Writing Specs for Stock Images

Author: Peter Reid - February 3, 2021

An image researcher needs the key words when looking through hundreds of images to get at the core content.

Whether you are producing print or digital content or writing specifications for stock images, video, or commissioned illustration, it can be a challenge for designers and editors. For publishers, the goal is to have art approved quickly, ideally within the third pass. This allows the image to be placed on page and approved in context. It can also be ready for simultaneous development for digital work, allowing it to be altered or broken into pieces for the desired intention. Unfortunately, the first review (1R) rarely goes smoothly, and there is a chance that the spec can miss the mark entirely, leading to rework and introducing an error risk due to the dependency on the art for carrying key content. 

In educational publishing, image and video spec writing is incredibly important. Photos should not only follow accessibility, diversity, and state guidelines, but they must carry and directly relate to written content.

When searching online, I found very little training explicit to writing and reviewing art specifications for educational publishing.  In this ongoing series of blogs, I will outline common mistakes to avoid that will help you get finished art on page before the final PDF review.

The Short Spec

Image researchers need to understand the context of a spec in order to do a quality research before the first review. Often, in jobs where the specs written were too short, with no context provided and no resource available to ask for clarification, the result is wasted time and an additional two or three rounds of image reviews. Even worse, the image may be approved before it gets put on page, but once there, is rejected when seen in context.  To illustrate this point, the example below is meant to help students solve a math problem.

Example of a too-short spec:

Two stacks of books.

All five of these images match the specification given, but none of them have what is needed to support the content.

There is clearly not enough detail to provide context or purpose for the image because the spec is overly broad. Ideally, the text content should also have been provided to further help the researcher and designer give context to the specification; however, a Teaching Objective (TO) may do just as well. The result gives the researcher an image that fulfills the content goal and enables the researcher to cross it off the list.

Improved spec:

Two stacks of books, side by side, in color. One stack is 2/3 taller than the other. Teaching Objective: To compare height and proportion.

A detailed spec featuring a description that supports the written content along with a TO helps design and image research get to the core of the content.

Educational publishing is deadline driven and budget conscious, requiring researchers to move quickly. Too often, our minds assume that the next person in the development chain knows what we know. Taking the time to write a full spec and providing context for the next person in the development process will ultimately save you time and budget in rework, allowing you to move forward and reduce the risk of errors in final printer PDF review.

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