Web page graphics don’t need to be excellent

Web page graphics are important; they help us get a sense of the organisation of a page, they help us pay attention to specific ideas and they give us a feeling for the kind of website we are on. Even if you are not a visual thinker, graphics on a web page help you process the information because of the signals they provide in terms of the kind of website, its professionalism and its organisation.

Is clip art too old fashioned for web page graphics?
Is clip art too old fashioned for web page graphics?


Over the years people have tried to move away from rather old-fashioned clip-art in favour of more professional web page graphics. Indeed, when you ask people to comment on a web page that contains clip-art their usual initial comment is that the site “feels old”. Even if it is brand new, clip-art can make a site look tired and old. That is a problem because the over-riding desire for information on the web is for new stuff. If a web page suggests it is old with its graphical content, people may not even get past that barrier and will not read the content even if it is brand new.

Web page graphics need to reflect the current fashions

Graphic designers, of course, understand this issue well and keep up-to-date with fashions in web page graphics so that their designs are always fresh and relevant to the time. However, new research from Ohio State University suggests that we may not need to pay for excellence in graphics. It appears we can understand images from even the most basic information. In fact the study revealed that we “fill in the gaps” ourselves if a complete picture is not there. For instance, if we are presented with a line drawing instead of a full colour image, our brains can still interpret the information and understand it well. More importantly, if 75% of the pixels in those line drawings are removed, we still understand the image and brain scans show we process it in the same way as a full colour image.

The Whitehouse as an example of web page graphicsThe White House pencil drawing - web page graphics

In other words, our brains appear to work to interpret an image based on the best information available. If it is a rich, colour, detailed image our brains interpret that material. But if the information available to our brain is less detailed, partially complete and only in black and white, we fill in the gaps and interpret the image that way. For website owners it suggests you might not need to pay for really expensive, detailed colour images. Something less detailed, less complex will do – the brains of your visitors will fill in the gaps. If you look at the pictures of the White House (above) you’ll see that even though the line drawing contains much less detail than the colour picture, you still know what it shows. Indeed, if I hadn’t included the colour image you will have filled in the grass, the sky and so on.

What this all tells us is the fact that web page graphics can be relatively straightforward. You do not need to have to budget large amounts, go for the most complex or most brilliant artwork. All you need are graphics that do the job.

Of course, the “job” might be professional appeal, freshness and so on – but that is more an aesthetic matter than anything else. If your website designer is suggesting you need brilliant, complex (aka: expensive) web page graphics – think again. This research suggests that simple could be just as good.

Web page graphics don't need to be excellent 1

8 thoughts on “Web page graphics don’t need to be excellent”

  1. Graham I have been playing with a similar concept on my blog during the past week and one aspect that hadn’t occurred to me before is that Google allow you to search for only black and white images.

    This means that if you are publishing a picture of something common on the internet where it would normally be lost on something like page 9 to 900 of Google there are actually so few black and white images on the internet it comes up much nearer the top.

    This seems to happen even when you do a normal image search, Google also have something that finds visually similar images, I haven’t quite worked out exactly how this works.

    Anyway reading your post I thought what I am up to could interest you, so I thought I would draw your attention to it.

    • Hi Michael

      Many thanks for your comment – that is interesting; I wonder why Google are preferring black and white images. I'll take a look at a few examples myself and see if I can work anything out. Very interesting – thanks.

      Kind Regards


  2. Graham I have just put a pencil sketch of David Cameron up, couldn’t think of anyone likely to have a higher fairly recent prominence in the UK, I haven’t enhanced it at all so it is very feint greyscale.

    I am now sitting back to see what the great Google machine makes of it, although it picks up text almost immediately, images usually take about 24 hours.

    There seems to be some relationship between image size and Google ranking too and a really bizarre function where you get an opportunity to search similar images.

    I put up a sketch of Tracey Emin on Sunday, I enhanced this one a bit to make the pencil lines stand out and that is slowly making it’s way up the Google rankings.

    There is definitely some relationship between image format and ranking, I think.

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