Professional service websites have an image problem
“Pictures of handshakes, global maps and smiling team members send a strong, unintended message that the professional service firm deploying them is dull, unimaginative and undifferentiated.”
There are sound business reasons that professional service companies adopt a conservative look and feel for their websites. There’s good evidence that blue inspires trust and the average senior partner is unlikely to favour a flash-animated gibbon swinging across his homepage.
That said, pictures of handshakes, global maps and smiling team members infest consulting and advisory websites everywhere. These visual weeds send out a strong, unintended message that the professional service firm deploying them is dull, unimaginative and undifferentiated. In turn, we believe that destroys value.
The “Dirty Dozen” business website images
“It’s a shame that the professional services world is so hooked on these empty visual calories when there are so many nourishing alternatives.”
By default, I advise our clients to approach these visual cliches only with extreme caution.
It’s a shame that the professional services world is so hooked on these empty visual calories when there are so many nourishing alternatives.
A meaningful visual language for professional service websites
We talk to our professional service clients about four strategies for an aesthetically, intellectually and emotionally satisfying visual language.
1. Focus on what’s essential and unique
“The soul of an advisory firm lies in its people, clients and intellectual capital. That’s what should drive its imagery.”
Uniqueness is everywhere, but it can be hard to find.
Most advisory firms agree on things like trust, experience, expertise and value. These concepts are, of course, important. But they’re so widely accepted as to be bland. Basing imagery around them therefore also produces blandness.
In my experience, the unique soul of an advisory firm lies in its people, clients and intellectual capital. That’s what should drive its imagery. I find that narratives about what is important, valuable and motivating to people who work in or with the firm always reveal fundamental and appealing truths about the firm.
It’s this understanding that lays the foundation for a congruent visual language. Uncovering that understanding can be as simple as having good conversations about people’s hopes, aspirations, motivations and experiences. Or it may be a facilitated process with brand, copy or design professionals.
Either way, it’s understanding the soul of the firm that lays the foundation for good design briefs, good stock imagery selection and visual congruency.
2. Think laterally to select stock imagery
“it’s possible to find highly satisfying stock imagery.”
There’s a cruel inevitability that a literal stock library search for a business concept will produce a “dirty dozen” image. Searching “innovation” will return lightbulbs, “consulting” will return team huddles and “advice” will give handshakes.
It’s impossible to choose successful stock imagery without clearly understanding the concepts and semantics involved. If you’ve followed our first rule, that’s relatively easy.
To apply that to stock image selection, we use a four-level search process we call SROO – Synonyms, Related concepts, Opposites and Outcomes. For example, with a concept like “innovation”, we’d search for:
- Synonyms like “creation”, “invention”, “origination”, and so forth.
- Related concepts like “brainstorm”, “discovery”, “finding”, “breakthrough”
- Opposites such as “conventionality”, “traditional” and “conservatism”.
- Outcomes of innovation such as “uniqueness”, “distinctiveness” and “rarity”
We think it’s possible to find highly satisfying stock imagery. But discovering great images paradoxically requires the verbal skills of a cryptic crossword writer.
3. Crowdsource for uniqueness
“Crowdsourcing leaves other design procurement for dead.”
Wikipedia defines crowdsourcing as the act of outsourcing a task to an undefined, large group of people. Crowdsourcing design is becoming pretty common. You post a brief, offer the amount of money you’re willing to pay and designers submit designs. At the end of the contest, you choose the winner and receive the finished artwork.
We think crowdsourcing leaves other design procurement for dead; its Darwinian nature tends to surface great creative.
To deliver visual uniqueness and congruency, a crowdsourcing brief must have a clear line of sight to what’s essential and unique about the advisory firm.
Also, crowdsourcing is not a passive process. It requires effort and skill to get good results. I’ll be blogging soon about how to manage crowdsourcing – a skill which I think will become as important as managing employees.
For more about how to do it well, read my blog post on how to crowdsource design.
3. Don’t decorate
“If the information content of an image is low, it shouldn’t be there.”
I believe strongly in the Bauhaus idea that form follows function. More specifically, if the information content of an image is low, it’s a distraction and shouldn’t be there. Handshakes convey little or no factual or emotional information. So don’t use them. Images should be there only if they amplify the message or add an tension, juxtaposition or emotional information to it.
Sometimes the strongest visual language is no imagery at all. Minimalist sites with clean layout and strong typography can communicate more about the serious intent and rigour of their owners than a library of business stock photography.
To conclude, I think that a website only reflects the company that made it. Professional services websites can be unique, interesting and engaging. Or not. The difference is down to a determination to be congruent. What do you think? Why do professional service websites use visual cliche so prolifically?