Gritty Women and Modern Beauty: How to Find Better Stock Photography

For 2017, Getty Images announced the trend Gritty Women indicating an increase in stock photography searches for women who are active, forceful, and not afraid to break a sweat. In a follow-up, there's a wonderful article in the New York Times “From Sex Object to Gritty Woman: The Evolution of Women in Stock Photos” by Claire Cain Miller. She traces the last ten of women in stock photography, looking at the most popular images featuring women from Getty Images from 2007 to 2017.

In general the trend has been away from showing women in a passively sexy, "pretty" way and more towards them being active, confident and agents of their own. We love helping brands move away from these old stereotypical images and are excited to see the trend taking off.  

While most beauty and luxury brands haven't embraced "gritty" per se, there's definitely a movement towards realism and having the feel of authenticity. Of course, having custom model photography is nearly always the "best" route. However, if you're trying to build a luxury beauty empire on a shoestring, don't despair.

Model photography is often too expensive and time-consuming for many smaller brands. This makes stock photography the next best route. The good news is stock photography has become much more interesting and diverse in the last 10 years. The bad news is, there's still a lot of bad photography that makes me wish stock photography houses had a "no cheesy images" filter.


Typical Stock

No one ever looks this happy applying face cream.

The goal in finding good stock photography is to use images that strengthens your story and feels unique to your brand, even if it's not. Granted, stock photography often lags behind as the more edgy, premium photography work on exclusive client projects. Stock photography is generally created based on what there's proven demand for and therefore scrambles to keep up. That said, it is a good barometer for market demand. Whereas ten years ago, a perfectly Photoshopped, flawless 18 year old might be considered for an anti-aging campaign, these days it looks...well, a bit cheesy.

So how do we find good stock photography that creates the right feel for your brand?

How to Find Better Stock Photography

1. Make Your Images Relate to Your Customers


Reflect Your Customer

Let your customer see themselves in your image choices.

Your customers want to put themselves into your images. Your brand's photos should in some way show an idealized version of their life. This doesn't need to be literal (see point 3) but it should relate to them specifically. If you're selling anti-aging products, use a stock photo of a middle aged woman. They're hard to find (and often look mid-30s tops) but if there's demand, we'll start to see more. Same goes for racial diversity, stock pictures might be harder to find but it's worth it.

Think also how customers will see themselves reflected in your image. It's easy to find stock images of women smiling radiantly into the camera. However images that evoke a story tend to be more compelling. Plus, we've all seen so many generic pictures of women smiling to sell everything from brake shops to antacids, there's image fatigue. Experiment with images that are less posed with the model turned away from the camera, involved in her own world. Often these feel more modern and authentic.


2. What are your customer's aspirations?


Go Deeper

Find images that inspire and speak to their goals.

Consider the aspirations of your target market at a deeper level. While for a skincare line, it is easy to say their customers want "clear, flawless skin," there's probably even deeper motivations. If you ask the customers themselves, good skin is likely not on the top of their life goals but rather a step to what they really want. For instance, perhaps they want good skin so they can shave 20 minutes off their morning make-up routine, spend more time with their kids and still show up at work ready to present to the board. For a stressed-out stay at home mom, it might be the idea of having a few luxurious minutes in her daily routine to focus and pamper herself. Personas can be helpful in this area.

Once you start finding stock photography that ties into these deeper aspirations, you'll both find much more interesting options AND ones that resonate more deeply with your target market. If you have a range of products, consider the specific persona for each and choose stock photography that fit. This can also be a good way to subtly differentiate overlapping products.


3. Avoid Being Too Literal

joyful salad time.jpg

Avoid Funny Salads

Sometimes being too on-the-nose takes a wrong turn.

This is a bit tricky to explain but a good example of this is the Hairpin's excellent Women Laughing Alone With Salad. If you look at these images alone, they're all a bit ridiculous. No one has ever had that much fun with a salad. However stock photography sites and the internet as a whole are overflowing with images of women snickering, giggling and smiling delightedly over apparently hilarious salads. That's because when bloggers, content marketers, and designers have a healthy living, lose weight or better eating blog post they immediately think salad. We all know salad is boring by itself so add a person in there to make it relatable — preferably someone that looks incredibly happy. Then poof, the internet is full of women beaming into their salads.

This doesn't just hold for women and salads though. Customer service popups inevitably have a perky woman with a headset, eagerly awaiting your call. Beauty sites end up with flawlessly photoshopped 18 year old models hawking anti-aging products. It can be difficult to get away from these typical images but if you are able to move away from on-the-nose literalism and go for a more poetic interpretation, you'll find that your images become much more unique and engaging. 


4. Choose Images That Maintain Brand Consistency


Create a Unified Look

Your images should look like they belong together.

One of the easiest ways to tell a brand is using stock photography is when each image looks radically different. Early in the process, you should agree on images that are good fits for your brand and then try to tease out what you like about them. Do you want all your models to appear on a white background? Is it oversaturated color tones? Is it the way they're cropped or a certain style of photography?

Some of this such as cropping or color tones may be created by a designer. Others will be harder or impossible to recreate in Photoshop (changing the angle of photography, isolating elements, etc). Sometimes the same photographer has a whole body of work for you to pull from. Often that's the easiest since they likely have a similar look — perhaps even with the same models. If not, you can mix photographers but still try to keep a consistent look across all the images. This doesn't have to be boring or limiting. For instance, the iconic brand Pat McGrath uses an eclectic range of images but they all fit within the brand's vision.


Hopefully this guide makes the task of finding images to support your brand a little easier. Here are some places to start your search:

Paid Stock Photography Websites

Getty Images: The premium stock photography source. They have nearly everything and some top name photographers as well. However it does tend to be more pricy than other options.

iStockPhoto: The little sister site for Getty. Lower prices but you'll also have to dig a bit more. They changed their pricing structure so it favors business on a subscription plan.

Shutterstock: Similar to iStockPhoto in quality, however a bit cheaper if you're buying one-off images. There's some good stock images but be prepared to filter.

Fotolia: Adobe's answer to Getty Images. It supposedly integrates well with Adobe products. We haven't used them a lot but seems to be a promising site.


Free Stock Photography Websites

Unsplash: One of my favorite free photography sites. The images tend to be stylish and trendy. Good for blog posts or social media.

Pexel: A more diverse, less trendy collection of images than Unsplash but still high quality and worth checking out.

Pixabay: This is more the kitchen sink approach but they still have some good images not found on other sites.

Flickr Creative Commons: If Flickr users select Creative Commons when uploading, you're allow to use their images (depending on the license and restrictions). The downside is it's completely unfiltered so it might take a bit of looking. The plus side is you'll anything and everything there. 


Getting Help

Of course, if you're not relishing spending the afternoon looking through stock photos and would prefer to hire professional design help, contact us. We'd be happy to hear from you!

Commander’s Intent and Design

It's a bit odd to mix military terms and design but I recently came across the term "commander's intent" and felt it was a good articulation of how to build great client-designer communications.

Instead of giving a detailed, step-by-step instructions, Commander’s Intent involves giving a description and definition of what a successful mission will look like, then turning over the specifics to the soldiers in the field. The idea being that if the overall goals are understood at a high-level, teams are empowered to make quick decisions and seek better outcomes than if they are just routinely following instructions.

The role of Commander’s Intent is to empower subordinates and guide their initiative and improvisation as they adapt the plan to the changed battlefield environment. Commander’s Intent empowers initiative, improvisation, and adaptation by providing guidance of what a successful conclusion looks like.
— Manage Uncertainty with Commander’s Intent Chad Storlie, Harvard Business Review

While design hardly requires the same split second decision-making, a similar thought-process can apply. For us as designers, it's often much more helpful to hear your overarching concerns (it feels too busy) rather than specific instructions (move this line left by 10 pixels).

While it seems easy enough on the surfect, with any design change, there's inevitably a domino effect to the overall design. When we move the line over 10 pixels, it is now crowding the sidebar but was that your intent? Or did you want to maintain the spacing and decrease the sidebar by 10 pixels as well? When we make the sidebar smaller the thumbnails images decrease and now the header image looks unbalanced...and so on. 

When we don't understand why we're making a change, it can often mean we're either making assumptions that snowball or constantly needing input and feedback.

If we understand that the overall goal is to make the page have more whitespace, we can use our problem solving skills to come up with several options that work. You can even still give a specific solution (like moving the line 10 pixels) that you think will work. However when we have your overall vision in mind, it's much easier for us to make a solution that works.

6 Visual Trends for 2017

Each year Getty Images compiles reports that go beyond merely vague predictions. Instead they analyze their search traffic to determine what the most common image search terms are and which ones are the rise. I love this because, rather than getting a handful of esoteric opinions from experts, we can see what is actually being used by brands. 

This can be a great opportunity for brands to explore new ways to connect with their customers and see what fits into their brand vision.  

This year, many of the trends are moving away from the hyper stylized and glossy look that has dominated many an Instagram feed these last few years. Here they are:



1. Virtuality

Get immersed in the image.

1. Virtuality

Images are used to extend the viewer's experience and create the feeling of actually being there. Whether it's a fisheye lens, 360 panoramas or VR (virtual reality), users want to feel immersed in the action. Even if this is just experienced as a still image, this style opens up a wealth of opportunities for brands to create exciting narratives around their products.

Great example of in the moment virtuality from Nike.


2. Color Surge

Color as the visual star of the image.

2. Color Surge

In color surge, color gets promoted from being a part of a photo to becoming the main attraction. This style tends towards the abstract and minimal, allowing brands to create eye-catching storytelling with heightened emotions. It's also a very accessible style which doesn't need a huge budget to create. A consistent color palette, a few props, and a colorful wall will go a long way.

Beautiful examples of Color Surge from HUE.


3. Unfiltered

Imperfect. Messy. Real.

3. Unfiltered

In opposition to the abstraction and simplicity of Color Surge, unfiltered is the simultaneous trend towards capturing less perfect, more authentic, spontaneous moments. While this movement originated in journalism, this raw approach can be great for young, disruptive brands that want to engage digital natives who are mistrusting of the glossy image many brands work hard to cultivate.

NYLON builds connections to its audience by using unfiltered style images.

4. Gritty Woman

A new take on femininity.  

4. Gritty Woman

According to Getty, customer searches for “strong woman” have gone up 37% in the last year, and the keyword combination “woman and grit” is up 90%. As debates around gender politics grow, women want to see themselves reflected by brands in a new light. Whether it's displaying physical strength, determination, or real dirt, brands can connect with women by tapping their desire to see themselves reflected with depth, strength and resolve.

ADIDAS celebrates gritty women.


5. Global Neighborhood.

Exploring our borderless world.

5. Global Neighborhood

These images reflect globalization as goods, people and information circulate more freely. It shows us at a crossroads of redefining our concept of location and geography. The mix of old heritage and new technology as we embrace the constantly changing modern world. It can be an insightful way for brands to address customer longing and nostalgia while also reflecting contemporary flux.

Screen Shot 2017-05-10 at 5.19.02 PM.png

A beautiful example of Global Neighborhood from TUMI


6. New Naivety

Spontaneous fun.

6. New Naivety

This light-hearted and fun movement can be seen as the perfect antidote to the world of perfectly polished social media. In this often playful photo style it's less about being on-brand and more about being raw, in the moment and relatable.

New Naivety in progress at MILK 


It'll be exciting to see how brands use this move towards more authentic and unprocessed imagery to build better connections to their customers. To download the full report visit Getty Images.

Love at First Sight: First Impressions and Why Good Design Matters

First impressions count. From the moment you walk into a store or load a website, you get a sense of what a brand is about. And you’ll instantly make judgments about its trustworthiness and authority — whether you’re conscious of doing this or not.
It only takes 50 milliseconds (0.05 seconds) for a user to form an opinion about a website. And first impressions are 94% design related. The opinion of the user —  good or bad — depends on several key factors.

How does this impact your ecommerce business?

From the time it takes your site to load, to the choice of colors and photographs, to the usability and functionality of your site — it all leaves an impression. Whether you’re strictly an online business or have an online presence to support your brick and mortar location, it’s important to consider what impression you’re making on your visitors.

Here are a few things to consider:

How Users Assess Trustworthiness

1. Users Determine a Website’s Credibility by Design

• 75% of customers make judgments about a company’s credibility based on their website’s overall design

• 46.2% of participants assessed the credibility of ecommerce sites based specifically on the visual design of a site, including layout, typography, font size and color schemes.


“I would like to think that when people go on the Web they're very tough integrators of information, they compare sources, they think really hard,” says experimental psychologist B.J. Fogg, “but the truth of the matter—and I didn't want to find this in the research but it's very clear—is that people do judge a Web site by how it looks. That’s the first test of the Web site. And if it doesn't look credible or it doesn’t look like what they expect it to be, they go elsewhere. It doesn't get a second test.”


Despite users claiming to value breadth and depth of information on a site, only 6% commented on the actual content of the website. This shows most users won’t stay on a poorly designed website long enough to actually evaluate the deeper levels of content.

No matter how good your products are, to get a user to stay on your website long enough to make a sale, you need a website that looks professional and inspires confidence.

2. Keep Designs Simple and Familiar

Google researchers have explored the interconnection of two design factors and found that they work together to create a good impression.

  • Visual complexity — how complex the visual design of a website looks

  • Prototypicality — how representative a design looks for a certain category of websites

They found that users strongly preferred websites that appeared to have low complexity and high prototypicality — in other words, websites that looked easy to use and looked similar to other websites they are familiar with. Furthermore, users need both together to create a consistently good impression.

Most consumers come to ecommerce websites with an existing idea of how they function and look. For beauty and lifestyle brands, with web savvy and visually fickle consumers, a poorly or even an unexpectedly designed website can turn away potential customers.

Eye tracking results of users in seconds

3. Know What Forms the First Impression by Following the Eyes

An eye tracking study at Missouri University explored where users spent their viewing time in assessing a new website:

  • Site’s main image: 5.94 seconds

  • Written content: 5.59 seconds

  • Footer: 5.25 seconds

  • Logo:  6.48 seconds

  • Navigation Menu: 6.44 seconds

  • Search box: Just over 6 seconds


“Thus, our study provides an evidence that users care for how and where the website can be navigated followed by body of the homepage. The quantitative results from interview also indicate that users’ first impressions are highly affected by several design factors like use of colors, font types and size, use of images, easier navigation and so on.”


Knowing this pattern makes it essential that these elements be well designed and clear on your website. Good design must clearly demonstrate to the user where they are, what’s there, and where they can go. For most ecommerce sites, this means making products and their benefits front and center.

4. First Impressions Are Stubbornly Difficult to Change

The cliche, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” is now supported by recent psychological research. After people have created a bad first impression, they will remember positive impressions as “exceptions to the rule” rather than re-write their initial impression.


“The first impression will dominate regardless of how often it is contradicted by new experiences.” 

— Bertram Gawronski


While it’s tempting to focus on developing the product and skimp on “extras” such as design, a poorly designed website can actually hurt your brand — even long after it has been replaced. If the design is giving a negative impression or seems suspicious, cheap, or unprofessional, you not only lose a sale but will have a lot of work later to change the customer’s mind.

To make a long story short, great products are not enough. Consumers implicitly trust brands that have invested in design — whether they are conscious of it or not.

Good design tells your users that you care about them. That you are willing to invest in your brand. That your products don’t represent a race to the lowest price but stands for quality. 

Good design differentiates extraordinary brands. It makes your website feel trustworthy and encourages visitors to stay and become buyers, buyers to return and become fans.

How does your website stack up?

When Is It Time For Your Brand To Invest In Design?

Knowing the right time to invest in design is something I see a lot of start-ups and entrepreneurs struggling with. Of course as a designer, I’d first like to say that it’s never a bad time to have great design! However I also know when you’re first starting out and have a concept, a limited budget and a million things to do to get your idea off the ground, it’s a balancing act.

I recently spoke with a group of agency owners and the conversation turned to how the design industry is becoming commodified with services such as Fiverr, 99Designs, and Upwork. Most see it as a threat to our industry and want to fight against it.

However I take a different view. I think for brands just starting out, these services can be a simple way to get a brand going and a site up quickly, test out your concept with a MVP (minimum viable product) and see if you can start building traction. I actually think it’s a reasonable approach if you are starting with very limited funding.

The problem is if your brand starts getting traction and growing, you’ll eventually find that the design is holding you back. Knowing when this happens can be tricky. 

It’s is often hard for customers to articulate that it’s the design that's turning them away from your brand. Likely they won’t put their finger on the design — they just know something feels a little off, they are mistrustful and aren’t clear about the value of the product. Distributors and retailers might be more savvy and pinpoint the design but only if you’ve done a good job convincing them on the value of the product elsewhere.

Comments I’ve hear from clients in this phase include:

  • We get a lot of traffic from a PPC ad campaign but they bounce when they hit our site.
  • The retailer loved our product but we need better packaging before they’ll work with us.
  • We’re not able to raise the price-point because of low perceived value.
  • We sell really well at other retailers but our own site seems to drive away customers.
  • We want to move into the luxury market but our brand looks like it was made in our kitchen.
  • We have a good number of loyal customers but have trouble converting new customers.
  • We want to go international but the consultant said we have to improve our branding first.
  • The profit margin from selling on our own site is great but the site doesn’t convert well.

If any of these sound familiar, it might be time to invest in up-leveling your design.

Once have proven product, traction and a budget, it’s crucial to improve your designs ASAP. With growing, you’ll have increasing numbers of customers making first impressions of your brand and you want to make sure it’s a good one (I wrote a whole blog post on that over here). 

You’ll also start having more distribution opportunities and believe me, Sephora does not allow poorly designed packaging into their stores. There’s little worse than trying to redesign a brand while a major retailer is waiting. 

Great design also communicates value and allows you to target specific price points and markets. For instance, if you want to make the jump from masstige to prestige, you’ll want to take a second look at your design and make sure it conveys that value.

Finally good design builds trust which leads to a wide range of benefits from engagement on social media and email sign-ups to higher conversion rates.

I frequently talk with business owners and entrepreneurs who threw together quick DIY branding or website to get their concept off the ground, however find that it’s holding them back as they try to up-level their business.

If you feel like that’s you — let’s figure out how to up-level your brand and move your empire ahead.

Life, Joy and Renewal: Greenery, Color of the Year 2017

Like most designers, I have a love-hate relationship with Pantone’s color of the year. Sometimes it seems to capture the spirit of the moment so perfectly, it acts as a visual metaphor for the whole year. Other times it feels out of step or even a bit dated.

However, this year Greenery feels like a perfect choice.

It is a color of nature and nurturing — or “nature’s neutral” as Pantone refers to it. It feels like a deep breath, a reserve of lush optimism and hopeful renewal. It’s about healthy living — both eating green and environment.

Some reviewers feel like this vibrant green is already overdone with the omnipresent houseplants, monstera leaves and models peering out from behind plants that dominate on Instagram.

However it feels fluent as part of a national discourse. It avoids the politics of blue, red or even purple that’s so dominated the color conversation coming into 2017 but instead feels like a call for healing, growth and renewal. 

Designing the Holidays

Every year around the end of November we get calls from anxious ecommerce retailers who just saw a glorious spread of holiday games, gift sets and animated snowfall on their competitor’s website.

They want digital snow flurries too!

We excitedly start planning a beautiful, high-converting holiday microsite of gift finders, special sales and email’s going to be glorious! Then we look at the calendar. 

Suddenly the animated snowfall gets buried in logistical details like printer schedules, warehouse turnaround times and development timelines. While there’s always some holiday promotion you can squeeze in, the closer you get to the holidays, the more limited your scope will get — which is why planning ahead is so important. 

To give you some ideas, here are holiday-related projects which you can get started on today:  

1. Gift Sets

The holiday classic: specialty gift sets offer value and beautiful presentation.


2. Giftwrap

A more versatile and less expensive cousin to the gift set — gift wrap.


3. Holiday Microsites

Increase customer engagement with microsites built for the holidays with gift finders, games, and promotions.


4. GWPs

Creating gifts with purchase can incentivize customers and build brand loyalty.

5. Email Blasts

And if all else fails, there’s always time for an email blast or two! 

4 Tips on How to Work with a Designer

Hiring a designer to visualize your product, brand or idea can be nerve-wracking — there's a lot of lingo like creative-as-a-noun, moldboards and concepting which my spell-checker still doesn't fully approve of. Plus handing off your brand-baby to someone to design is a big, bold commitment. However it can also be  a deeply rewarding experience and in the current market, great design is making or breaking businesses. (I know that sounds dramatic but according to the the Design Management Institute's study,  in the past 10 years, design-driven companies outperformed the S&P 500 by 228%*)

After working with a range of clients the last 10 years, I was thinking over the experiences and wondering if there was a way to quantify what turns a design for-hire project into a great partnership between designer and client. 

Of course, at the core of any great project is great communication. It's hard to recreate magic, but here are 5 tips I’ve found helpful in creating better designer-client communications.

1. Think holistically 

I find the best designs usually come out of collaborations. Before we even get into the nitty-gritty of the design, I love hearing about your business, learning about your pain-points and what your goals are. I find the best situations usually come when I understand your needs at a deeper level and use that as a basis for the designs rather than skip over that and immediately get into the designs for the project. 


2. Set clear expectations

If there’s must-haves, must-not-haves, and other specific requirements, let me know upfront — even if they sound random or silly. (And if you have a specific example, those are solid gold.) It’ll save a lot of time and make everyone a lot happier in the long run. I'll also include that in the proposal and timelines so we don't hit any unexpected snags along the way.  


3. Explain your thought process behind changes

When we don’t understand the purpose of the change, and am just mindlessly moving things around per instructions, good design quickly turns bad.  Instead, please explain the problem you’re attempting to fix (ex. “The logo looks crowded”) and we can run from there. Or maybe you can't even articulate it but you feel like something is off — we can take it from there and offer alternatives. 

4. Don't be afraid to ask for clarification

If you’ve gotten an email from me nerding about CRO best practices or vectorized graphics or something else you aren’t quite sure about, feel free to ask. I try my best to keep away from Designer-ese but sometimes it slips in there.

Generally speaking, I've found the situations where I'm able to build trust and partnerships with clients to be the most rewarding both design-wise and personally. You understand your business and I understand design, let's go make something beautiful!