When To Use Professional Photography?

Amazingly, some stock photography doesn’t suck.
So why hire a pro for professional photography shots?

There was a time when every single stock photograph in the whole universe was an embarrassment to the very idea of imagery.

I am still haunted by the memory of disturbingly phony models posing stiffly, their unnaturally white teeth glaring like the fangs of deranged wolves. We have come a long way since then–it is now possible to buy quality stock photos at low cost. Many talented photographers sell their work to stock houses. When companies like Red Letter buy those images, the license often allows unlimited use on websites, brochures and any other form of commercial communication including blimps and tattoos. However, professional photography is still worth the investment. Here’s why.

Startups and small businesses love stock—and who can blame them? 

These companies scrutinize every expenditure. When Red Letter proposes to a cash-strapped client that we hire a pro to shoot custom photos for their website or sales kit, it is so tempting for them to say, “You mean I can pay $25 per shot for stock but you’re suggesting I should I pay much more for new pictures? [Pause] Have you seen my office? Do I look like the Queen of England?” (None of our clients have stated the case in exactly those words but we have heard similar expressions of sensible budget stewardship.)

We totally get that.

And we use stock photography for our clients all the time. Not just because some companies simply can’t afford professional photography, but also because, hey—if you’ve got persistence and a discerning eye, you can find some excellent stock photos.

So should we just tell pro photographers to learn a new skill, like quilting? 

Um, no. Partly because quilting pays squat, and partly because there is still a vast gulf between even the best stock photography and professional photography conceived and executed by a talented expert. A pro is engaged by the client company and its marketing partner to lend his or her vision to the illumination of a unique brand that no other company owns.

A top-notch pro brings more than just technical expertise and visual flair.

They bring an irreplaceable understanding of what they are there to convey. It is literally impossible for a stock photographer to have this awareness, regardless of their talent. They don’t know how their images are going to be used.

Even competently-executed stock shots often exude phoniness. 

Did you see the movie Unfinished Business? Neither did I. But I heard about it. It was a major release in 2015 and starred Vince Vaughan as the head of a sales team. The promotional campaign for the movie featured images of the cast in blatant parodies of the stock photos we see all around us.

The producers knew that we would recognize the sheer vacuousness of so many business-themed stock photos. They trusted us to look at these fake pictures of office workers and think “Yeah, there is something creepy about these people. For one thing, who could possibly be that happy about typing?”

There are so many clues that give stock-ness away. 

Is there a team of suited businesspeople arranged in a “V” formation, with the Head Honcho front and center, arms crossed, glaring confidently at the camera? Is there a transparent attempt in a group shot to represent all ethnicities, with bonus points for models that could pass for two or three? Any handshakes going on? Are there mini-blinds everywhere? (Check out Huffington Post’s This Week in Ridiculous Stock Photos for more fun.)

And another thing: the good stock photos wind up all over the place. 

Good designers see a good shot, and they buy it. If they buy exclusive rights, it is now off the market. But if they just buy the image and use it, there’s a chance your audience will view your marketing materials and realize they’ve seen the pictures before.

Professional photography


I’m not making that up. It happened to us. 

We were designing a brochure for a client, and we did suggest professional photography, but it wasn’t in the cards for this project. So we sifted through the available stock images (we needed pictures of trucks) and after looking at 999 bad ones, we found a really good one and placed it in the layout. Everybody loved it, but just when we were getting ready to send the files to the printer, we discovered that one of our client’s competitors used the same image in their brochure! We thank the gods of marketing that we caught that in the nick of time.

Later, that same client decided to bite the bullet. 

We hired a talented pro for two days of shooting. I was there with our client, a smart guy who perhaps still wondered whether the expenditure was going to be worth it. After the first few shots I turned to him and began a question: “Do you see—“ He interrupted me: “Yes!” He has never looked back. We’ll be using that portfolio of awesome pictures for years—in brochures, trade show booths, websites and more.

Your company is unlike any other company. It deserves its own authentic imagery. 

If your small business needs a new HVAC system and you’ve got to choose—sure, get the air conditioning and use stock for now (with the help of an experienced designer to find the good ones). But recognize the value of professional photography that represents your company authentically and put it on your “someday soon” list.

Our New Logo: Why We Sent a Perfectly Good Logo to the Great Style Guide in the Sky

For our four-year anniversary, we bought ourselves a new logo.

And yes, “bought” is the correct verb. We’re paying for our new logo in both man hours and legal tender—so it is not an idle decision we made on the spur of our third flute of anniversary champagne.

Was there something seriously wrong with our old logo?

Heavens no! I’m surprised you even asked—although to be fair, it was me who asked, not you. At the launch of Red Letter Marketing, our logo possessed all the qualities we value in a corporate mark.

Take a gander. It’s still a beauty:

Why We Sent Perfectly Good Logo | Red Letter Marketing
That logo embodies the classic simplicity that stands the test of time. We strive to design logos that are beyond mere trendiness, and this one is the polar opposite of “flavor of the month.” The mark is elegant but maybe also impertinent, with that cheeky reversed “R.” We like the timeless perfection of the square, and the ease with which that part of the logo can be used by itself, without the logotype. Just the red mark in the upper left of a page declares itself quietly but confidently.

So, why change it?

Again with the questions. While there were no serious problems with our logo—which, by the way, looked great in frosting form on the cakes we give to new clients—there was one small thing that kept our esteemed president, Kelly Gomez, in a state of cognitive dissonance.

It was the absence of the letter “M.”

Among Kelly’s talents is a prodigious ability in the area of mathematics. She astutely noted that our name is composed of three words: 1) Red; 2) Letter; 3) Marketing. The mark had but two initials: 1) R; 2) L.

Kelly knows—better than most!—that 3 ≠ 2.

All of us—including Kelly—are aware that a new logo design is not an SAT exam. We can loosen the rules of arithmetic in the service of art. Also, our love for the design overrode any numerical quibbles.

And yet . . . .

A few wondered whether perception of the mark might be complicated by an uninvited association with Ralph Lauren.

Objections such as these arise during the design of any new logo. If you ponder a design long enough, you will conceive possible objections. One of our most valuable services to clients is using our experience to clarify the distinction between valid concerns and the infinite number of micro-quibbles that should be filed away in the “overthink” folder.

On the other hand, if you’re still mulling your so-called micro-quibble four years later, maybe it’s time to upgrade it to macro.

Our lead designer, Olaf, took up the challenge of redesigning our mark. He retired to his design cave to sketch out some ideas. He presented us with these results of his exploration:


Why We Sent Perfectly Good Logo | Red Letter Marketing


While we all liked these logos, Olaf would not take yes for an answer. Before we could sit down to decide which we wanted to choose for further development, Olaf disappeared in a cloud of cartoon smoke. Back to the design cave!

When he emerged, he presented us with this:


Why We Sent Perfectly Good Logo | Red Letter Marketing


I think I’ve said enough. The new logo itself is more eloquent.

Four Keys to Eye-Popping Mobile App Design

How to create a mobile app design that truly resonates

Today’s technology gives us access to devices with extremely high resolution and amazing display capabilities. However, not all devices (or all users) are created equally. In other words, with great resolution comes great responsibility. Here’s how to create compelling mobile app design despite all the bells and whistles.

Don’t squeeze as much as possible onto the screen

When designing for high-res displays, there may be a desire to push the limits of size and spacing of interactive elements. In other words, you might be tempted to squeeze a ton of functionality into a single screen. But don’t get carried away–fingers aren’t as precise as mouse-based cursors. If users miss a too-tiny touch zone, they may think that it is not actually a control after all. End result: the user exits stage left frustrated and confused. When considering the appropriate size of touch zones for interactive elements, think about who will be using the app. For example, if you are creating a mobile app design for young children, their finger size is much smaller. However, you might need to create a larger target zone for tapping, because their fine motor skills might not be developed.

Don’t use small font sizes and hard-to-see colors

High resolution displays can support small fonts and fine details, but resist. Just because your device can graphically support a clear rendering of a 4-point font does not mean your users want it. The text size, graphic details, and color choices should fit your app audience’s unique needs. Again, it’s really important here to consider who will be using your apps. If you are designing a dating app for seniors, you’ll want to pick different visuals than an app targeting high school baseball players.

Aim to add fine graphic details and extra text only when it adds value. Does the extra detail aid in the users’ understanding of an icon, make navigation clearer, or reduce scan time? If so, congrats! You’ve made an easy-to-use mobile app.

Don’t overwhelm users with information

We all know about brain freeze, right? Eating too much ice cream way too fast – brain freeze!  Well, you can also get a sort of brain freeze when you’re hit with too much information too quickly. With high-res displays, avoid the urge to overwhelm the user with too much information all at once. The thinking may go something like this: More Info on One Screen = Fewer Screens = Better Experience. However, going this route may actually have the opposite effect. Bogging down the user on a content-heavy screen will make the user’s experience less efficient and less enjoyable. Again, the end result is user exiting stage left to find the next app on the list.

Create unique, attractive icons

When you’re designing your mobile app, you want to establish a good sense of the range of devices on which it will likely be used. Make sure that your app display does not get lost in translation when being rendered on a lower resolution device – not everyone is on a Retina display yet. Device canvases vary greatly between high and low resolutions and between mobile phone and tablet platforms. Make sure you are able to appropriately scale your design for the full range of devices that will be used. That way, you will not alienate any segments of your market.

It’s important to get your mobile app design to stand out in the vast wilderness of the app store. To do it, take an extra second to consider the available display capabilities, as well as your users’ unique capabilities and limitations. There are a lot of choices available in the app store, so please design responsibly when going high res!

Get high-quality mobile app design with Red Letter Marketing

Thinking about a new mobile app for your business? We can help. Learn more about our mobile app development team or contact us with any questions you may have about the app design and development process.

Responding to Client Feedback: Unreasonable Responses to Reasonable Requests

How agencies should respond to client feedback—and how they shouldn’t

In our first discovery meeting with a new client, we discovered how badly the company’s previous web design company had treated it. As a new website had taken shape, the client had posed reasonable questions concerning some of the creative decisions made by the designers. Among them: Are you folks sure (our new client had asked) that the headline font you’re using is the best choice? The design firm’s reply is one of the worst responses to client feedback we’ve ever heard.

They responded by sending the client a link to Google Fonts, with a suggestion that he find one he likes.

This is a truly bizarre exaggeration of accommodation to client feedback. Instead of helping, the firm had simply sloughed off its role as experienced guide through the font choice decision-making process. When we heard this story, we realized that our client had been so ill-advised that we couldn’t wait to show him what a real marketing partnership is like.

At the other extreme is the creative who will brook no suggestions from the client company.

My favorite example of this behavior occurs in Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. In th book, architect Howard Roark responds to changes made to his building design by, um…well, by blowing up the building. Howard Roark might have had a legitimate beef. Maybe the design changes were bad ideas. But—dude. Dynamite? It’s a bit showy. Ultimately, Rand mimicked her character’s behavior when she learned that the movie screenplay trimmed Roark’s speech to the jury. In a fit of pique that lasted the rest of her life, she refused to sell the movie rights to Atlas Shrugged. 

The vast majority of web designers avoid the use of explosives to make their point.

And yet, a dismissive attitude to client feedback is all too familiar. Ironically, some clients are drawn to unyielding creative people, often because they are reassured by their certainty.

Creative decisions are founded partly in reason and partly in a mysterious “gut feel.”

This “gut feel” arises from the interplay between a designer’s innate taste and the mix of current design trends. Designers call on their gut every day, and each time they do, it gets stronger. Therefore, an accountant who may be looking at the bewildering variety of font choices for the first time probably won’t make the best choice. But a working designer probably will.

But a designer who listens carefully to client feedback is increasing the odds of creating something worthwhile.

It doesn’t mean she must necessarily take the suggestion. But if she’s willing to consider it’s possible validity, her openness will serve both her and the client well. Legendary ad man Bill Bernbach made a shtick out of carrying around a card conveying the thought “Maybe he’s right.” While the card itself may have been a bit of show-biz, the sentiment strikes me as one that still rings true.

At Red Letter Marketing, we believe the best creative solutions come from a respectful give-and-take. 

Everyone–clients, creatives, and account directors have unique perspectives that add value to a creative decision. Sound like an agency you’d want to partner with? Let’s talk.