Seeing is believing, the saying goes. That phrase dates back to the 17th century, but it means more now than ever. Our image-driven culture places added value on what it can visualize at a glance versus what it can read. That’s why tweets are 35 percent more likely to be re-tweeted, Facebook posts are 85 percent more likely to be “liked,” and whole websites are 90 percent more memorable and clickable with meaningful images or graphics embedded in them.
Regardless, we tend to treat all visual content the same way no matter the source or purpose and have since the dawn of the browser-based Web 20 years ago. The result is an abundance of websites and social media loaded with images that appear blurry or ill-defined, that resolve too small or too large for the space allowed, or that hinder a browser’s ability to display a site quickly and effectively.
We never learned — or if we did, we keep forgetting — that digital image formats vary and each has a distinct, optimal purpose. Lacking an understanding of those purposes, we risk losing clicks, clients, and valuable attention.
So, resolve in 2015 to learn, remember, and properly use the three common image formats, denoted by their file extension names:
.GIF — It’s pronounced “jiff,” like the peanut butter, though some prefer “giff.” Either way, it stands for Graphics Interchange Format, and was developed by CompuServe in 1987 as a means of transferring space-hogging graphical files through slow connections such as. Animations, icons, line drawings, cartoons or any image with a limited color palette are better as GIFs because GIF permits certain colors to appear as transparencies instead of real pixels and can combine pixels of two colors into one to further reduce file size without diminishing image quality.
.JPEG (or .JPG) — This one, pronounced “jay-peg,” stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, and as the name implies was developed chiefly for photographs. Created in 1986 by said group, JPEG is the standard file format programmed into most digital cameras and employs a complex algorithm to compress images for optimum Web display. Some image quality is lost during this compression; however, in order to simplify compression, JPEG robs from subtler tones the human eye has difficulty noticing yet preserves the more distinct differences between light and dark.
.PNG — Pronounced “ping,” the format with the full name Portable Graphics Networkwent to market in 1996 containing elements of both the .GIF and .JPEG formats. It was developed as an open-source substitute for .GIF and is optimal for working withcomplex graphical logos and large photographs that do not need much compression. However, PNG is relatively new and so its images may not display well or at all on older browsers.
Not all digital images are the same. Treating them as if they were leaves a bad impression with Web audiences. By being mindful of these formats and their principal purposes, you can rest assured that the first visual impression you make will be a good one.
About David Sheets
David Sheets is a communications consultant, St. Louis area president of the Society of Professional Journalists, and vice president of the St. Louis Media History Foundation. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @DKSheets.