Welcome to Interview #1 of our Thumbnail Designer Interview Series! If you’ve been creating on YouTube for a while, you know very well that thumbnails can make or break your video. (to put it mildly!)
Designing a good thumbnail is an art and a science—but how does it all come together? We spoke to some of the world's best thumbnail designers to find out. This is the first interview in a series that will deep dive into the often elusive world of thumbnail design.
We hope these conversations help you make better decisions and reach your creative and commercial goals.
Let’s dive straight in!
Introduction & Backstory
Could you introduce yourself?
I’m Jay Alto - a thumbnail design analyst and educator. I've spent the last 2 years deeply studying YouTube. I help creators make better thumbnails—whether that’s through 1:1 consulting sessions, workshops, guides, or courses. Through my work, I’ve helped early-stage creators improve their thumbnail design, established creators optimize their existing thumbnail strategy, and aided designers' understanding of the theory behind what makes a good thumbnail. I've been lucky enough to work with some of the biggest creators on the platform including MrBeast, Matthew Beem, Niko Omilana and many more talented creators.
Early on, I realized there was a gap in the market and enough interest and need for thumbnail education. While there were people who covered it in passing, there was no one covering it on its own. The big guys that have been around for ages (Paddy Galloway for instance, mentions it in some of his breakdowns and videos) but that’s about it. No one was really focusing on it.
I always loved the way that the whole creative space was growing, and how more emphasis was being put on niche audiences and niche topics. That’s why I decided to focus on thumbnail design.
What got you started in thumbnail design? What led you to move into education and consultancy ?
I came into this particular niche in an interesting way. I don't come from a design background. I really come from a love of the platform. I've been on YouTube for probably over 10 years now. I’ve been posting Call of Duty content since the age of 14, which then gradually matured as my interests changed.
When the pandemic hit, it prompted me to ask myself what is it that I really want to do long term. I wasn't really happy in my previous role working at a startup. I didn't see myself doing it long term. Every question I asked myself eventually led me to YouTube. That’s when it hit me. YouTube.
I didn't know what exactly I was going to do, but I knew that whatever I did, I needed to understand YouTube extremely well. So I studied the whole platform, trying to work out what it takes to become a good YouTuber. From editing, to the algorithm, to thumbnails, titles, charisma, camera presence, and everything else you could possibly think of. I was trying to work out where I could offer the most value. That’s how I stumbled into thumbnails.
And then when I checked the market, I realized no one was really doing it. That’s when I decided that I was going to specialize in thumbnails.
I came into it with the mindset of a content creator. My niche was just thumbnail education. And I didn't want to put too much emphasis on monetization to start. I was lucky that I didn't have to because I had a regular job alongside to give me some income. The pandemic also forced me to move back in with my parents, which actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I didn’t have rent going out every month. It was a fortunate situation because I didn’t have to focus on monetization. So, for the first 6 months and even now - that is still the focus. It was just a lot of study and a lot of good content.
I chose Twitter as my platform, because I felt it was the easiest platform to get started on — the easiest place to get my first 1000 followers, compared to YouTube or any other platform. I decided to keep making content: write threads, review thumbnails, speak to creators; trying to learn as much as I could, so that I could have output to show.
Once my audience started growing, I introduced different forms of monetization. I started my own consultancy. Initially, I just wanted to speak to someone for an hour. what clients need. The questions they would ask helped me understand what creators struggled with—what they really needed instead of making assumptions.
Gradually, I ramped up both: my price and volume. Now I’ve come to a place where I have structured retainer deals with some of my clients who have ongoing work with specific channels. I’ve also been building out my first course.
So overall, what I do is very content focussed. Two sides to it - one that is focussed on creating content and the other side is monetizing it. It’s always been about balancing those two aspects.
Thumbnail Design Best Practices
Okay, let’s now deep dive into some of the technical stuff:
What are some of the common traits you’ve seen among engaging thumbnails and thumbnail designers? Could you outline some best practices for creators looking to up their thumbnail game?
YouTube is an incredibly competitive space. Your thumbnail needs to cut through the noise to grab the viewer's attention. It has to provide context and appeal to the viewer's interests very rapidly.
Really focus on the viewer's journey. Think very meticulously about how someone goes from opening YouTube to clicking on a video.
The next thing is the hook. It gives the viewer a reason to click. It tells the viewer that your video is worth their time. Thumbnails are small and people don't spend very long looking at them. So once you've got their attention, you have to show them that your video is something that they might be interested in.
An important note here: while I focus on thumbnails, titles are equally crucial. I see them all as a combined package which makes viewers click.
Could you unpack the role of emotive faces in thumbnails? Which ones work best to influence viewers to click on videos?
Faces, particularly emotive faces, are very good at getting people's attention.They do a lot of the heavy lifting. It makes sense because it gives an enormous amount of context to the video. Having people in your thumbnails as a general rule is very good.
Look at Mr Beast for instance. He’s at the top for a reason. I did a pretty deep dive into Mr. Beast’s thumbnails, and it seems like videos centered around fear do very well. We don't know whether it’s necessarily the fearful facial expression that is causing this, or just the video ideas that are centered around fear. But it’s pretty clear that there is a correlation between fear and high viewership.
We also see the surprised face as the default thumbnail face. That’s because it’s a compelling hook. It gives the viewer no choice but to click. It conveys to a viewer that whatever it is that you're showing is too great for them to scroll on. It is driven by curiosity.
How important of a role does color psychology play in thumbnails?
Color is very important. It is where design and psychology crossover. Some creators think that bright and colorful will do the job. But it’s much deeper than that. What they don't consider is contrast. Using salient colors to bring out objects in a thumbnail takes it one step further. It highlights certain elements versus others in the background.
The more salient the color, the better. That’s why red is so popular. That’s why the red arrow works.
Some creators change thumbnails for existing videos in the hopes of increasing CTR - how effective is this practice?
Thumbnails don't make up for a bad video. This is fundamental. You have to come up with good video ideas. The best thumbnails can't make up for a bad idea. Yes, we can get people to click. But eventually, if the idea is bad, they're just going to leave.
For most early stage creators, the focus should be to work out what is good content. Yes, in certain situations, the CTR might be low because of a mediocre thumbnail. But the priority initially should be to test out ideas and find a content style that the audience wants.
My advice would be to make sure your video idea is good enough and worth a click before going about changing the thumbnail.
Importance of A Creative Team
What is the best way for a creator to scale their operations? When is the right time to hire a thumbnail designer?
I think of the creator landscape very much like the startup landscape. it's important to find content-market-fit before thinking about hiring a team. It’s pointless to have 10 people making a video that hasn’t found content market fit.
How will you know when you’ve found it? When you put out a low-quality, unoptimized edit, and people still love it — because you're actually making content that people want.
I've seen channels that build thumbnails in PowerPoint and edit on iMovie and have millions of subscribers. It really shows you that good content is fundamental.
Once you've found content-market-fit, then you can focus on scale and start ramping up your team.
If you’re asking yourself if you’ve made the right content, you’ve probably not made the right content.
As a creator, what is the best way to find a great thumbnail designer to work with?
It’s a very small world. There's not many designers around and I think one of the reasons is because there was a misalignment between what creators expected and what designers were delivering. Things are changing though.
It’s important to remember that even the best designers won’t know your idea as well as you do. Moreover, they won’t know your target audience as well as you do. And those are the two things you have to truly understand before being able to make a good thumbnail.
If I was hiring a thumbnail designer, I would be very involved in the process. I would look for people that have the technical ability and have done good work in a similar niche as mine. And I think once you've got those things in the right places, you can start building a really creatively productive relationship. Collaboration over time gets you the best results.
Can we talk about the importance of social credibility in the world of thumbnail design?
Many Designers think it's important to have a Behance pro portfolio. But in reality no one goes there apart from other designers. From what I've seen, Twitter has taken this role (of establishing social credibility). It’s also where the creators already are.
You can see people’s work, their followers, their tweets, their portfolio, it's all there. People get found out pretty quickly, and I don't think they would survive posting other people's stuff. If they did, they would get called out.
I think it would be great to have an inbuilt credits system within YouTube. Currently, unless designers and other creative team members share their work themselves, they don’t really get credit. So I would love any tool that does that. There's a reason why films have 10 minutes at the end just for credits.
The future: we have some interesting tech coming up with Dall E, etc. How do you think tech will change thumbnail designing in the future?
I think it's super exciting. I've seen a lot of Dal E work, but I haven't seen anyone do it for thumbnails. I think John Coogan did some stuff with it. I am on the waiting list and would love to get my hands on it. When I do, I'll be doing a lot of stuff on it.
Let's say hypothetically, that AI becomes good enough to design effective thumbnails, I think there will always be a role for designers in the advisory space. You've got to know the input for the machine to get the right output. So I think that roles will evolve with technology.
Having said that, I do think it's quite a long way off. Right now, it’s a great tool for inspiration. I often use Google Images to see how other people have visually represented certain ideas. I think that's where tools like Dall E could come in. AI could help humans find ways to visually represent ideas. Then (human) designers can come in and put the whole thing together.
I think we all have to adapt and find out what value we can provide in the space because there will always be opportunities — Dall E might actually open up a lot more jobs for people who adapt their skill sets accordingly.
What resources (books, videos, courses, etc.) would you recommend to aspiring designers who want to make it?
This space is evolving quickly and books and blogs are still playing catch up. I would take one step back and look at the marketing and the advertising world. That’s where a lot of my insights come from. The principles there can be adjusted for the thumbnail space.
The most popular marketing books all seem to be pretty valuable. This is marketing by Seth Godin is a great one. Austin Kleon, as well. Then there’s advertising. I literally Googled the top 10 books to read about advertising and that gave me a list which I read.
I would also recommend my own blog. I'm outlining many of these marketing and advertising theories there. So if you don't want to read marketing books, check out my work!
Would you like to talk about what's coming up next for you? Anything you'd like to plug?
We have a course starting very soon. We're in early stages of testing. We've got a few people going through it now and getting some feedback. So hopefully, we’ll get a public release within the next couple of weeks. I'm excited to expand in terms of distribution. I have a lot of work on YouTube, so I should probably start a YouTube channel soon. Loads of exciting stuff to come!