There are many professions of which I’m not a part that I admire, but design definitely ranks among the top.
I’m a terrible designer. I have no idea how colours complement each other, I fill white space when it should be left alone, and I overcomplicate everything.
When I hand a design job to a professional and it returns looking exactly how it should, it never fails to surprise me. Of course that’s what needed to be done; how on earth did I not think of that myself? It’s so damn simple.
However, there is one area of my YouTube brand which falls squarely into the design bracket, and which I nearly always undertake myself: the humble thumbnail.
Good design isn’t cheap. Therefore, if you’re just starting your YouTube career and want to keep costs to a minimum, this is how you can create great thumbnails with zero design experience.
The myth about YouTube thumbnails
You could make the best video anyone has ever made in your niche, but if the thumbnail sucks, no one will watch it.
This is why thumbnails are undoubtedly the most important element of any YouTube video. As your channel grows, you will of course start to gain die-hard fans who will watch everything you publish, but in order for it to grow in the first place, you need to tempt strangers.
You can only do that with a great thumbnail (the title is important, but pales in comparison to the visuals). This has resulted in seasoned YouTubers suggesting that we should all spend as long as possible on our thumbnails if we’re to be successful on the platform. I’ve heard some suggest that they spend hours – even days – on perfecting their own. This all sounds pretty daunting if you’re a new creator.
I’m going to let you into a little secret: I don’t spend very long on my thumbnails at all. In fact, I haven’t since the birth of my channel, and 7.5 million views and 67,000 subscribers later, it hasn’t really harmed proceedings.
The top three performing videos on my channel are great examples of this:
iPhone 13 mini review – 2 weeks later (497K views)
iPad mini 6 review – 2 weeks later (333K view)
Sony WH 1000xm4 | 3-month review (300K views)
Each thumbnail above consists of a photo of yours truly holding the product in question, an enticing caption… and that’s it. The only exception to that rule is the Sony headphone review which features a second piece of text, but I’m not exactly going all Mr Beast with it, am I?
At the most, each thumbnail above took me about 30 minutes to make.
I’ve paid a designer twice to create a thumbnail for me, but that was purely down to timing issues on my part. As it stands, I have no immediate plans to pass this particular job on to anyone else.
Trust me – if I can do it, so can you.
Take a bunch of headshots
I’m of the opinion that YouTube thumbnails work best when there’s a human element. It’s why 99% of my thumbnails feature my face; it provides greater brand recognition and enables me to convey an emotion, which is tricky to do with a product alone.
So, I’d always start your thumbnail process by taking a bunch of headshots of yourself. I do this with a professional camera, but that isn’t necessary if you don’t have one to hand – your smartphone will do. Simply use the lighting setup you use for your videos, or find a nice bright window. Make sure your background is plain (white, ideally), and set your camera or smartphone on a tripod and with a timer.
Silly faces still work on YouTube, no matter how much they may irritate certain viewers. I no longer give two hoots when people criticise my use of exaggerated expressions on thumbnails. They work – period.
Pull as many faces as you can think of; surprised, happy, sad, confused, overjoyed, dismayed, pointing at something to your left (and right), looking up, looking down. Keep going!
Once done, use a free background removal tool (there’s a great list here) to create PNG files of your headshots. This means you’ll be able to place them in front of other elements seamlessly and without your original background getting in the way.
Sign up to Canva
Now you’ve got a bunch of background-less headshots of yourself, you need a tool that’ll help you construct each thumbnail.
There are several options here, but it is impossible not to recommend Canva. It has completely shaken up the world of amateur design thanks to an intuitive web-based interface and pre-made assets that can be easily tweaked and made your own.
I use Canva for every single thumbnail I make, and I’m yet to find a reason to pay for it.
Once you’ve signed up for the free version of Canva, you’re good to go. Search their templates for a YouTube thumbnail that catches your eye and work on making it your own. Once you’ve got a style you’re happy with, you can simply duplicate it each time to create your next thumbnail.
So, let’s get onto how to create that style!
Go easy and don’t faff
Less is definitely more when it comes to YouTube thumbnails. It’s important to remember that they appear in very small form on most users’ smartphones when they’re browsing YouTube, therefore intricate details will get lost entirely.
My thumbnails usually consist of myself and the product I’m reviewing. If your videos are similar to mine, I’d encourage the same approach. And in such instances, you can use the same shooting conditions we discussed earlier for the headshots to take photos of yourself with the product.
Once done, you simply throw the image into Canva, resize it to fit the thumbnail and add your caption. Easy!
When it comes to the caption, keep the word count as low as possible and don’t simply repeat the title of your video. Make sure it’s related, but treat it as a cliff-hanger. For instance, if your video centres on a product that has surprised you, the thumbnail caption could be something like ‘I can’t BELIEVE it…!’. It needs to raise a question in the viewer’s mind, or deliver a hint that something exciting lies beyond that thumbnail.
Your PNG headshots will come in handy when you have another image element you’d like to add to the thumbnail. For instance, if you’re reacting to a recent event within your niche and have a nice, simple photo of the event, you can simply drag that shot into Canva, resize it, and then place the most appropriate headshot expression on top of it. Simple!
Just make sure you keep your thumbnail designs as simple as possible. Don’t fiddle. Don’t faff. Go easy with the design. A great way to check if you’ve overdone it is to continually zoom out (the control for this is at the bottom-right of Canva’s user interface) and see what your thumbnail looks like when it’s as small as most people will see it on their smartphones. Remember that it will flash by their eyes in a fraction of a second.
It’s important to note that what works for me may not work for you. Every channel, niche, and audience is different, and you might find that headshots aren’t a great fit for yours.
That’s fine. If you’re not convinced that this is the way to go for your thumbnails, I’d recommend having a hunt through the thumbnails of successful YouTubers in your field to get an idea of how they approach theirs. You should notice a pattern for what does (and doesn’t) work. Copy those that seem to be gaining the most views and stick with my mantra of keeping the design as simple as possible.
I’m still perfecting my thumbnail game, but to this day, I’m amazed by how easy it is to get it right.
And I’m still a terrible designer.
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