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Social Media Marketing for Business

Brooks Tiffany


September 12, 2014

The Secret to Stunning Visual Content

September 12, 2014 | By | 27 Comments">27 Comments

“Use high-quality, engaging images to make your brand stand out.” You may have read something like that before, and it’s the truth. But what exactly does that mean? What exactly is it that makes an image high-quality and engaging? Well, if you’re asking those same questions, you’re in the right place. Read on to find out the secret to stunning visual content.

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“A picture is worth a thousand words.” The old adage rings true for images around the world and the same goes for Facebook’s Newsfeed. Images are easier to digest, and posts that use them flat out perform better; we know that. It’s why photos account for a majority of Facebook content posted across the globe. And it’s why I’m going to focus on photos in this guide.

However, all images are not created equal. Not according to our eyes and not according to Facebook’s algorithm that curates the news feed. Perhaps some pictures are worth 10,000 words while others are worth just 50? Let’s not step into philosophical quicksand.

The point is, there’s something about certain images that makes them more appealing to us. Something that makes them stand out from the unruly crowd surrounding them. Something that captivates us and creates a visceral reaction. It’s so familiar yet we can’t quite put our finger on it…but the word beauty comes to mind.

But what is beauty? And how do we create it? Let’s find out.

The Golden Ratio

Artists, mathematicians, philosophers, and thinkers of all disciplines have been fascinated with the composition of beauty for thousands of years. At first, trying to figure out beauty might sound like a fool’s errand. But fortunately, for us and our scholars, it wasn’t. They realized early on that a certain ratio can be found all throughout nature, right down to the construction of our human bodies.

Generally speaking, the closer things are to this ratio, the more pleasing they are to our senses. We like what’s familiar and this ratio is the embodiment of familiarity. Simply put: ratio = familiarity = beauty.

Don’t be alarmed, just a little bit of math incoming to root out this ratio then we’ll be on our way. Our scholars came up with an algebraic expression to represent this “Golden Ratio,” or “Divine Proportion” with quantities a and where a > b > 0:


Below, the Greek letter phi (φ) represents the value of the golden ratio:


There you have it, 1.618 is nature’s number, but that doesn’t really help illustrate the golden ratio. Essentially, two quantities are golden if their ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. You can see this expressed geometrically below:


This relationship is intimately woven together with the Fibonacci Sequence (1,1,2,3,5,8,13…) in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. You can see the Fibonacci sequence illustrated geometrically as tiles below:

Fib Sequence

But what does this look like in nature? Check out the golden ratio’s logarithmic spiral below and how it’s woven with the Fibonacci tiles. You can see the relationship to the nautilus shell’s elegant spiral structure.

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Whether this is something that our species comes hardwired to love, or whether it was something we learned to prefer is unknown but we do know that it has been applied to our architecture, art, music and various other disciplines for thousands of years.

You can see the Fibonacci Spiral applied to the Mona Lisa below. It’s said that Da Vinci among other great artists used the golden ratio as a basis for their work. Notice the “sweet spot” on her nose. This sweet spot is the final destination for the eye.

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Use the Fibonacci spiral when composing an image. Your image should provide a natural, circuitous route for the eye to follow with a clear focal point (or sweet spot) for the eye to end up at. Use it to create the right amount of balance (or unbalance) depending on the goals of your image.

This “natural” composition is pleasing to the eye and will attract and retain the interest of more viewers. Remember that you don’t want your viewers to have to work to “see” your image! They should just see it.

While the Fibonacci Spiral is a great tool to use, it can understandably be confusing and may not always be a feasible option when composing an image or taking a photograph. Luckily for us, someone realized this a while ago: enter the “phi grid”

The Phi Grid

The Phi Grid takes the sweet spot of the golden ratio and places it four times into a grid. The ratio of these boxes to one another is 1: .618: 1. Each intersection of the center rectangle is a sweet spot and can be used as a foundation when taking a photograph or editing an image.

I’ve placed the Phi Grid over the photograph below. Notice the balance achieved with the horizon at the top line and the vineyard contained with the middle portion. The sun sits in the top-right while the shadows it casts reach to the bottom-left.

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The Phi Grid is an extremely useful tool that will help you put the golden ratio to use when taking a photograph or editing an image. Use it to harmonize your image or create tension when necessary.

I’ve made a phi grid available for you to download here. Simply place it over an existing image and size it accordingly.

The Phi Grid may not be for everybody, though. Some people may not have the tools handy to create a perfect 1 to 1.618 ratio and would rather not wrack their brains trying to figure it out. This is where the simplest and most widely applied principle in photography comes in – last but not least: the “rule of thirds.”

The Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is the easiest way to set your image up for success. Well known by photographers, this little trick is like a golden ratio short cut. Instead of bothering about the .618 ratio, you just divide the frame into 9 equal grids for a ratio of 1:1:1.

While it may not be as spot on as the Fibonacci spiral or phi grid (some would argue that it appears a little too staged instead of natural) – it’s still a widely accepted principle.

With the rule of thirds, you simply try to align the focal point of your image using the sweet spots and use the grid-lines to help balance your image. Notice the horizon along the top, the ocean in the middle, the beach at the bottom, and the woman directly in line with the right-side sweet spots.

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I’ve also made a rule of thirds grid available for you to download here. Just place it over your image and size it accordingly.

Grids and Frames

Not every image will lend itself to the golden ratio grids. So, It’s worth noting that if you are working with other types of graphics (such as info-graphics, text-overlaying backgrounds, or multiple images combined,) grids and frames are the way to go when designing your image. Not the phi grid or rule of thirds grid necessarily, but a similar principle – grids nonetheless.

Grids and frames will provide a scaffolding to balance your images in interesting ways and really make your text pop. The image below makes phenomenal use of this principle.

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Use any of the above golden “rules” to ensure your image has a solid foundation. Whatever your goal may be, the golden ratio and its derivative grids are the ultimate guide to crafting an image.

Now, let’s look at some of the other elements to build into your image.

Tell a Story

Remember how many words a picture is worth? In the social media battleground, you only have a few seconds to connect with the audience. Make the most of those few seconds by telling a story. By doing so you connect with the viewer on an emotional level.

Is your story is about love, safety, freedom, or hunger? Getting a visceral reaction from the viewer is a sure-fire way to make a strong connection. This visceral connection taps into the survival instincts of the viewer which in turn fires all sorts of synapses associated with memory.

Most likely your viewer won’t even realize what has just happened; they’ve just associated your image (and your brand) with some very important memories.

What story is the image below telling you? What emotions do you feel?

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What over-arching story is your brand trying to tell? The key is to be hyper aware of the story your image is telling and the emotions it’s evoking – align these with the goals of your brand.

Want to know which emotions inspire the most viewing and sharing? Take a look at “The Emotions That Make Images Go Viral,” an emotional behavior study done by Fractl.

Consistency is Key

Along with a consistent story, there are some other things you will want to consider keeping consistent in, or along with, your images. Not only will you want to attract and connect with the viewer, but you will want them to immediately recognize your brand.

Choose a color palette. If you haven’t already, choose a color palette that represents your brand’s personality. Keep in mind the range of emotions that different types of colors evoke in us and pick the ones that align with your brand’s message. A robust color palette is essential for brand recognition. Incorporate these colors as design elements in or around your images.

Own some fonts. Right along with the colors, you’ll want to have a few select fonts. Typography is an art form of its own and there are an endless supply of fonts at your disposal. Pick a font (or just a few) that reinforces your brand’s message and makes those fonts your own. Use these fonts consistently along with your images for instant brand recognition.

Experiment with photo filters. Chances are, you probably already have your colors and fonts worked out., but have you thought about a filter for your photos? Choosing the right filter can further help your photos be instantly recognizable across all social media platorms.

Just like your colors and fonts, filters evoke certain types of feelings. Choose a filter that compliments your brand’s colors and fonts. What mood is your brand trying to set? Are you old school? Or are you new and hip? Filters can help tell your brand’s story.

This infographic, designed by The Logo Company, does a great job of showing the colors and fonts employed by major brands. You can see how those brands own their colors and fonts.

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A Few More Helpful Tools

It’s now time to take the principles I’ve discussed and apply them to your visual content. If you’re wondering what kind of tools are available to help you find or edit images, we’ve got you covered

Personally, my current go-to for images is Pixabay. The Editor’s Choice images are fantastic! For editing, I mainly use Photoshop but Pixlr is a nice free alternative that gets the job done.

And for those of you rocking Facebook, image sizes are extremely important! Be sure to check out our Facebook Image Size Cheat Sheet to ensure that your beautiful images aren’t squandered by a size limitation.

Now Go Stun Them With Your Visual Content

Remember to use the golden ratio in your designs and put those grids to use! Don’t forget to tell a story and don’t be afraid to go after those visceral reactions – they form the strongest connections possible with the viewer. Do those things while keeping your brand colors, fonts, and filters consistent and you’ll soon have people asking you the secret to stunning visual content!

If you’re looking to put your awesome photos to use and launch a mobile optimized campaign that will drive engagement, email captures, and sales, click here to sign up, and we’ll show you how to launch one that converts at 10% or higher.

Tell us what you think and we may quote you in a future article:

Have you been using the golden ratio? What kinds of images capture your attention the most? Do you have any additional tips and tricks you’d like to share? I’d also love to hear your thoughts, questions, and comments below (and feel free to post your favorite images too!)


Brooks Tiffany


Brooks Tiffany is the Customer Engagement Leader and Technical Writer at Heyo in Blacksburg, VA. He's an Air Force veteran with a B.A. in English from Virginia Tech. He'll start pursuing an M.S. in Human Centered Design and Enginnering at the University of Washington this Fall.