A well-designed thumbnail image makes a memorable first impression and attracts viewers to the video you worked hard to produce. I’ll show you how I embellished an image in Adobe Photoshop, added bold type, and saved it to use on social media.
Before You Start
I’ve provided some sample images and files for you to experiment with, or else apply my techniques on images from your own collection.
Step 1: Find That Choice Shot
Before you do anything in Photoshop, find an image that has the elements of good thumbnail design. Images of people, bold colors, and simple subjects are great—nothing with too much visual clutter. I decided to use a screenshot of a colorful clip from my video.
Once you have your image, create a new document in Photoshop and set the dimensions for your thumbnail. If you’re uploading to YouTube as I am, 1280 x 720 are the right dimensions. Drag the image into your open document and use the handles to resize it; then drag it into position. For this project, I moved the image so the subject would be slightly off-center to leave room for the text I’m adding later.
Tip: Zooming in and out as I work, pressing Control +/– (Windows) or Command +/– (macOS), helps me see what my thumbnail will look like at different screen sizes.
Step 2: Add Decorative Flair
For this thumbnail, I created a cutout look so the shoes would stand out from the background. I chose the Polygonal Lasso tool and clicked around the outside of the subject to make a rough selection. Don’t worry about precision—we’re going for a hand-cut effect. Once you complete the selection, right-click and choose Layer Via Copy.
Step 3: Create a Bold Stroke
To give the cutout a distinctive outline, double-click the new layer and then click Stroke in the Layer Style dialog. Experiment with the settings until you find a look that complements your image. Below are the Size, Position, Blend Mode, and Color I liked for my composition.
Step 4: Brighten Up the Background
A gradient can make your background pop while still keeping it clean and simple. To add a gradient, click the Adjustment Layer icon in the Layers panel and choose Gradient. Experiment with the gradients in the presets to see what you like. My favorite was an orange-to-pink gradient. I love the bright colors and it goes well with the original pink background. Drag the Gradient Fill down in the Layers panel until it appears behind the cutout layer.
In the Layers panel, mouse over each blend mode to see how it affects your image. I like how the Overlay blend mode brought back some of the shadow details from the original image.
Step 5: Add Text for Context
The right amount of text can give your viewers a hint of what to expect from your video. Choose the Type tool to add a brief descriptive title, and then pick a font. I like text to be legible across a variety of screen sizes. You can use a font you already have or browse through thousands of available typefaces by clicking More Fonts from Adobe Fonts from the Font list. Activate your choices so you can use them in your project. In the Character panel, you can customize settings such as size and color, as well as tracking (space between letters) and leading (space between lines).
Step 6: Frame Your Title
Shapes and bright colors can make your title stand out. Choose the Rectangle tool and drag to draw a frame around the first line of text. Pick a fill color that complements your image, and then drag the rectangle down in the Layers panel so it appears behind the text. To resize the rectangle, press Control+T (Windows) or Command+T (macOS) and drag the handles; then drag the rectangle to reposition it. Press Enter or Return on your keyboard to save the changes.
Duplicate the rectangle by pressing Control+J / Command+J. Resize it to fit the length of the text on the second line and position it behind the title. Hold Shift as you click both rectangle layers in the Layers panel and press Control+G / Command+G to group them.
Step 7: Add a Shadow for Emphasis
A drop shadow is a great way to add dimension to your thumbnail title. Double-click the new group in the Layers panel and click the Drop Shadow option. Change the color and any other settings to create the look you want. I wanted a hard-edged shadow, so I set the Spread and Size to 0 and adjusted the Distance. See all my settings below.
Make a Great Impression
I always save my thumbnails twice—once in JPEG format so I can upload it to YouTube, and also in the original Photoshop format (PSD) so I can easily make changes to the design later or use it as a template for my next thumbnail.
As you build a collection of thumbnails, using similar colors, type treatments, and layouts can help create a cohesive look and feel on your social media channels. To get you started, I included some designs in the sample files. Feel free to download them and start creating.