Dissecting Design Techniques: This Is on Background

If Tolstoy had been an art director, he might have pointed out that all great photographs are excellent in their own way. But bad photographs tend to share a subset of common problems—color balance issues, harsh lighting, unfortunate exposure, low resolution, and distracting and irrelevant backgrounds.

Whatever problems a photo has, they tend to compound when the designer is tasked with getting one or more poor-to-indifferent images to work together on a single page or as a single concept. Imagine a picture of Angela Jolie taken under artificial light against a step-and-repeat backdrop covered with logos—next to a picture of Kim Kardashian walking past a large outdoor crowd. It doesn’t take a lot of wildly variant images thrown together before noise overcomes signal, and a once carefully-organized page becomes a cacophony of competing colors and ideas.

So when someone comes up with a workable solution to the problem of bad and clashing images, that, better yet, can often be pulled off in-house—and allows for a large variety of striking narrative and conceptual outcomes—you end up with a bandwagon that designers at publications from Esquire to The Atlantic to the New York Times have jumped onto.

The basic technique is to separate the subjects of each photo from the background, then convert them to monochrome (which obfuscates a whole universe of photographic sins), and finally put them into a unifying colored and/or textured background. Common variations such as tinting or applying filters to the images or background—or adding other narrative elements—expand the range of what can be achieved.


In the example above, from Esquire, the designer conveys the effect of a large concert in in a small vertical illustration featuring two singers who have not actually performed together.


In this spread from Rolling Stone, several versions of the basic techniques are used with a range of results (though combining them all on one spread might be a little overwhelming).ExampleB

Although The Atlantic, in this case, does not desaturate the stock dog image, the same techniques are otherwise used to tone it for an effective conceptual illustration.

Despite the range of possible outcomes, these results are achieved using a surprisingly small set of design techniques.

To demonstrate, (I am writing in January 2016) I decided to imagine a debate between presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. A few years ago, it was difficult or costly to find legally usable images of celebrities or most politicians, but in the over-sharing times in which we live, it’s usually possible to find free-use (if not always wonderful) photos of public figures. Both of these images come from Wikipedia, and are one of three or four choices on each candidate’s page. Both are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike License—subjecting my final illustration (though not this article) to the same license. The photo of Sanders is by Michael VadonTrump is by Gage Skidmore. I lucked out in that both candidates are standing at podiums and waving their arms, but it’s likely I could have found a lot more choices if I had ventured onto Google Images or Flickr, both of which allow you to filter by license.

I chose to do the entire job in Adobe Photoshop, but it would be equally simple to composite the processed images with Illustrator or even InDesign.

Here is what I started with:

FoundationImage1FoundationImage2The first step is to separate the subject from its original background in Photoshop. When I can, I pick the pen tool as usually the fastest method for eliminating unwanted pixels. In this case, it means sacrificing Sander’s fly-away hair, but there will be enough going on in the final that the reader won’t notice anything missing. One of the nice things about this technique is you don’t have to be all that careful about getting the individual pieces precisely isolated.


Proces2Trump is selected and “jumped” to a new layer using the (Mac) Command-J key combination. When I give the image a temporary white background, it becomes obvious that it has a problem often associated with subject isolation—the bright red background is saturating the glass lectern and printed notes upon it. (Bright backgrounds also often contaminate light-colored hair, though not in this case.) If this image were printed on a white background, it would require quite a bit of tedious retouching work to make the glass look natural. But, because this image will be converted to grayscale, I ignore both the colorcast and the fact that the glass doesn’t look all that transparent.

I then delete the original background and white layer and save the document as a Photoshop file to preserve transparency.


I then place the Trump image inside the Sanders image, after making the canvas bigger. I choose to embed the file so I can preserve the original color version if needed later. I then select the Sanders layer, and go to Image>Adjustments>Desaturate to make it appear monotone without actually converting the document to grayscale. I then double-click on the Trump layer to access the associated smart object and desaturate it as well.


A common next step is to add visual interest to the figure by coloring the subjects or giving them a gradient overlay. For this collage, it makes narrative sense to make Sanders blue and Trump red. For Sanders, I first select the foreground and background swatches to give each one slightly different tints of blue. I then click on the new adjustment layer menu at the bottom of the layers panel and create a new gradient layer above the Sanders layer. This causes the gradient to cover the whole scene, but when I option-click on the bar between the gradient layer and the Sanders layer, the gradient layer is “clipped” so just Sanders has the overlay—though details remains invisible. I reduce the opacity of the gradient layer until Sanders is visible. I like the sense of color it adds, so I then repeat the process with the Trump layer using variants of red.  One could choose to clip a solid color or painted layer just as easily. Here I’m using the standard blend mode, which gives the look of a duotone.

Proces 5 Proces 6

For a more saturated look—like the one in the Rolling Stone spread above—keep the gradient at full power and try the color blend mode. Various other modes will also create interest effects, so play with it.

Looking at the current stage with a solid color (in this case, 100% cyan) background, it appears that the Sanders image is a little flatter than the Trump image. I used a Brightness/Contrast layer on both to make them closer to equal.

Proces 7[1]

Solid-colored backgrounds are common when using these techniques, but so are more complex scenes. Ben-Day dots are especially popular—I think because a little grunginess just suits the look. For this one, I rasterize the cyan layer, paint a little on top of it, and then apply the color halftone filter (Filters>Pixelate >Color Halftone).

Proces 8

Another option is to use a stock or found image. In the case of this image from Thinkstock, I find the result overly slick and so overwhelming that I decided to take the gradient layers back down to zero:

Proces 9[1]

For the final, I add a type layer, screen the stock background using the same color halftone technique as earlier, and fairly carelessly paint out the preexisting signage so as not to distract from the added type. I also bring back a little hint of the color overlays applied to the figures, which implies a bit of colorcast from the environment.


Now, would I rather commission a Steve Brodner original for the theoretical story this political illustration might run with? You bet. But when I’m working with a budget of zero—or if doing a few in-house spots lets me splurge elsewhere in the issue—this is an option I’d be happy to use any day.


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