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November 4, 2015

More pictures, less creativity: travel’s addiction to photography

I have a hobby horse that I occasionally ride around the office. It’s this: creatively, the travel industry has got stuck on a very literal kind of photography.

On the surface, it’s a ridiculous thing to say. You have to use realistic photos – they’re an essential part of winning round potential customers. Photos show people what they’re buying, and reassure them that it’ll all be as advertised. The sea will be azure. The beaches will be white and sandy. The hotel room will be luxurious.

While photos can and do lie, they’re obviously an essential part of promoting travel. If I see a product page or an inspirational feature without photos, I’m suspicious. People rightly expect to see photography – in fact, they’ve moved on from that and now expect video too, preferably shot from a drone.

As well as having obvious benefits, photography has become dramatically cheaper over the last few decades. In the days of print ads and brochures it represented a significant cost, but in a digital environment it can be delivered for next to nothing, and sourced free or cheaply thanks to Creative Commons shots (credited, of course), the big stock libraries and new-breed marketplaces such as Picfair. In travel media it’s now common to rely on journos’ amateur photography skills and official PR shots to illustrate a piece, and big ecommerce sites get their product photos straight from suppliers.

Here’s where things get tricky. All of those good reasons for the triumph of photography represent a drive towards amateur, generic or non-exclusive work. So while the trend has made brands better at showing customers what’s on offer, it has also made brands worse at establishing a unique visual identity. Creatively, investment gets shunted towards a mirco-managed logotype, which then sits in a corner above a sea of imagery that’s indistinguishable from that used by competitors. The dominance of photography isn’t wholly to blame for that same-but-different feeling you sometimes get from travel ads and websites, but it’s a big part of the story.

All of this really hit home a year or so ago, when I was digital editor at TTG and started rooting around in the print archives. Roll back the years a bit and you find all kinds of distinctive art styles, including pen-and-ink sketches, cartoons and full-page illustrations:

Not everything comes off as well as these do, but overall the sheer variety was remarkable. Without photographs to default to, the industry got pretty creative.

Back in the present, BuzzFeed followers will have noticed the publisher using illustrators more and more lately, for both house and native content. If you’re all about social traffic, this makes sense: a post with a highly distinctive visual style stands out in the feed.

Clearly we don’t recommend throwing out all your photos and hiring an illustrator, but it’s worth thinking about what you can add to photography to create really striking, really memorable sites and campaigns. Black Tomato’s overlaid graphics are a nice example from travel.

 

The art style may not be to everyone’s taste, but that small touch makes the site feel like an original, not a reskinned clone.

Nathan Midgley
Editor, Melt Content
@nathanmesq

(As for us, we use illustration fairly regularly, from a ‘cruise characters’ minisite for Bolsover Cruise Club to – most recently – a set of ski resort maps for Hotels.com. For a chat about design work, get in touch with Julie at julie@meltcontent.com.)

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