Breaking the stigma

In the age of social media, the term “clickbait” is a reminder of our desire for knowledge and the pervasive role of online marketing—as it applies to entertainment, politics, etc. Whether it boils down to misleading headlines or thumbnails that have no relevance to a video you are about to watch, everyone has had their time wasted by online content that promised more than it delivered.

However, clickbait’s complicated nature speaks to the reality of contemporary media. Ben Frampton of BBC suggests that clickbait “seems to be here to stay” and that different organizations—in his case, journalism—“have a decision to make on what they want to offer people and where their priorities lie.”

So, where do our priorities—as media content creators—lie? How do we promote our skills through thumbnails and create expectations that live up to what we’ve promised our viewers?

Are thumbnails necessary?

In short, absolutely! We are in an age of instant gratification, where video-sharing platforms like YouTube provide a limitless supply of content for us to consume at a rapid pace.

In fact, The Washington Post’s coverage of a 2019 Common Sense Media study states that “more than twice as many young people watch videos every day as did four years ago, and the average time spent watching videos — mostly on YouTube — has roughly doubled, to an hour each day.”

This is an environment where users have increased their expectations toward aesthetics, and where knowledge of content creators weigh into every, single, click. A thumbnail is an integral part of the process, a reflection of our brand identity and can make or break our digital image. As we go through how to create a thumbnail, we will be using examples from some familiar YouTube content creators. Let’s start with….

Quality, always!

Always use high-quality images. Whether you create wedding videos, landscape, astrophotography or product reviews, use quality imagery that stands out and shows your creative vision right from the start. The sky’s the limit, especially when using platforms like Canva, Adobe Spark—both Canva and Adobe Spark are free—or more advanced tools like Photoshop to create thumbnails that add consistency to your brand identity. It’s just a good rule of thumb—pun intended—to go the extra mile and make it your own.

What about color and font?

You want your videos to stand out, no question, but there’s a fine balance between getting attention and using too many different colors, font styles and graphics all at once. You don’t want the image to be cluttered, but you want to make an impression.

Think about the color of your images. Are you in one set location with warm lighting or do you intend on always being outside with natural lighting? Do you want to be in a dark setting? Some YouTubers film in the exact same location, which leads to a more consistent look.

Whatever the case, use text with contrasting colors that pop. Blacks, reds, whites and yellows are a safe place to start out but don’t limit yourself to the possibilities. If your brand color is teal, magenta or hot pink, rock it!

Indy Mogul Thumbnail
Indy Mogul Thumbnail

Indy Mogul has a charming style that draws attention to their videos. Here, the easy-to-read font styles and contrasting colors highlight the subject matter. In addition, you want to stray from fonts that might be difficult to read—like the “Cinema Camera Test” text in Tom Antos’ photo.

Tom Antos Thumbnail

Language counts

With thumbnails, less is more. Hint at what will be discussed and how it benefits the viewer.

D4Darious Thumbnail

In the first image, D4Darious’ thumbnail gets straight to the point by using TOP 15 MISTAKES, which leads into the video’s actual title “Top 15 Mistakes Beginner Filmmakers Make,” while Kai W rarely uses text in his thumbnails, opting to entice us with titles like “SONY A7C – Well, I wasn’t expecting THAT to happen.” Kai W is urging us to click, and we know his style —comical, but highly informative—so we go along for the ride. And while D4Darious’ thumbnail is eye-catching, it’s good to vary the thumbnail text from the actual title of the video and cut down on redundancies in the information.  

Kai W Thumbnail

This Indy Mogul thumbnail is a perfect example of language that complements the actual video title. The thumbnail says “Low Budget Setup,” while the video is actually called “How to Make Your Webcam Footage Look Better | Filmmaker Explains.”

Again, you want to vary your word usage in your thumbnails. Some YouTubers ask a brief question or use statements like “Stop Doing This” to pique viewers’ interests.

Indy Mogul Thumbnail

Oh, the emotions!

The emotional quality of your images is yet another fascinating, psychological aspect of creating a thumbnail that resonates with an audience. You’ll notice that a majority of the images shown have the content creators in the photo, alongside the equipment, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and exaggerated facial expressions. This simple addition of the creator, who is always a subject of the video, lends a personal touch that connects with followers.

Test the digital waters

In the end, you have to play around with formats until something truly defines your brand, but never forget to have fun with the process and see where it takes you.   


Frampton, Ben. “Clickbait: The changing face of online journalism.” BBC News 14.09 (2015): 2015.

Siegel, Rachel. “Tweens, teens and screens: The average time kids spend watching online videos has doubled in 4 years.” Washington Post, Oct. 29, 2019,