It’s everywhere: inspirational quotes on Instagram and funny quips on Facebook. Website landing pages and online ads. From billboards to business cards, many of the designs we encounter every day have something in common.
What are we talking about? One of the most basic building blocks of graphic design — combining text with an image. And while slapping a catchy phrase on a nice photo may seem like an easy design solution, it’s more difficult to get it right than you might expect. But not to worry; with the tips and tricks we’ll cover in this article, you’ll have techniques that you can apply to almost any design project.
Let’s jump right in
01. Consider Composition
The placement and arrangement of your text in relation to your image can make or break a design. If the text is too small, the background too busy or distracting, or anything else is compromising readability, your design won’t be as effective or visually appealing.
But the text is only one half of the equation; how the image appears in your design is just as important. So you’ll also want to pay attention to both of the following:
The composition of the image.
Whether you’ll be taking a photo yourself or sourcing one to use in your design, you’ll want to make sure that it leaves a good, clear space to place your text (unless you want to add a design element that sets off the text and/or disguises a detailed background, like a shape or screen — more on that later).
The overall composition created by the image/text combination.
A design is more than the sum of its parts. You can have an attractive image and an effective message set in a nice typeface, but unless the two elements flow together well, then the outcome may not attract as much attention or get the kind of results you’re looking for.
One way to create a composition where the image and text complement each other is to align your text so it fits with a shape present in the image.
Another way is to think about the composition in broader terms than just an image as a background with text on top. The two can be arranged in endless ways — so let your creativity loose.
02. Establish a Focal Point
One of the essential elements of a good composition is a focal point — some kind of visual element that catches the eye and serves as a starting point for users to navigate your design. In the context of a layout that involves just imagery and text, it’s going to be one or the other. So you’ll need to decide which one is more important and help it stand out through colour, size, position, or another characteristic.
This design makes the image of a vacation destination the clear center of attention, perhaps an appropriate choice for a travel website. Because of its value (it’s the darkest part of the layout, while everything else is light) and size (it spans the whole width of the page), the image has the most visual weight. However, you don’t want the rest of your design disappearing either. Here, the shapes present in the photo, along with vertical accent lines, help draw your eye back up to the text, where a pop of bright blue gets you focusing there.
In contrast, the following web page makes text its focal point (with a bold, uppercase typeface at a large point size) and de-emphasizes the image with an overlay of transparent color. However, the text and image have been arranged using a layered effect that connects the two elements and makes for a dynamic composition.
03. Achieve Balance
Let’s look at one more characteristic of good composition: balance. Like a see-saw with a child on one side an adult on the other, designs get unbalanced when there’s a part that’s too heavy — visually heavy, that is.
We’re not talking about focal points, because visual weight is often what sets them apart from the rest of the design. Instead we’re talking about designs that aren’t organized well. Maybe they’re too busy or cluttered. Maybe all the content has been squeezed onto one side of the layout. Or perhaps the spacing and alignment are off. Any of these problems, and more, could knock your design off balance.
For a simple design that only features text and an image, balance becomes especially important: the more minimal the design, the more glaring any poor layout choices will be.
04. Choose Your Image Wisely
In design projects, imagery plays a bigger role than just producing a pretty background or accent; it can lend context, tone, and emotion to your design. And when those qualities match or support your text, you’ll be communicating to your audience much more clearly. So unless you purposely want some visual contradiction in your design, it’s best if your image complements your text (and vice-versa).
Take this packaging as another example: what better way to say that your product is fresh and healthy than with colourful photography of crisp vegetables? Plus, the copywriting supports those concepts: “fresh,” “farmers’ market,” “seasonal.” The images and text work together to communicate the same message.
05. Create a Background for Your Text
As mentioned briefly earlier, creating a space for your text where it is easy to see and read is an important step in this process. There are two main ways you can do it:
Choose an image with empty space.
This points back to our first tip on composition. Photos that have large, clear areas, blurring or soft focus, or other features that provide a minimally detailed space for the text are the best candidates. That’s because highly detailed or busy images behind text can make the copy difficult, if not impossible, to read.
For example, these social media images have just enough blurring on the background images that the objects are still identifiable, but the typography on top doesn’t get lost.
Edit or add an effect to the image.
Let’s say you’ve found the perfect image for your project, but it’s just not suitable for placing text on top. Maybe it doesn’t have any clear spaces, or it has lots of interesting detail. You can still use it, but you’re going to have to put in a little extra effort to help your text stand out. There are a number of ways do can do this, including:
- Adding a background shape: A solid or transparent shape that covers just the portion of the image where the text will be is a common solution.
- Adding a transparent colour overlay: A transparent block of colour that covers the whole image can help minimise it and downplay details, creating a surface for the text that’s more visually uniform.
- Lightening or darkening the image: If you’d rather not add extra elements to your layout, then sometimes you can edit the photo itself to help your text stand out.
06. Enhance Visibility With Color & Contrast
One you have an image chosen, you’ll want to make sure that the text pops off the page or screen, especially if you’re not using a background shape or other technique to assist. Colour and contrast are two of the best ways to do that.
There are many approaches you can take when choosing colour schemes for your designs. But let’s look at two that specifically relate to pairing text and imagery.
- Coordinate your colours: For a look that’s very harmonious and cohesive, you can try pulling colours directly from your image to apply to your text.
- Opt for opposites: For a more dramatic look, try colour combinations with more contrast. The colour wheel is a good place to start, with complementary (or opposite) colour pairs like blue and orange or purple and yellow.
You can achieve contrast through colour, but also through characteristics like size, shape, position, and more. The postcard design below uses all of these qualities: the salmon pink colour contrasts with the cool blues and greens in the photo; the size of the words contrast with each other, as do the letter shapes of the font choices; the slanted, curved orientation of ‘ROAD’ contrasts with the rest of the typography (but follows the slant of the hills in the photo). All of these choices create a visually interesting composition and help the text stand out.
Finally, let’s look at a selection of designs that combine some of the techniques we’ve discussed so far to good effect:
This flyer: 1) features a photo that has an empty, blurred space at the top for text (and possibly has been lightened); 2) has pulled the colour for the text from the photo (notice the turquoise shades in the man’s shirt).
This book cover: 1) uses a textured background shape on the front cover… 2) but a photo with clear space on the back cover, where the copy follows the shape of the image; 3) has text in contrasting colours (blue and orange, another complementary pair on the colour wheel).
This landing page: 1) has a vertically balanced composition; 2) features a text/image duo that complement and support each other, both in terms of visual style and topic/message.
This catalog cover: 1) also has a balanced layout; 2) the image and text work together to give the design’s message context — the image shows the company’s product in action, and the copy explains its benefits.
This brochure: 1) utilizes out-of-focus areas of the image to place text; 2) includes pops of color to make certain pieces of copy stand out.
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