Today, most first impressions are made online not in person.

Social media profiles are the new business cards. Don’t get me wrong, business cards are still an incredibly important part of your branding and marketing. But with over 2 billion social media profiles between Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus alone, your chances of being noticed online have multiplied considerably.

Think about how many business cards you have, and how many you have handed out — maybe a few hundred over the course of a year? Now think about how quickly a few hundred people can view your online profile. Knowing that, it’s pretty important that the image you’re putting out there is one you’re proud of and is a great representation of you, your business, and what you do.

It’s just as Digital Royalty founder Amy Jo Martin says:

“Social media is the ultimate equalizer. It gives a voice and a platform to anyone willing to engage.”

Whether you’re a freelancer or a large company, there’s a world of people out there willing to engage with you and your business—so what’s their impression of you going to be? Are you ready for a crash course in banner design and how to put your best image forward? Let’s get started!

01. Know your “why”

If you’re like most people, you spend a good portion of your day interacting in social media. So going back to first impressions: if you’re a business, your social media channels can be the first look clients and customers get of you and your services. These days, banners aren’t only your online business card, they’re billboards and advertisements. They don’t just look pretty, they’re sales and marketing tools with lots of engagement. Plus, they’re free!

As you know, every platform from Facebook to Google+ has a space for a banner. This is where new followers will find you and after that, they’ll most likely only interact with you in their feed so it’s important to use this space wisely. Leaving them blank or not putting much thought into them is a huge missed opportunity to connect with future clients or customers. But what should you include?

First, creating content for your banners should most definitely include your branding

If you’re a business — small or large — your images should most definitely match your branding. If you’re just starting a business, start with branding yourself first, then carry it over to social media. Don’t let social media determine your message, let it get your message out. If you need some help getting started with your brand message, check out How To Build A Brand In 5 Days.

You could use photography from your website, possibly include your logo and you should keep your fonts and colors consistent. These cover images don’t all have to be an exact clone of each other but they should definitely be a cohesive family. That’s a sure sign of good branding.

Product launch strategist Farideh Ceaser’s branding is fun, colorful and has lots of energy. Her message and theme carry across from her website to Twitter and to Facebook.

farideh

Second, using banners will get the word out if you’re having an event

If you’re having an event such as a sale or webinar, banners are a great way to convey that message to anyone that visits one of your profile pages. These can be cover images, Facebook posts or Instagram images. A BuzzSumo/Canva study looked at 100 million Facebook posts over the last three months and found those without an image had 164 interactions on average (shares, likes, comments) while those with an image had an average of 372 interactions.

These banners should also match your branding and include the same type of photography, graphics, fonts and colors and your family of banners. The banners for the Ragnar Relay races tout their races with the use of great fonts and photography.

ragnar

02. Establishing your theme

Having a blank canvas can be quite daunting to some people. What should you fill it with? A photo, your logo, text, or a combination of all three?

Start with your message

  1. You know your business and what you offer but what kind of client or customer are you looking to attract?
  2. Do you want to showcase a particular aspect of your business? If you’re a web designer, do you want to highlight that you do custom coding or that you’re a Wordpress expert?
  3. Do you have an existing tagline or unique sales message?

Drapper Fox Design’s message is clear and concise. You know right away she’s a designer specializing in branding.

dapperfoxdesign

What’s your unique image?

Do you want the photo to be the product you create or sell such as soaps, clothing or shoes? Melissa Durham Photography uses her wedding photography as a clean, simple image and you immediately see her style of work.

melissadurham

Designer Liz Grant uses one of her own illustrations for her image.

lizdesignsthings

Let your personality shine through

Should your message be serious or playful?

Mariah Coz’s cover image below quickly reveals she’s bold and full of life with her use of words, fonts and color. Or take look here at how some other brands that have successfully used playfulness and have let their energetic spirit shine.

femtrepreneur

Stay on brand

If you already have existing branding on your website and other business materials, make sure you carry that look over to your social media.

What’s the main theme of your website? Do you have a tagline?

Put together a library of the images you’ve used for your website so you can try different images to see what grabs attention, which ones fit the space appropriately, and which ones are consistent with your other marketing materials. This does not mean taking exactly what you have on your website header and sticking it on the blank template. Each platform has a different size or each profile photo is superimposed in different places over your main cover image.

Facebook also has a call to action button so you may want to think of a clever way to draw attention to that.

Need some inspiration?

If you’re still stuck on an idea and need some inspiration, click around Facebook, Google+ and Twitter to see what others are doing. Take notes on what some of your favorite brands are creating and what you like or don’t like about each one. Or you could head on over to a couple of our Design School articles — we’ve done our homework and narrowed it down to 50 creative Facebook covers and 50 beautiful Twitter banners that will get your creative juices flowing.

03. Getting technical

With the variety of social media channels come a variety of sizes for cover images.

Knowing each channel’s specifications will help you determine how each cover image should be designed so you aren’t covering up pertinent information or the best part of your image. Check out The Complete Social Media Image Size Guide to see the specs for each channel and how the parts work together. Make notes of which channels to you need to create banners for.

These channels have limitations, though. Each one has overlapping parts such as the profile photos in Twitter and Facebook. Google+ has a faded box on the left side of the image. Previously, getting the image to fit correctly was a try-it-and-see kind of game but Canva’s built in a simulation of each of those obstacles into their templates so you immediately see which parts of your banner will be obscured and how you can work around it.

Each channel also has its own limitations and restrictions for images such as you must own the images you use. Please refer to each platform’s guidelines if you’re concerned about violating their terms.

04. Designing your banners

So, now you know what your message is, what you’d like to include for an image and what channels you need banners for so let’s review some design concepts before we begin designing our own banners.

Photos

If you don’t use any photos on your website or don’t have a library of images to use, start by looking for photos that match your brand and style. For example, don’t choose a vintage image if you sell contemporary furniture.

Designer and creative director Jessica Walsh’s banner image is her own photo. It clues us in on her work space and what kind of environment influence her designs.

jessicawalsh

Next, find a photo that has some point of interest, whether it’s perspective, colors or subject.

DesignLoveFest uses a festive close-up of pieces that include her brand colors.

designlovefest

Use your own photos if you have them, but make sure they’re high-resolution and have good lighting. Compile a photo library of photography that matches your branding so you have them for future banners.

Marketer Kaye Putnam has a great lifestyle photo of her at work that’s a little more interesting than showing her working at a desk.

kayeputnam

Look at cropping photos to make them more dramatic and interesting.

Luxury lifestyle blogger Franki Durbin crops way in on her collage of designer products. This makes everything more dramatic and interesting, while creating great lines and showing off nice pops of color. If she had zoomed out, the photo would look busy and uninteresting because you wouldn’t be able to read the labels. As a luxury blogger, that adds credibility to her own branding.

frankidurbin

When taking your own photos, first zoom way out to include everything and then you can crop in when you’re designing the banners. It’s better to start with more than with not enough. Keep in mind when taking photos that most of the banner templates are horizontal; but if you have vertical photos, you can try a collage for your banner images. We’ll discuss that when we start on design below.

Colors

Again, these should match your logo and any other branding you’ve created. When you create your personal brand you should also create brand guidelines that include: one, what fonts and colors are to be used for your brand; two, what style of photography; and three, how you logo should and shouldn’t be used. This is keep you consistent with all materials you create for yourself.

Using contrasting colors is a great way to be dramatic and bold. Style blogger Make Me Stylist uses bright reds and greens with lots of white to add lots of contrast.

makemestylist

Or go bright and bold if it matches your message and your personality. The Happier app uses lots of bright, bold colors that make you feel exactly that – happier.

happier

Select one or two colors from your photo and use them for shapes and fonts. You could also use primary or tertiary colors or tints of a color to add depth and dimension.

The Awesomeness Fest pulls reds and yellows from their illustration to use as text boxes.

awesomeness

Another option is to go black and white for drama and intrigue. Author Chris Guillebeau adds lots of interest with the black and white banner behind his color profile photo.

chrisguillebeau

If you need more color inspiration, check out 100 Brilliant Color Combinations: And How to Apply Them to Your Designs.

Fonts

Selecting fonts can be fun but there’s a limit to how many you should use. Start by selecting your main “headline” font. This could be big, bold or script-y, just remember that this will be your predominant font.

Author Meghan Telpner keeps it simple with one font in varying weights to offset her intricate background.

meghantelpner

Next, choose a contrasting font for your subheads or secondary text. If you’ve used a serif or script font for the heading, select a san serif font for the secondary text. Or go with a contrast of bold and light fonts.

The banner for fitness personality Amy Clover uses a contrast of large and small text with light and bold font weights.

stronginside

There should be a hierarchy to the text. The most important text should be larger than secondary information. You want the viewer’s eye to move around and follow the path you’ve created for them. Creating contrast eliminates monotony and adds interest.

Fitness site For The Glow uses a larger serif font as the attention grabber and a script font for the tagline.

fortheglow

Keep text to around 30% of the image space so you drawn attention to the text and don’t overwhelm the viewer’s eye. You want to balance the background, photos and text so your message has enough white space to stand out and be read.

Blogger and designer Melyssa Griffin’s banner pulls your eye right to the center and then off to the secondary information to the right with a great use of diagonal lines, script font and text in colored boxes.

nectar

For more tips on using fonts read 10 tips on how designers combine them.

Composition

Rule one: have a focal point. To draw a viewer’s attention there should be an immediate focal point your banner. It can be a subject in your photo, perspective lines, a blank space of sky or a block of color. If it’s a simple photo, then a graphic should be the focus. Maybe it’s a circle with your sale information or your logo.

Podcaster Emily Thompson’s banner has a clear focus with the viewer’s eye going in exactly one direction.

emily

Second: mind the flow. You can direct how your viewer reads your banner by creating a flow with text, directional lines of a photos or using lines or arrows or making important information larger than other text.

The banner for storyteller Brene Brown draws your eye from her profile photo to her name and using the diagonal line of the paper, leads you to her quote.

brenebrown

Third: remember the rule of, well, thirds. One basic of photography is using this composition technique. The basic principle is that you create a grid of nine squares when looking either through your camera’s lens or in your working template and putting the point of interest where lines intersect. Digital Photography School says “Studies have shown that when viewing images that people’s eyes usually go to one of the intersection points most naturally rather than the center of the shot – using the rule of thirds works with this natural way of viewing an image rather than working against it.

Author Denise Duffield-Thom’s banner uses almost exactly a third of the image space for just her photo. There’s no doubt about where you eye should go and who’s the focus of the page.

deniseduffield

And fourth: make it simple. Less is always more and makes your message stand out. The banner for Virgin Hotels does exactly that.

viginhotels

For more tips on knowing when your design works, read these design rules.

05. Take your design a step further

Banners don’t have to be just a photo or text. Look at ways to create more interest or surprise people with combining photos and illustrations or use photos as letters as in this banner for singer Katy Perry. They’ve used a photo of her for the A.

katyperry

Tumblr uses an illustration that creates a playful pattern and contrast.

tumblr

Lovely Letters Press superimposes illustration over photography to create whimsy.

lovelyletters

Kayla Hollatz PR drops in some handwriting over her styled photography which adds a soft, friendly touch.

kayla

Your photography doesn’t always have to be horizontal just because the template space is. The banner for Richard Branson groups three photos together which shows glimpses of who he is and his personality.

richardbranson

06. Creating other banners

Now that you have a look for your profile banners, you’ll want that to carry over to a variety of other banners you might need.

Other usage: While your profile cover images should be the same, your other social media images should blend — but they don’t have to match perfectly. If you’re having a sale and want to use Instagram or Facebook images, you should keep the same font for your company name but you can select other similar photos so you create a family of images for your brand.

This example of a Facebook ad matches the previous example of Farideh Caesar’s banner images above.

faridehad

Lastly, a few words on frequency: You want to create a consistent image so you need to have a plan for changing your banners. Creating new banners on a whim will quickly confuse your audience so having a plan in place is a great idea. When and why you should change your images:

  • When your branding has had a redesign
  • If your company is seasonal
  • If you’re highlighting an event

Now you should now have lots of great ideas brewing and be inspired to get to work on your new images. Review these steps once again and gather your inspiration file to get a feel of what works and what doesn’t. Once you’ve gotten a good feel for the process, get started on creating beautiful banners. You should be on your way to having a family of beautiful, branded banners.

Read more articles from Karen DeFelice

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