Photos vs. illustrations: what works better?

As a graphic designer, one question you come across often is deciding whether to use photography or illustrations in your designs. This important aspect of design helps to create work that’s both functional and beautiful. So what is better: photos or illustrations? The answer isn’t as simple as the question… Here are a few ways I determine what will provide the most impact when I design.

Who is my target audience?

Knowing your target can seem like an obvious approach on how to design projects, but it can also be a big determinate on whether to use photography or illustrations. Let’s start with something simple, like age. Say you have a younger audience: they might be more receptive to an illustrative style that creates a sense of whimsy. By using illustrations you can show things that simply do not exist in the real world and in doing so you can create a lighter or more fantasied reality. How about the older generations? I might use photography in order to instill a feeling of reliability. People tend to trust photography more because it gives an accurate representation and provides the viewer with more concrete details. Photography can feel more relatable than the imaginary qualities of illustrations. 

What is the product you are trying to sell? Is it tangible?

When advertising a tangible product, it is probably a good idea to use photography to represent that product. Photos are good for providing a visual description and conveying professionalism. Do you need photos to show consumers what it is they are purchasing? If the focus is something intangible like a service or concept, illustrations can be very helpful. For example—say you were to design a piece for a broad, generalized idea like leadership. What does that look like in a photo? That’s hard to come up with a single photo to capture the entire idea of leadership. Whereas illustrations allow you more flexibility on how to present this idea, giving you a wider range of possibilities.

What is the emotion? 

Being able to find the trigger points that will make people react the way you want to what they are seeing is extremely important. If you need a strong emotional pull, photos can help with that. This is because people connect with faces, and being able to see real-life faces in a design can trigger one’s emotion. If you’re going for a more logical feel, illustrations might be the way to go. Illustrations can help provide easy-to-understand imagery that is simple and to the point.

To sum it up

There is no right or wrong when it comes to using photography vs. illustrations, but there are some tools I use to help me decide which is best in order to elevate my designs. There is no exact science on whether to use an image or illustration, but as a designer, it is up to us to come up with a plan that will have the most visual impact.

And hey! Did you ever think about using both?


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