web design blog | social media

Five Design Rules for Social Media Visuals.

Andreas Alanis, 3rd December 2020. updated: 11th July 2022
The parade of social media platforms is ever-changing, and the variety of visuals is even more difficult to keep up with. At least in layman’s terms, it can almost seem as though any rules for designing graphics and visuals change as soon as they’re set in place. But even though trends come and go, there are definitely some parameters that you must know in order to design social media visuals that have a real impact. These rules range from the practical to the creative, and govern the usefulness and significance of visual design for social media platforms, regardless of the purpose of the visual. Let’s take a look first at why visuals are such a vital part of any presence on social media, and then jump in to the hard and fast rules about design.

If you’re like 65% of people surveyed, you’d much rather go with the graphic. The majority of us are what are called “visual learners,” in that we process, understand, and retain information better and faster if it is in visual form, as opposed to written or oral form. So graphics already have a natural advantage as far as effectiveness in reaching an audience.

Keep branding front and center

Designing social media visuals isn’t a one-and-done type of endeavor. It’s tempting to create cookie-cutter visuals just so you can keep your posting level up, but in the end, that’s severely detrimental to your reputation.

At the same time, branding is an important consideration. Whether you’re creating content for a business or your own personal branding efforts, branded visuals are a must. And consistency is a key element of that. So how do you walk that fine line between consistency and repetition?

● Be true to your style. This doesn’t mean that every piece of visual content has to look like every other piece. There’s a lot of room for variety within any given style.
● Use branded visuals like your company logo or name within the larger visual.
● Don’t be tone-deaf. Stick to your brand personality.
● Include familiar branded elements like brand colors and previously used fonts.

Sizing and layout

We’ll get this one out of the way quickly, since it’s a very basic rule for visual design. But just because it’s basic doesn’t mean you can ignore it!

You probably already know that different social media posts visuals in different ways. But you may not be aware of the wide variety of types, and the exact specifications that social media platforms require in order to post a high-quality image.  It’s tempting to just create an awesome visual and upload it across all the platforms. But that’s a recipe for disaster, visually speaking.

Here are the latest May 2022 size specs for social media visuals by platform:

Guidelines for social media image sizes

● Facebook
○ Profile photo: 170x170px, thumbnail will show at 32x32px
○ Cover photo: 820x312px
○ Shared image: 1200x630px
○ Stories: 1080x1920px

● Twitter
○ Profile photo: 400x400px, displays 200x200px
○ In-stream photo: At least 440x220px

● Instagram
○ Profile photo: 320x320px
○ Photo: 1080x1080px, thumbnails show as 612x612 px and in feed as 510x510px
○ Stories: 1080x1920px

● LinkedIn
○ Personal profile photo: 400x400 px
○ Cover Photo: 1128x191px
○ Shared image: 1200x627px

Your platform's demographic

Most of us stick to one or two main social media platforms for our own personal use. It’s hard enough to make it attentively through an Instagram feed, without trying to also add in five or six other feeds on top of it.

Perhaps due to that tendency, there’s a definite trend in demographic use for each social media platform.

For example, 94% of internet users between the ages of 18 and 24 surveyed use YouTube, whereas only 25% of that same age group use LinkedIn. 41% of users over the age of 65 use Facebook, but only 10% of that age group are also on Instagram.

There’s a lower percentage of older adults on social media in general, but there’s a large gap between the percentage that use YouTube and Facebook (40-68%) and the percentage that uses Pinterest, Snapchat, and Twitter (8-15%).

Facebook has a higher use rate among women (at 74%) than it does among men (only 62%). And men in general tend to use social media at a lower rate than women do, with the exception of YouTube (75% of men surveyed, and 72% of women).

What does this all boil down to?

Depending on the platform you’re designing for, your visuals can be aimed at a certain demographic in order to be the most effective. This means that there will likely be a different approach to your visual for Instagram, for instance, than your visual for Facebook.

This isn’t an uncommon piece of knowledge; it’s actually more unusual to see the same visuals across several platforms. Graphics are usually adapted at least to some degree. A good example, even within a single platform, is the case of Netflix. An algorithm chooses the display image for movies and shows based on searches, preferences, and demographic information.

Each visual design for social media can be carefully leveraged for maximum impact depending on the likely demographic of the platform.

Create compelling content

What motivates you? Is it beautiful visuals? Actionable instructions? Jaw-dropping statistics?

Whatever motivates you is very likely to motivate others as well. Finding the inherent motivation within a visual is a key part of creating compelling content. That means that it’s important to know what the point of your visual is, before you unleash it on the world via your chosen social media account.

Each visual should have a goal. Whether it is to entertain or educate, beautify or brand, motivate or elevate, a good visual is a forward-moving visual: it sticks with the viewer because it carries a message.

A vital component of designing effective, memorable social media visuals is knowing that goal and designing accordingly. Without a solid basis, each piece of visual design that you create is left empty, pointless beyond sheer aesthetic. But designing your content around the central point is what fills it with a sense of purpose and allows it to communicate that purpose to the viewer. First, find out what motivates you as the designer; then design in a way that lets your audience in on the secret.

Regardless of the brand you’re creating visuals for, the goal is all-important: first know the why, and then you can figure out the how. The good news is, social media is clearly here to stay. And as long as there are platforms out there that beg for visual content, there will always be plenty of room to exercise your creativity and experiment with visual design.

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