Colors and Social Media Images: What Works
What makes someone stop scrolling their social media feed when they see your image?
What makes people care enough to engage with a post — like it, share it, comment on it?
When it comes to social media, telling what works is always problematic. What works today may not work tomorrow, and what works for one person may not work for someone else, even if their businesses look similar.
Besides, when too many people follow a trend or best practice, it stops working because it becomes a cliché, a drop in the sea of sameness.
There are just a few things you can rely on, no matter the current trends and algorithm changes. Things that don’t change so rapidly because their roots go much deeper than social media or the Internet as such.
One of them is the use of color.
In today’s post, we will talk about what works from a design and aesthetic perspective and what works on different social media platforms. These findings are not based on trends, but on how people perceive color and how they interact with different (digital) tools.
The thing is, colors have a lot to do with who we are as human beings and visual creatures — that’s why we can talk about universal principles.
Then again, there is no one right way to do it. Universal principles are one thing, but you also need to stay true to yourself and your brand.
So please, consider this post a source of inspiration rather than guidelines. It’s good to know what works in general and then do it your way.
“The best color in the whole world is the one that looks good on you.”
☞ This is the fourth part of the brand colors series. Here are the previous parts: Brand Colors 101
Considering design principles on social media
When designing visuals (or anything else), you always need to think about the environment your design is going to live in. Your visuals live in the context of your brand, but also in the context of the particular social media platform, where you can’t control, or foretell, what will surround them.
In the context of your brand, your visuals should, of course, be consistent — have the same style, theme, atmosphere, and a limited and harmonious color palette.
In the context of your audience’s social media feed, your visuals must stand out. To make them stand out, you need to consider:
- The platform: For example, blue and white don’t stand out so much on Facebook, because everything is blue and white there.
- Your “competition”: The color trends of your industry and other brands your audience members are likely to follow — you want to avoid industry clichés.
Look at this grid:
Which one of the images did you notice first? Which one jumped at you?
I guess it was #4. The reason is that it uses the highest contrast.
Contrast is the difference between colors, the ease with which you can distinguish them from each other. The highest possible contrast is between black and white, however, an absolute contrast doesn’t work well on social media — or the web as such.
When I show you the same image in grayscale, you can see more clearly which images have higher and lower contrast:
Images with higher contrast catch attention more easily than analogous combinations of colors (colors that are close to each other). It’s good to remember this principle when coming up with an image that needs to be noticed, such as a Facebook ad.
In Canva and other design tools, you can desaturate the image as I did above to see more clearly if the contrast is high or low.
Desaturating an image in Canva
We won’t go into details on how to create a color palette for your images this time, but for now, it’s good to know that a limited color palette always works better than using all the colors — no matter if we are talking about photos, graphics, or drawings and paintings.
Also, the color palette shouldn’t consist of random colors, but colors that are in harmony. Putting together a harmonious color palette is no alchemy or something you do based on your feelings; it’s a skill that anyone can learn. There are also many free tools to help you.
White space or negative space refers to the “empty” space between design elements (text, shapes, objects, etc.). White space doesn’t have to be white, it can be of any color.
Thanks to the white space, the other elements stand out. White space also allows some “breathing” room for the eye and helps you achieve an uncluttered, harmonious look.
Designing with white space takes some practice, but just keeping it in mind can make your images look way better.
“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”
What works on different social media platforms
Facebook: Bright and lively colors
According to the research, “Brightness, clarity, liveliness and ingenuity of images turned out to be positively associated with the number of [Facebook] Likes.”
So, to stand out on Facebook, especially if you use Facebook ads, use bright, vivid, warm colors, but don’t overdo it so that your images don’t look messy and cluttered. Use white space and neutral tones to make the bright colors pop.
Blue doesn’t help you stand out on Facebook because Facebook itself is blue. If you want to use blue (it’s part of your branding), use it, but add a warm color to your images, too.
Instagram: Light colors, texture, and white space
Visual analytics platform Curalate analyzed 8 million Instagram photos to find out what works on Instagram. According to their research:
- Lighter images work better than darker ones
- Images with a higher background ratio (more white space) work better than images with smaller or no background areas
- Images with blue as a dominant color get more likes than reddish images
- A single dominant color works better than a lot of colors
- Less intensive colors (low saturation) work better than vibrant colors
- Textured images work better than smooth ones
This research is more than 5 years old, but when you have a look at your Instagram feed, you can see it’s still relevant.
Instagram is the only platform where people see all your images in one place — your grid is the first thing they see when they check your profile. That’s why it’s important to consider the images and their colors in the context of your feed:
- Add white space to the grid, not just individual images. When you use a darker or a more cluttered image, surround it with lighter and less cluttered ones to allow some breathing space.
- Add color patterns to the grid: Repeat the same or similar colors in diagonal or other patterns.
- Consider color harmony: Put analogous colors (colors that are next to each other on the color wheel) next to each other in the grid.
Pinterest: Warm, feminine colors (red, pink, purple)
Pinterest is not a social media platform as such, but when talking about visuals, we should include it here.
Curalate has also done a Pinterest research and found out that on Pinterest:
- Multiple colors work better than a single dominant color
- Very dark or very light images don’t perform well
- Reddish images work better than blueish ones
- Images with less than 10% background (less white space) work better
- Desaturated (grayscale or black and white) images don’t work on Pinterest
- Smooth images work better than textured ones
As for Pinterest users’ preference for warm and feminine colors, this study confirms that red, purple, and pink images get more engagement than green, blue, and black ones.
This is just statistics, so take it with a grain of salt. What it shows us is that creating images specifically for the platform(s) you use (Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest,…) will always work better than creating universal images without considering the context.
Another thing you need to take into consideration is your branding: Your brand colors, brand personality, and the feeling you are trying to evoke. So another piece to the puzzle is creating a color palette for your images that works for your chosen platform and is in harmony with the colors you have already chosen.
And in case you haven’t chosen your brand colors yet, here are the previous parts of this series to help you: Brand Colors 101.
Creating images specifically for the social media platform where they are going to live is always better than creating “universal” images. This is doesn’t only apply on image sizes, but also their colors.
Each social media platform works in a different way, that’s why the use of white space, contrast, saturation, number of colors, and choice of colors work differently on different social media.
Social media images allow more room for experimentation that website colors, so please consider this a source of inspiration rather than guidelines. Learn what works in general so you can do it your way.
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