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How to Create Beautiful & Legible Designs with Text Over Images

How to Create Beautiful & Legible Designs with Text Over Images

Use these tips for adding text over photos to create stunning and effective designs that take your brand’s messaging to the next level.

Adding typography on photos is one of the oldest graphic design tricks in the book, but it’s a strategy that can all too easily go wrong. Illegible text, distracting backgrounds, a lack of visual hierarchy . . . these and other mistakes can quickly muddle your message and weaken your brand.

To avoid these common problems, keep reading!

In this straightforward guide, you’ll learn all the tips and tricks about how to do typography on photos—the right way.

Why Add Text to Photos?

From print flyers to Facebook posts, we all see tons of text-over-image designs every day. And it’s no surprise why: Layering text over photos is an easy, attractive, and versatile way of communicating any message (business or personal!).

For example, you might add typography on photos to:

  • Add flourish and visual interest to an otherwise standard text-only message
  • Make the best use of limited design space, such as a print postcard or narrow social media header
  • Meet the specific requirements of the platform—for instance, Instagram, where photos and video can be uploaded
  • Brand through typography via a watermark, wordmark, or text tagline over the photo
  • Conform to audience expectations, such as memes (where photos almost always have text overlaid)

Creating text designs for your brand? Get more tips on building amazing collateral in our Small Business Brand Kit:

Best Practices for Using Typography on Photos

No matter why you’re adding text to photos, follow these text-over-image tips to ensure the best results.

1. Choose the Right Photos

High-quality images are a must for any design project, but “high-quality” means something very specific when it comes to effective text overlays.

Ideally, you’ll want to choose photos that:

  • Have built-in white (or negative) space to accommodate the text
  • Are not extremely busy or complex
  • Reflect the theme, mood, or content of the text in some way

Stock photos are definitely the way to go here! You’ll have millions of options to choose from, allowing you to experiment with as many images as necessary to find a good fit.

The words "Modern Solid" over an image of a car headlight
License these images via i viewfinder and munkyfactory.

2. Use a Legible Font

Even when chosen well, background images will inevitably bring a bit of visual competition to a design, so the more legible the font, the better. 

Look for fonts with clearly defined letterforms and not super-thin strokes—there should be enough visual weight to the letters that they stand out from the background.

When in doubt, classic fonts like Helvetica, Verdana, Georgia, Open Sans, Times New Roman, and Roboto tend to work well.

Pro tip: You can also play around with the spacing of letters, words, and lines of text to make your design more legible.

Typography on an image of old worn tennis shoes
License this image via JKO Photos.

3. Consider Contrast

As with any design, contrast between the text and the background is key—only it takes a bit more thought and intention when you’re using typography on photos.

It’s easy for letters to get lost amidst background images, so high color contrast is a must. (Get specific tips on achieving great contrast in the next section!)

Image of a person cutting paper with an overlay of the words "Paper Cut"
License these images via Madhourse and lyeyee.

4. Keep It Simple

With the background photo there to add visual interest, there’s no need for tons of additional flourishes. For the most attractive and effective design, stick to one or two fonts and as few words as needed to convey your message.

Let the photo do the heavy lifting!

Red tennis court with overlay of the word "Love" in cursive
License these images via SEALANDSKYPHOTO and Anastasiia Gevko.

5. Think About Different Screen Sizes

If your text-over-image design will be displayed on the web, keep responsive design in mind. 

Your image will almost certainly size up and down depending on the viewer’s screen dimensions, and what looks amazing on desktop may become completely unusable on mobile.

Given this reality, try to avoid a scenario in which critical information is only provided in the form of an image overlay. It is a Google image best practice for search engine bots to read HTML. (This is good practice in terms of accessibility, too!)

Where possible, consider creating multiple versions of the same asset so that your design is effective at all sizes.

Typography on Photos: 15 Pro Tips with Examples

We’ve covered the theory—now let’s get into the nuts and bolts! Here are 15 ideas for effectively adding text to photos.

1. Use the Photo’s White Space

By strategically placing the text in front of the blue wall, this flyer looks great and is easy to read.

Sale flyer with girl holding yellow umbrella
Like this flyer template? Make it your own.

2. Pick a High-Contrast Text Color

With enough contrast, you can place text directly over the busiest part of an image and it’ll still work well. In many cases, white or black will be a great choice.

Fitness training template with image of people working out in a gym
Like this social media template? Make it your own.

3. Darken the Photo

Add a dark overlay to any photo for an instant legibility boost.

Small Business Saturday Instagram post with photo of two smiling women
Like this small business ad? Make it your own.

4. Use a Strategic Gradient

Want something subtle? Try a gradient like this one, with the darkest and most opaque point right behind the text.

Facebook ad with image of people doing step aerobics
Like this Facebook ad? Make it your own.

5. Put a Stroke Around the Text

A simple stroke works to make text stand out and to subtly reinforce the photo’s theme (tennis!).

Facebook ad for tennis classes with closeup photo of child with tennis racket on head
Like this Facebook ad? Make it your own.

6. Add a Shape Behind the Text

A quick shape makes all the difference! Play around with the shape’s transparency (like this flyer demonstrates) for extra visual interest.

LinkedIn ad with black and white photo of skyscrapers
Like this LinkedIn ad? Make it your own.

7. Blur the Background Image

In this Instagram post, blurring the photo has a twofold effect: It makes text easier to read and it adds an elevated feel.

Instagram carousel with stylish woman in khaki coat
Like this Instagram carousel? Make it your own.

8. Make Text Decorative

If you’re looking for a splash of fun over your imagery (and don’t have a complex message to convey), try a decorative element like this repeated text.

Instagram post with mountain climber that says CLIMB
Like this Instagram post? Make it your own.

9. Remove the Photo Background

If the photo doesn’t have any natural white space—or if you simply want a different look—try removing the photo’s background instead.

Facebook ad for a life coach with a smiling man on teal background
Like this Facebook ad? Make it your own.

10. Choose a Simpler Photo

This photo evokes the right mood without having a lot of potentially distracting colors or subjects.

Twitch banner with bronze glitter paint background
Like this Twitch banner? Make it your own.

11. Oversize Your Text

This thin outline-style font would be difficult to read at small sizes, but sized up, it’s both legible and visually interesting.

Brochure template for Seattle tourism with picture of Space Needle
Like this brochure template? Make it your own.

12. Add a Drop Shadow

As this email header shows, a simple shadow behind text makes it stand out.

Banner template for coffee store with picture of coffee beans on wood textured background
Like this banner template? Make it your own.

13. Make It B&W

By eliminating the potential for competing colors, black and white photos help maintain text legibility. 

Flyer with funky yellow text on black and white image of family on beach
Like this flyer template? Make it your own.

14. Use Multiple Photos

Who says you have to layer text over just one photo? Layer text across multiple photos for an interesting collage effect.

Social media post for nail kit with closeup shots of hands on blue and yellow backgrounds 
Like this social media post? Make it your own.

15. Make the Text Part of the Image

Instead of just laying text over the image, try weaving it into the visual story! A few hand doodles (and smart placement right over the t-shirt) make this text feel like a natural fit for the photo.

Instagram post with small business owner at work
Like this template? Make it your own.

Ready to Add Text Over Photos?

With the tips above, you’re ready to master the art of adding text over photos. But remember this: Even the best text can’t compensate for a low-quality photo! Choosing the right imagery is foundational for a visually engaging and effective text-over-image design.

Looking for stock photos that actually work with your text? Find the right composition and color theme within Shutterstock’s library of 600 million+ photos.

With Shutterstock Flex, you’ll have all-in-one access to our massive library, plus the FLEXibility you need to select the perfect mix of assets every time.

License this cover image via Philipp Tur.

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