Social Media Graphics: Image Descriptions

Hello again and thanks for joining me on another installment of the Social Media Graphics mini blog series. If you missed the earlier posts, you can catch them on the blog index.

Images and graphics are great ways to tell stories—the adage goes that a picture is worth a thousand words, after all. And sometimes images and graphics need a little help telling that story.

As a neurodivergent person myself, I sometimes struggle to understand the meaning or message behind some graphics. Notably, I also have a blank spot for pop culture references from between 2006 and 2018 or so when I was in the midst of the hard years of poverty and parenting. 

This means if your image contains a pop culture reference, or thinly veiled parody of something outside my experience, I'm going to have a hard time following.

Which might mean I, among others like my friends who are vision impaired, may just skip your graphic and social media post altogether.

That's probably not what you want. You went through the time and effort to create that image, you definitely want people to engage. So what can you do?

A lot of social media platforms have built-in features that allow you to add something called alt text to your images. This alt text has been used for years. When I was building websites in the 1990's, alt text was frequently used to let people know that there was an image in that space on the page that hadn't finished loading yet, or wouldn't load because the file was missing. 

As such, you'll find some people still only use the alt text feature to let folks know that there is an image, but not always what that image or graphic contains. This is troublesome when the image or graphic contains text and information that is important, but that information isn't included in the alt text or elsewhere in the post.

Adding text and important information in an image description is a great way to make sure to include a wider audience for your social media content. Neurodivergent folks, vision impaired folks, and many others all benefit from image descriptions.

So what makes a good image description? 

The answer is in the context! 

Ideally, your image description should give the same information to someone who can see and understand the image. This doesn't mean you need to describe every tiny detail. But if a detail is important to understanding the image, include it. 

If there's text in the image, but it's not relevant to why the image is shared, the text can be summarized or you can indicate it's not important. 

Let's take a look at a really stellar example of an image description. The following description comes from NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute:

The image is divided horizontally by an undulating line between a cloudscape forming a nebula along the bottom portion and a comparatively clear upper portion. Speckled across both portions is a starfield, showing innumerable stars of many sizes. The smallest of these are small, distant, and faint points of light. The largest of these appear larger, closer, brighter, and more fully resolved with 8-point diffraction spikes.

The upper portion of the image is blueish, and has wispy translucent cloud-like streaks rising from the nebula below. The orangish cloudy formation in the bottom half varies in density and ranges from translucent to opaque. The stars vary in color, the majority of which, have a blue or orange hue.

The cloud-like structure of the nebula contains ridges, peaks, and valleys – an appearance very similar to a mountain range. Three long diffraction spikes from the top right edge of the image suggest the presence of a large star just out of view.

An image of a nebula from NASA's space telescope. A full image description precedes the image in the post.

What did you think after reading that image description? Did you get a sense of what the following image was going to be? 

Did you pick up something in the image description that you might not have known just looking at the picture, if you weren't already really knowledgeable about nebulae?

Maybe you found the image description helpful, but now you feel overwhelmed trying to think about how to write your own image descriptions. 

Let's break it down into something easier to remember:

  • What type of image is it?

    Most screen reader technology will already introduce it as an image, but sometimes indicating the image type can help people understand the context more quickly. You can include whether the image is an illustration, a graphic, a screenshot, a meme, or a photo to help users understand what type of image it is. 
    • What is your primary purpose for sharing the image?

      If your image is a selfie, something to catch attention, or set a mood, your image description might only need to be a couple lines long. 

    • What parts of the image are really important for people to understand?

      If your image has dates and times, or is a meme, this is probably important information to include in your description.

    The more you practice adding image descriptions to go with your social media graphics, the sooner you'll find a groove and learn which parts of an image are important to include in the description.

    Now that we've covered what to include in the alt text or image description, let's talk about how to add them to your social media.

    I mentioned how most social media platforms include ways to add alt text. Check out the following:

    However, there are some platforms that don't include the alt text function, or maybe it's hard to find and use. 

    You can always add an image description to your post, prefacing it with ID or Image description so folks know they can skip the text if they don't need or want it, but it's there for the folks who do.

    Lastly, writing image descriptions can be draining! It takes a lot of energy to curate your social media and sometimes there's nothing left over to put into image descriptions. 

    If your energy is low, or you've run out of time, consider making a request for your followers to provide an image description for the sake of your community. This isn't something you should plan on doing all the time without compensating folks for writing the image descriptions, but it can be helpful when you're in a bind.

    If your social media or business is bringing you money and your time is limited, considering hiring someone to write consistent image descriptions for you to ensure that your community can engage with your content regularly.


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