOT ABSTRACT IDEAS
Whatever text you’re working with on the web, most of what you’ll be doing is finding—and repurposing—the right photo or graphic (stock or original) to get your point across succinctly and as beautifully as you can. And the way to find that image is by thinking like a human thinking like a bot. This means you shouldn’t be thinking in terms of abstract ideas when you search for visuals on the web to accompany your texts, but in terms of concrete tags that capture the essence of your ideas.
CASE STUDY 1: LUXURY
Say you’ve got a client in the real estate business whose creative brief says his market is “high-net-worth investors”, and his concept is “luxury”. Type either of those words into your search bar and you might end up with a photo of Elon Musk emerging from a Tesla, or worse—infinitely worse—Donald Trump. Or you might get a houseboat, a villa with a moonlit swimming pool, a Rolls Royce, a Lamborghini, the inside of a cockpit, a rich Russian or a soaring skyscraper in Abu Dhabi. None of which you want on the real estate website you’re writing for your client.
No, what you want is people (people relate to people) in the target age range you’re writing for enjoying something that normal people can’t but can aspire to once they invest their money intelligently and become just as wealthy. What you want is: happy elegant middle-aged couple on yacht.
Does this always work?
Predictably not. Sometimes you end up with this.
So, while thinking like a bot doesn't always work, it’s how you should start thinking. Not “rich”, but “fresh morning breakfast by the beach”. Not “couple in luxury villa”, but “young couple enjoying drink on seaside balcony”.
Does this hurt your ears?
This is the world of website design.
CASE STUDY 2: WEBSITES IN THE WILD
An abstract idea for Websites in the Wild, a blog post we published two weeks ago at Storyline, could have gone in any number of directions. Creatively, the first thing that popped into our heads was a texture-like jungle background. I told Google: “Henri Rousseau jungle”. (Rousseau was one of my favorite naive painters when I was a kid.) I pulled up this.
With a gradient pattern using the Storyline blue (don’t ask the recipe, Lara will never tell you—unless you buy her a drink) and a little layering, we had something that was about a football field and two oceans away from Christoph Niemann with a two-thousand-pound hangover, but which was good enough for the Daily Beast.
In terms of actually acquiring these images, you would most likely have to purchase the first from Getty or Shutterstock, according to whatever agreement you made with your client. Using the second, a painting, is a little murkier, though to play on the safe side, I would credit the painter and the source of the photograph or, if this isn't possible, the source of the painting itself.
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Q&A: We don't believe you
If you’ve gotten this far and want your money back, please consider that this isn’t the only way you’ll be using visuals. These are just an example or two that happen to be taken from projects I’ve worked on. You’ll also have the opportunity to go crazy on Photoshop and create stunning collages one day. You’ll be designing word art on Illustrator, funky gifs on Ezgif, and even working with clients who commission actual bespoke photography and videos for their projects that you, the writer of the website or blog post, will have a creative say in.
The goal, however, is always the same: to create eye-catching visuals that instantly beam the essence of your text into the heads of users. The variables are often the same too: time and money, both of which are often in short supply. Which means you’ll mainly be repurposing stock photos and assorted web flea market finds (see more on this below).
Budding writer-designer: But Shutterstock is so cheesy.
Me: Yes, most of what you find there unfortunately is, but any client who doesn’t pay for original art or photography is going to end up using stock photography, which is, I’m afraid to say, somewhere on the same spectrum of cheesiness as Slavic wedding photography. I refer you to “elegant beautiful couple sitting on a boat with globe”.
BWD: I’m designing a website for a restaurant. Should I use stock photos too?
Me: Heavens no. Most restaurants should know that using stock footage of McDonald’s isn’t going to grow their business. You might also get sued. Hire a photographer or use your Huawei.
BWD: So, is it stock photos or nothing?
Me: No, if a company has the vision, and pocket, to pay for a photographer or graphic designer, you can create the exact look you’re after pretty much. If you learn to use Adobe (more on this in a few paragraphs), you can even do it yourself. But you still have to have an idea of what kind of concept you’re shooting for. Which brings us back to concepting. Whether you’re communicating with bots or humans, you’ve still got to be able to verbalize your ideas. Human to human is just a hell of a lot easier than speaking Bot.
DON'T SULK. GET SOCIAL.
The other option you have is to reach out to the photographers or owners of any amazing visual content you find online. There’s a lot of it. This doesn’t mean you’re going to send Christoph Neimann a request to modify his New Yorker cover for the Dazzling Quiches of the World website you’ve been commissioned to write. But if you’re nice and straightforward and they’re not huge names and your client isn’t making millions off the website, and—very important—you agree to credit them and honor that obligation, you’d be surprised at all the quality visuals you can get your hands on just by being social.
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As a writer, you always start with the creative brief. Once you know what your client wants—or have some inkling of it—you can pitch and write your narrative. This is because you’re a writer and have the luxury of being able to be very verbal before you have to actually sit down and think up visuals. By then the ideas will have crystalized and the visual concepts will follow.
If we go back to Websites in the Wild, our case study was a young, hip creative arts funding consultancy we recently designed a website for. The narrative focused on all the innovative creative projects the client had helped support and sustain. It was about creative people working together to make their visions happen. So the visual concept was already there: natural, unfiltered portraits of actual people and their projects.
For the full-bleed banner images, we wanted creativity in motion. We wanted actors, dancers, authors and performers doing their thing. Here they are doing it.
Only after we had all that down did we go to Google and search for the visuals we needed. And here, again, we lucked out, because the images we used for the website were taken from actual creative projects the client had worked on: mostly Creative Europe projects whose photos, with a friendly email or two, we could secure for free.
The last step in the process—a fairly tedious one with a lot of experimentation and multiple drafts—was to brand the banner images with the client’s colors on Photoshop.
Which brings us to the end of this story, which isn’t, however, the end of the process. Actually making and editing your visuals is obviously not an afterthought. It’s a huge step in that process.
Going with more labor-intensive apps with steep learning curves and massive toolboxes like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, or using one of the newer drag-and-drop online design apps like Canva, which has practically no learning curve at all, is a decision most writers who produce visuals will have to make at some point.
A year ago, I wrote a blog post about how Canva, one of those drag-and-drop online apps, saved my life. Using Canva was easy and it saved time, the learning curve was practically non-existent, and you had hundreds of “designy” templates to choose from, all community-sourced or professionally developed. In about 10 minutes you could design a business card, website icon or Facebook post that didn’t look half bad. For a lot of writers juggling multiple projects, and sometimes multiple businesses, Canva was a godsend.
That love affair lasted about a year. Now I’m a diehard Adobe user, and I’d like to tell you why. But that, alas, is another story.
Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: email@example.com.