When it comes to design, photography is a fundamental tool that every design puts to work at some point. What I want to dissect here is not the trends in actual photography, but rather trends in the way photographs are used and manipulated in web design.
Some of these trends are obvious and well known, others are frequently used and seldom discussed. I have found that when many trends on the same topic are collected into one set we find that we have stronger opinions than expected on the topic. Also, it seems that when we see trends like this compared to each other we discover that the approach we are using isn’t the best and can replace it with a better one.
1) Super sized backgrounds
The first trend I want to consider is among the most popular. Below is a set of sites that make use of very large background photos. This is an approach that has literally been beaten to death. But that isn’t to say that it should be abandoned. Like all good trends it has its place. My mission when filling this section was to find sites that didn’t use the style as a crutch. Instead I wanted sites that used it with purpose, where the background photograph played a powerful roll in communicating the message of the site. Consider this as you browse these samples.
2) Backgrounds as foreground content
My favorite twist on the super sized background photo is when the designer cleverly uses a photograph as both a background and foreground element. In these designs the photograph fills in the background in a somewhat decorative way. And at the same time some element of the photograph is brought to the foreground. Most frequently this is accomplished using depth of field where a product or foreground element is in focus. This blending of viewing fields allows the photograph to create a sense of style, while the contents have a very real purpose in the actual content. This challenging approach requires planning and coordination with your photographer, but the results are among my favorite.
3) Monochrome photos
As designers the idea of “photoshoping” a photograph to fit our design style is not surprising. This sub set takes the idea to a radical end in one particular way. Here the designers have turned the photos into monochrome ones; in particular non black and white variations. While this might appear to be a mostly stylistic decision, I think there is more to it. Color can be used to set a tone and communicate subtle meaning. By leveraging a single tone in the photograph the designer can reflect that single emotion in the design. Blue feels safe, stable and corporate. Red feels vibrant, alive and energetic, and so on. By switching to a monochrome style the photographs take on a new type of communication through pure color.
4) Muted photographs
Collected here are examples of a style that we might think of as extremely popular, and to be fair it does feel trend and over used. And yet, when I go digging for examples of this style at work I have found that it isn’t nearly as popular as one might think. These sites are designed around muted photography. And more specifically then that these photos have a faded, almost vintage style to them. This is quite frequently combined with white text over the top of the photo (as can be found in all 5 samples here). This approach is actually quite frequently connected to the hipster style, which has been really popular in the last year. Finally, I was surprised to find that nearly every example I found in this style made use of decorative type faces in the text overlaid onto the photo.
5) Photography for tone and atmosphere
As a teacher I find myself getting onto students for certain things time and time again. One of those is related to how they use photography. Often times designers want to leverage decorative photos that don’t really directly communicate anything regarding the content of the site. For example, the first sample below is a portfolio site with a space photograph. It doesn’t say anything literal about the individual. I have had a rather rigid opinion of decorative photos like this in the past, and I have found that in exploring the use of photography more intensely those views have softened. And this is what I really love about dissecting trends; by doing so we can break down our assumptions and discover fresh new ways to craft our designs. These samples prove that a decorative photo establishing tone and atmosphere can be a meaningful part of a design’s success. Dig into these samples and see if you agree.
Finally I want to look at a set of sites that rely on photographs using knolling. Knolling is the process of aligning objects into parallel or 90 degree angles to create a sense of organization. This approach is a rather fringe and unique style that designers will seldom use. Again, the style is often associated with a hipster style of design, but there is more to it than that. These photographs reflect a meaning that goes beyond the contents of the photos themselves (which also have meaning of course). They hint at the qualities of those behind the photos, they suggest a sense of order, process and organization. These are all good qualities, especially when it comes to representing designers and agencies.
Photography is a natural tool in the designer’s tool belt. Hopefully by observing the many ways they are being used and the various styles that can be applied you will find fresh inspiration. And above all things, I hope this humble collection helps you find fresh ideas that inspire and challenge the work you do.