• What Makes A Great Thumbnail?


Doesn’t it feel great to finally upload a project?

Come up with a catchy title, add a little description, and press upload… sweet, sweet satisfaction! Walk away from the computer knowing that your film is out there in the feed for the world to see…

But hold it right there: did you just let Vimeo choose your thumbnail for you?

You didn’t…. DID YOU?

Don’t you think that you, the storyteller, could choose something better?

Yes, you definitely could.

As the storyteller and someone who has seen the film 1000 times, you know all the shots and from them you can choose the best thumbnail that makes people want to “click.”

But does the thumbnail REALLY matter all that much?…

Yes, it does!

Whether you’re uploading on Vimeo, YouTube, or whatever platform — thumbnail choice plays a big role in people’s choice to press play or keep scrolling.

There are some factors that make thumbnails more enticing than others, and it’s important to know what those are for every upload.

So… what type of image makes for a “clickable” thumbnail?

It’s hard to put the answer to that one sentence, but here’s the short version: something compelling, interesting, and story relevant.

And what does that look like, exactly?…

Here’s what makes a good thumbnail, according to the YouTube Creator Playbook:

  • Clear, in-focus, hi-resolution (640px X 360px min., 16:9 aspect ratio).
  • Bright, high-contrast.
  • Close-ups of faces.
  • Visually compelling imagery.
  • Well-framed, good composition.
  • Foreground stands out from background.
  • Looks great at both small and large sizes.
  • Accurately represents content.

In addition to that, here’s other stuff we always aim for in our thumbnail choices:

  • When applicable, text on the thumbnail can work well.
  • Something with a nice shallow DOF.
  • Something weird. If your film has some quirk, don’t hesitate to go with a quirky thumbnail.

*If you’re having trouble figuring out how to get YouTube to give you full access and choose custom thumbnails, here’s a helpful tutorial uploaded by the elusive ScorpionXII.

Think of it like you’re choosing the movie poster to be displayed in the lobby of the Internet…

With this in mind, let’s turn to the all-time master of movie posters for some advice in dangling the thumbnail carrot: Bill Gold.
He’s Hollywood’s most famous poster designer and graphic artist. He’s responsible for the iconic posters from Casablanca, The Exorcist, Alien, A Clockwork Orange, Dirty Harry and a whole slough of Clint Eastwood films… the list goes on and on.

Bill’s influential work changed the way that people do this type of work, and made movie poster design into its own art form.

In an article with the Hollywood Reporter on his legendary success in movie poster design-, Bill had this to say:

I think I was responsible for changing them because I’m more interested in the stories…

Of course, here he is making it sound SO FREAKING SIMPLE…

But maybe… just maybe.. it is that simple.

What makes these posters so great is their ability to spark intrigue by giving away a limited look into the story and what makes it unique and interesting — while still managing to spoil nothing for the viewer.

Obviously designing a movie poster is a much different process than choosing a still image from a film… but the mindset is relatively the same.

Bill Gold’s concepts for these posters didn’t come from his super savvy business strategies, and they weren’t driven by the “sex sells” philosophy.

It’s driven by story. By being interested in the story and believing in its power, Gold was able to create visually compelling imagery that had people saying “damn, I want to watch that.”

Check out more of Bill Gold’s work here.

Ask yourself: what is this thumbnail saying?

Thumbnails all ask the same question: will you click me?

So when you’re selecting yours… ask yourself, would you click it?

What makes YOU press play on a thumbnail?

For the majority of people on the Internet, it’s the same:

Compelling. Interesting. Story relevant.


What have you noticed works best for your thumbnails?

Tell us… we’re curious!

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8 Thoughts on “What Makes A Great Thumbnail?

  1. Really amazing, as usual. But it is comforting to discover that I am not the only one fix my screen for several longs minutes thinking «What would be the best visual to make this attractive?». Thank you for that!!

    It is now part of my editing process to output some frames, place them in a folder and rely on these images when I am uploading the story. And I often use Photoshop to add text or saturation to the thumbnail so it would be more eye catchy. Is it cheating?

  2. Great post. The thing I have the toughest time with is how all the thumbnails look together (on a portfolio page, for instance) – I feel like they have to complement each other well, and yet be different enough from each other that it’s interesting.

    • @Bryan-I’m going to add to your list that some text inside laurel leaves seems to be very trending among any staff picks on Vimeo. Correlation does not imply causation, but those leaves certainly do make us think that the film has some serious credibility behind it (although after viewing our opinions don’t always fall in line with what those fancy leaves made us assume : ) -George

  3. Great material, as always; you guys and gals do good work. But you haven’t addressed the whole issue of NOT EVERYONE has the ability to create a compelling CUSTOM thumbnail on YouTube, correct? Seems to be a limited chosen few who do. Your thoughts?

    • My understanding is that they’ve now made that option available to everyone on YouTube AFTER you’ve verified your account (which I think not everyone does…)

      This is a helpful video on the steps you need to take to verify your account and start uploading custom thumbnails: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Zs0gUJ7eAM

      I’ll add a link to this in the post, thanks for the insight!

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