Thursday, January 8, 2015

Crop and Slop: How Facebook and other social media companies destroy image presentation

This is a pet peeve that I and probably every other graphic designer, photographer, image creator, and avid online poster share—the way graphics are handled in online posts. Facebook sucks at it, not only in posts, but even in the way they handle advertisements. They're not the only culprit, just about every online entity has its own image foibles, but for this blog post, we'll target the biggie.


Let's start with over-compression



I'm a photographer. I take sharp, detailed images. And when I share them with friends and potential clients, I'd like those images to be seen somewhat close to the quality I uploaded them at. But more often than not, they transform into these blurred, low-grade representations of the originals. The compression is often so bad that I have to upload the same image to my own web host provider and share a link to it in my post: "Click here to see it sharper." But it's not only compression.

As far as I can tell at the time of this posting, landscape images that are 362 pixels wide or wider will be stretched (or shrunk) to fit the 470-pixel-wide image box. All others will maintain their original size. Got that down to memory? 'Cause it might change tomorrow.

Oddly enough, it has been pointed out in blogs and among avid posters that loading a .png version instead of a .jpg version will result in less quality loss. It's a strange workaround because .png files are often four or more times larger in file size than .jpgs. So, apparently, this is not a storage problem.

Cropping photos into long boxes is a no-no


Whenever I enter a link to a book on Amazon, it no longer appears as a thumbnail of the full cover on the left, and the title and description on the right. Now, virtually all shares stretch the image into that oblong 470-pixel-wide box and/or crop it in the middle somewhere. Not only is this displeasing, it's misleading. And most people aren't going to spend the time to click on the link to see the image in full. What's that saying, "First impressions count"? Unfortunately, users may see it as a fault on my part. The workaround is to load the image separately and remove the link preview text. Why do we have to work so hard to share something properly?

The workaround: Paste link, remove preview image, and upload your own.

The Shared Thumbnail: Your guess is as good as mine

Left: Some random ad from the page. Right: The correct image that should have been chosen.

When sharing a link to any story, Facebook randomly chooses an image on that page that it thinks should represent the story. Sometimes, but not always, it will allow you to click through and select other images on that same page to be the thumbnail representative. The algorithm uses a strange height-to-width ratio to determine which photos should be the chosen ones. But often times it ignores the image you really want featured. And if you clear the post and try again, you may get something else. I've even seen the post preview show one image, but another image once submitted. Who programmed this thing?

Again, presentation destroyed.

A word or two on Facebook cover images

Reworking image and text on a Facebook cover to not be "covered" by title and activity buttons.

Who in the hell at Facebook decided that 851 x 315 pixels should be the image size for a profile cover? And why in the hell is the cover image for a group page different? Last we checked the proper dimensions were 748 x 250 pixels. How about you make all cover images 800 x 250 and call it a day?

For those of us who heeded those peculiar dimensions and painstakingly formatted our artwork to fit it, we all got a big surprise in early 2014. Facebook decided that the page titles (your name or designation) and edit buttons should overlay on top of that image instead of appearing below it as in the past. Billions of users watched their covers get messy overnight. Text overlayed on top of graphic text. Sometimes the cold white font of the page title disappeared into a light background. Or the buttons to the right covered up important features of said Facebook cover.

Once again, presentation destroyed. Back to recreating the cover image for billions of people.

Sorry, Facebook, your advertising box sucks


Facebook really likes that oblong box, don't they? So much so that they designated the dimension size for user-submitted ads to be 1200 x 628, which would be resized to fit placement. Cropping is determined by what platform it is viewed on: Desktop News, Right Column, or Mobile Feed.

Well, I thought I'd advertise my new book, People Who Need To Die. This is quite the challenge: how to fit a tall box—a book cover—into a long box. I certainly don't want the cover cropped to the middle as in posts. The obvious choice was to place the book cover on the left, and some text on the right. But Facebook has a rule: no more than 20% of the image can include text. My ad was declined.

Ad rejected because of more than twenty percent text.

So I had to go with the above photo of me holding the book, albeit, with much of the book title cropped out. We're not all trying to sell food recipes, Mr. Zuckerberg.

Presentation destroyed. Possible revenue lost.

My suggestions:

I don't believe in complaining about something unless I can offer a solution. So here we go.

1. Choose a better jpeg compression algorithm, or compress less. It's all about presentation.

2. Don't crop images. It's that simple. Make the best possible width for landscape images 500 pixels (easy to remember) and 500-pixels high for portrait, and be done with it. Those who care about image quality will heed those dimensions.

3. Allow any image on a shared page to be the thumbnail representative. Let the user make the decision, since it is the user's post or share.

4. Make the dimensions for all Facebook covers 800 x 250 pixels. Put the page title text and edit buttons back where they were pre-2014: below the image.

5. Allow ad images to fit into a box size where text can be placed anywhere, and/or allow the submitted text to wrap around the image within that box. And have it look exactly the same regardless of what platform or device it is viewed on.

It always surprises me when users have to post secret tips and workarounds for poorly designed products. Share this blog post and, hopefully, Mark Zuckerberg and his twentysomething Bohemian coders will work a little more common sense into their programs.

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