Image Caption Design: Techniques and Trends

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Image captions are an often-overlooked element of Web design. They’re often thought of more in terms of function than form. As long as they include the proper photo credits or identifying information about the image subject, not much more thought is given to them.

But image captions are a great place to add a bit more style to your website or to give some unique insight into the subject of the image. Whether the captions are for photos on a news website or design samples in a portfolio, they present an opportunity for reinforcing the overall look of the website. When done properly, they can even add more visual interest and become a distinguishing trademark of a particular brand or website.

There are two basic kinds of photo captions. There is the simple, minimalist, down-to-business style. These usually have a simple sans-serif font in white, black or shades of gray. They are usually positioned either to the side or below an image, though sometimes they overlay or are above it. This type is commonly found on news websites but is also seen in portfolios and other websites.

The other major style is more graphic. This often include effects, such as the caption only appearing on a mouse-over or a “Details” button displayed that leads to the full caption. While fonts are still generally sans-serif, much more color is used, and the captions are often overlaid on the actual image. These types of image captions are generally seen on portfolio websites of designers and ad agencies. Of course, there are websites that use a crossover-type image caption, displaying elements of both styles.

Image Captions: Popular Styling Techniques

Designers use a variety of different approaches to style image captions. In most cases designers experiment with colors, using lighter colors on darker backgrounds. Italics are used very often, while the font size of image captions is usually smaller than the body copy. Let’s take a look at the overview of various techniques we have identified during our research.

  • caption text at the bottom, in italics

    Image Caption Design

  • caption text at the bottom, with light background color

    Image Caption Design

  • caption text at the bottom on a semi-transparent background

    Image Caption Design

  • caption text at the bottom on a dark background

    Image Caption Design

  • caption text with focus on typography

    Image Caption Design

  • caption text as an overlay

    Image Caption Design

  • image surrounded by a background

    Image Caption Design

  • icons in use

    Image Caption Design

  • image enumeration in use

    Image Caption Design

  • captions are right-aligned

    Image Caption Design

  • captions are right-aligned at the top

    Image Caption Design

  • captions are centered

    Image Caption Design

1. Simple and Minimalist Image Captions

Simple caption designs are the most common image caption designs. They can make a website appear more elegant, but if not integrated carefully into the overall design style of the website, they can end up just plain boring. Here are some that aren’t:

Viget.com

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A List Apart

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The New Yorker

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AIGA.org

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37Signals

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DesignLessBetter.com

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Jason Santa Maria

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Wired.com

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Inspirationbit.com

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Astheria.com

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AIGA

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Garrett Dimon

Screenshot

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Design Observer

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Designsensory
Design portfolio. Image and caption are set against a light gray background, and the caption text itself is in a darker gray.

Designsensory Screenshot

Reactive Web Design and Development
Design portfolio. This is about as minimalist as it gets: gray sans-serif type on a white background.

Reactive Screenshot

{e} house studio
Ad agency portfolio. These captions give a lot more information about the images than most, but they stick with the minimal gray-on-white color scheme. They do use a touch of serif type, setting them apart.

e House Studio Screenshot

Phony Lawn
Graphic design portfolio. Another website that includes a lot of information about the images but uses a light-gray and white-on-dark-gray color scheme.

Phony Lawn Screenshot

Pixelight Creative
Web design portfolio. The photo captions on this website are light-on-dark and set off to the side of the image.

Pixelight Creative Screenshot

Les Artistes
Art gallery website. Another minimal caption style, but this time made more interesting with a mouse-over effect.

Les Artistes Screenshot

Bainbridge Studios
Design portfolio. Simple white and light-gray on black captions set to the side of each image. This website includes a serif font in the captions.

Bainbridge Studios Screenshot

Studio7Designs
Web design portfolio. Another very simple dark-gray-on-light-gray style, with the image and caption both set against a light-gray box.

Studio 7 Designs Screenshot

CNN.com
News website. A simple but eye-catching caption set on a black, semi-transparent overlay with white lettering.

CNN Screenshot

New York Times
News website. This is probably one of the simplest caption styles out there, with the photo credit in small gray text and a description of the image in slightly larger same-color type.

New York Times Screenshot

Politico
News website. Gray background with black type. It doesn’t get much more minimal than this.

Politico Screenshot

MK Multimedia Communicatie
Design portfolio. This is one of the most elegant photo caption styles listed here, with a mix of serif and sans-serif type in shades of gray, set beside the image on a white background.

MK Multimedia Screenshot

Nepal Trek Tours
Travel photo gallery. The captions are set in such a way that they make the images resemble Polaroid photos: very fitting for a travel website, and showing that captions can make an impact graphically while remaining subtle and simple.

Nepal Trek Tours Screenshot

Thomas Cheng
Photography portfolio. Another set of captions that makes good use of typography and a gray-on-white color palette.

Thomas Cheng Screenshot

Designsensory.com

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2. Bold and Graphic Image Captions

Graphic image captions make use of brighter colors and bolder shapes to make the image captions stand out. They incorporate the image captions fully in the overall design of the website. Hot pinks, lime green and electric blue seem to be the most popular colors to use.

Vibrant captions

JeffCroft.com

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Typesites

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Segd.nl

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Designslices
Design portfolio. Lime green and hot pink can be a tough combination to pull off, but it’s done beautifully here. The black overlays, both transparent and opaque, add to the graphic appeal.

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Graphic Image Captions in Use

SuperflousBanter.org

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ILoveTypography

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Deep
Ad agency portfolio. The hot-pink header and drop-down details box give this website a very hip feel, while providing all of the pertinent details.

Deep.co.uk Screenshot

IDEO
Ad agency portfolio. The semi-transparent, color-coordinated overlays (the colors change depending on the ad’s color scheme) work really well here, and the simple, all-caps typeface works brilliantly.

IDEO Screenshot

Power to the Poster
Poster design showcase. The transparent color effects of these captions set them apart, and the mix of serif and sans-serif fonts adds interest.

Power to the Poster Screenshot

Design Snack
Web design showcase. The rounded corners and monochromatic color palette give a fitting Web 2.0 look to this Web design gallery.

Design Snack Screenshot

Freshivore
Web design portfolio. The oversized hot-pink titles and the light-gray meta information on the graphic, paper-like background combine to create a very appealing visual style.

Freshivore Screenshot

Mayor + Beusch
Architecture portfolio. The mouse-over captions are very bold in lime green, hot pink and electric blue.

Mayor + Beusch Screenshot

3. Hybrid Image Captions

These image caption designs combine elements from both simple and graphic designs. They’re a bit bolder than the minimalist designs, often using different colors or more graphic shapes, but more subdued than the bolder, graphic image captions above.

Hybrid Image Captions in Use

Frederica Cau
Design portfolio. The captions on these images provide tons of information, and the electric-blue headers tie in with the border of the image.

Frederica Cau Screenshot

Klinkov
Art portfolio. The captions for these images are set to the side and include nice blue-green and gray colors.

Klinkov Screenshot

PixelFuze
Design portfolio. Another website that makes use of lime green in the image captions, this time combined with electric blue and light gray.

Pixelfuze Screenshot

BestWebGallery
Web design showcase. The grayish-green type and tiny icon set these captions apart.

Best Web Gallery Screenshot

Jay Hafling
Web design portfolio. The oversized type and overlaid black caption space give these a graphic appeal while actually being quite simple.

Jay Hafling Screenshot

SOObox
Design gallery, I think (I don’t read whatever language this is in). The semi-transparent black overlays with white text are graphic while still being minimalistic. The rounded-corner overlays in the upper-left corner add a bit more visual appeal.

Screenshot

Letter Art Gallery
Art gallery website. The simple, all-caps, electric-blue captions are simple while still providing some “pop.”

Letter Art Gallery Screenshot

Aten Design Group
Design portfolio. The slightly muted electric-blue headers provide some extra visual pop, while the remaining light gray text keeps the caption design from being overwhelming.

Aten Design Group Screenshot

ten24 SEO
SEO site. Another relatively simple light-gray-on-dark-gray caption design, but with some nice mint-green type.

1024 Media Screenshot

Albert Lo
Design portfolio. Simple serif type over a light background, but with a pale-blue header color.

Albert Lo Screenshot

MSNBC
News website. Very simple, with dark gray and blue type, set off to the side.

MSNBC Screenshot

People
News website. A caption with a bright-blue background, with white and light-gray type in a serif font.

People Screenshot

CLD Web Gallery
Web design showcase. Very simple captions that show the title of the website and its rating in gray and light-blue on a darker, steel-gray background.

CLD Web Gallery Screenshot

Junghoon Park
Design portfolio. Hot-pink and black sans-serif type on a plain white background.

The 2nd Day Screenshot

Addicott Web
Dark-gray and light-blue sans-serif type on a light-gray background, with the caption widely spaced and underneath the image.

Addicott Web Screenshot

(al)

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Cameron Chapman is a professional Web and graphic designer with over 6 years of experience. She writes for a number of blogs, including her own, Cameron Chapman On Writing. She’s also the author of The Smashing Idea Book: From Inspiration to Application.

  1. 1

    Great article – really nice to have articles that deal with the detail of online design.

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  2. 2

    I appreciate this article – having the images of the sites along with commentary is really helpful for understanding the content quickly. Great list too!

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  3. 3

    Ron Paul 2008

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  4. 4

    Great idea for a post. Some inspiring examples. Thanks for the mention too.

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  5. 5

    Wow! Great articles with techniques and detail step! Thank you for sharing this!
    Design is also about small detail!

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  6. 6

    Great post, very useful to the readers specially to the web designers and developers who build websites. Keep them up!

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  7. 7

    What is design without caption? :)

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  8. 8

    in my humble opinion, image caption is very useful in design, to show the information related to the pics. thanks for sharing. nice article.

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  9. 9

    Thats some real nice info on image caption. Just another good thread from SM! thank you very much!

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  10. 10

    Nice article, great inspiration

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  11. 11

    Wow. Great collection. It’s always amazing how something so simple can have such an effect on a design. And this is just a small bit of what’s out there.

    I decided to go for a very simple design on the captions on my blog section – a solid vertical block on the left-hand side and italic type.

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  12. 12

    Design matters even if you can hardly see it. Small details can have big effects.

    Good article.

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  13. 13

    Thank you, great article. Let’s all have a closer look to the details in web design.

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  14. 14

    Great article!

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  15. 15

    Finally! =3

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  16. 16

    The sooBox.com is Vietnamese

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  17. 17

    Nice collection, and thanks for the mention!

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  18. 18

    Alex | CrazyLeaf Design Blog

    November 5, 2008 3:27 pm

    That’s a great article. Thanks for mentioning CLD Web Gallery.

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  19. 19

    Doesn’t seem like two many variations… Pretty much whatever you decide to do will work out.

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  20. 20

    wow, http://www.mayorbeusch.ch featured in smashingmagazine ^__^
    Glad you appreciate it, thanks

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  21. 21

    Hello,

    In your post you are making a very simple and very bad design mistake – very dangerous for a design-oriented blog like yours! :)

    When you add a caption (speaking of captions) to an image, you might put it on the top or on the bottom of an image. But if there are two or more images in a column, it might get confusing, to which image the caption is meant to concern, especially if you start looking from somewhere in the middle of the column.

    That is the same case with this post – look at the section “Image Captions: Popular Styling Techniques”. To solve this all you have to do is add a divider or another breaking-space after a set of image-caption. Very simple and helpful for a viewer.

    Thanks.

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  22. 22
  23. 23

    This is great! Whenever I face a design challenge this site is always here for the rescue!

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  24. 24

    This one’s great anyway, but I’m looking for the best technique in writing caption of a photo given.Hope you can post better one!!

    Just for my upcoming competition. Thank you!!

    0

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