The entire reason behind a design is to influence people, to make them react in a desired way. The decision to use illustration or photography when designing a website or other marketing materials completely depends on the response that you’re looking for. What kind of emotions do you want to trigger? There are positive triggers like humor, intrigue, empathy, and arousal and negative ones like fear, greed, anger, and disgust. Which trigger you choose should depend on the product or service you’re promoting. For example, you may use humor for promoting a toy company where you would probably use fear for a life insurance company. Illustrations, which are more fun, work better with positive triggers, and photographs work best with negative triggers. Decision made.
Not so fast. While this is true most of the time, it’s not true for every situation. The answer to which sells better, illustration or photography, is much longer than that. They each have situations where they shine.
If you’re marketing something real, something tangible, you should use a real photograph of it. If people are buying a real thing, they want to see a real thing. An illustration would only make them skeptical. Certainly in e-commerce, you must use photographs. If you’re buying a watch, you want to see the watch first.
Photographs work better when adults are the target audience. Adults don’t have the same capacity for imagination as children, nor do they have the patience. If they’re looking at a website that provides a service, an HVAC company perhaps, adults want to see photographs of the employees and/or completed jobs. Photos are reliable. It makes the company more legitimate and credible, especially if you’re using real photos of real employees. People can spot a stock photo a mile away. While it may be fine for a blog post, trying to pass off stock photos as real employees just won’t cut it.
If the subject matter is serious, photos are usually a better choice. People won’t want to see a cute illustration of a bunny on a website for a funeral home. It can be even more subtle than that: use a photograph of real flowers on the site instead of illustrated ones. People who are looking for a funeral home want one that is trusted and serious. Photographs will earn their trust.
Good illustrations are better at exciting the imagination than photographs. They are better at telling a story, a journey that makes the audience want to tag along. Kids prefer illustrations. Their minds are comfortable with abstract ideas and things and they’re eager to come along on the journey.
For educational marketing, it’s almost always better to use illustration. It allows more details than photographs especially for medical or scientific marketing pieces or when you’re trying to show some data. Let’s face it, charts and numbers are a real snoozefest. In an illustration, you can bring the numbers, and your audience, to life. Say it’s for a company that sells hiking boots and they want to show a graph of how their sales have increased over the years. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Now take that same graph, make it a mountain and put a couple of hikers climbing the mountain with their dog, and you’ve created a memorable graphic that conveys the same message without putting the audience to sleep. Infographics are a great way to engage customers.
So which is better for web design and marketing, illustration or photography? The short answer: it depends.