Photos vs. Graphics

I had submitted my graphic design draft to my agency’s marketing dept. for review. It was for a postcard asking people to take a bike survey online. Marketing called me back. “You already have red and green on it, so it’s going to be full color. Why don’t you use a photo? It’ll cost the same anyway,”

Why indeed? People of my generation and earlier grew up printed materials using graphic (i.e. hand drawn) design, rather than photos, since cameras and film were more expensive. Fewer people had cameras. It was cheaper to have someone draw illustrations. Most photos would be printed in black and white, because it was cheaper to print one or two colors, than the full CMYK spectrum. That’s why Look and National Geographic magazines were so much more popular back then; it was really a treat to see color photos in print, and given the expense, only good, strong photos were worth color publication.

Today, everyone has a digital camera, or camera phone, and color printers have become common-place, no longer a luxury. Print materials feature more photos: your church newsletter, real estate ads for homes, even the take out menu from your local taqueria. Photos are more quicker and more convenient, anyone can snap, and download; whereas few people can draw. Anything that’s done by hand is more expensive now. Besides photos are more data-rich, they include minute details, that would otherwise be painstakingly tiresome to capture by pencil.

But in a world where we’re so overbombarded with images, I’m actually sick of seeing photos used so rampantly. Now, I find graphics a relief; they’re simple, less busy and actually stand out from the mass of photos. I didn’t want my bike survey postcard to be camouflaged in the pile of junk mail most people receive. Besides, I don’t know how a photo could better express the idea of a “bike survey” than a rain of question marks over frolicking green bicycle logos under the recognisable red sun of my agency’s logo.

Photos would take a lot of work and time using software to airbrush superflous details. Graphics are more powerful precisely because you start with a blank page, and draw only the minimum details you need to convey your message: You can easily tailor and manipulate, exagerate or omit. Look at the first generation of iPod ads; dancing black silhouttes with the white iPods popping out against a solid candy-coloured background (Apple continued the the trend they learnt from seeling those tangerine and turquoise iMacs!) How powerful, attractive and recognisable those ads were! (The current ads are less potent: the people are in grey-scale and you can see more details of what they’re wearing which is distracting.)

My eyes are relieved and soothed by the simplicty and elegance of graphics. Plus, I appreciate hand-made things more now; that goes for drawings too ( I would include graphic designs created on computer as ‘hand-drawn’.). It’s a talent/ skill that’s sadly becoming less in demand now. Drawing takes more time, and costs more money.

At my previous job, we had to come up with instructions on how to hang your bike using the hooks in our new light-rail cars. I tried to convince my marketing department that those instructions should be drawn graphically. But it was cheaper, easier and quicker to take photos. The photos however, were very busy-looking, because they included all the details of the hardward of the bike rack configuration. For our intended users, it was hard for them to see what they should be looking at in the photos, and most of them were too frustrated to learn how to use the bike hooks from our instructions. Graphics would have explained it better, because you could draw only the parts needed, and people would have picked up the concepts more quickly, withot having to filter out the ‘noise’ in the photos.

In brochures, most photos are murky dark or overly washed out snapshots. I guess that’s why professional photographers use lots of bright lights and reflective shades/umbrellas, so that those photos we see in print look the way they would in real life . . . when our eyes and brain filter and manipulate the light and shadows of what we see, and how we see it.

I’ve been influenced by reading so many graphic novels lately. Graphics can convey movement and emotion with a few quick strokes that’s really hard to achieve in photos. You can show how fun and friendly bicycling is, with spinning wheels hurtling through the breeze. In photos, bikes are frozen standing still. With the black tires and metal rims, they look aggro.

I wish I could draw.

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One thought on “Photos vs. Graphics

  1. I do agree with you about graphics over photos, but there are times when the immediacy of digital photos comes in handy.

    We have a friend who is notorious for taking pictures at weddings and then never sharing the photos with anyone. He admits to having a box full of photos that he alone has probably ever seen. Now he has a digital camera, and we are able to see his photos on his camera display immediately after he has taken the photo (if we are so interested).

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