What if a single image could be the difference between a YouTube hit and a piece of—uh… content that didn’t perform very well?

We all know how much effort it takes to create video content, and if that content struggles to get views… it can be extremely demotivating.

But here’s the good news: With the right thumbnail design strategy, you can turn that around.

Thumbnail Design Strategy concept image with on-screen text that says "How to Make Thumbnails Stand Out" over blurred YouTube style video grid background

When someone browses an app like YouTube, they have what feels like an unlimited amount of options. They scroll through a series of competing thumbnail images and titles—each trying to give them a reason to click…

But believe it or not, great thumbnail design strategy is actually more of a psychological exercise than a graphic design one.

By the end of this article, you will know:

  • The primary goals of a thumbnail image
  • Common psychological triggers used by successful YouTubers
  • The ideal stage of your creative process for creating thumbnail images
  • 7 tips on how to make your thumbnail images more unique and stand out in a crowd
  • How to improve your thumbnail design and strategy skills

And with that, let’s talk about the importance of thumbnail image design strategy for video creators.

Sarah Renae Clark lying with hair spread amongst a giant burst of colorful pencils
I Tested EVERY Colored Pencil in the WORLD! — Sarah Renae Clark (YouTube)

The human brain can process images seen for as little as 13 milliseconds.

And a compelling image can convey a lot of information at a glance—instantly evoking curiosity, fear, desire, or any number of other emotions.

This is why a striking visual can be more effective at grabbing attention than text.

Man placing the final cube on a large pyramid of colorful cubes
Why did I order 3000 Rubik’s cubes? — Mike Boyd (YouTube)

Hook, Line and Sinker: Master the Art of Thumbnail Design to Reel in Your Audience

The primary function of your thumbnail image, along with your title, is to spark an intense curiosity in your viewer.

Remember, your audience is rapidly scrolling through numerous thumbnails on their screen—each one vying for their click.

Productivity expert Sam Matla holding a book with a question mark, hinting at intriguing content
This Book Changed My Life (Now I Read It Every Year) — Sam Matla (YouTube)

There are several psychological triggers successful YouTubers use to grab attention:

  • Expressive Faces – Especially facial expressions showing emotion.
  • Urgency or Scarcity – Including urgent text like “Watch before it’s deleted!” or “Only 24 hours left!” This creates a fear of missing out.
  • Social Proof – Showing logos of big brands/publications they’ve been featured in to build credibility.
  • Curiosity Gaps – Asking or illuding to an intriguing question. Showing a “before/after” split to spark interest.
  • Recognizability – Leveraging familiar symbols, characters, celebrities, or clichés that their target audience will recognize.

A great thumbnail is one that instantly grabs attention. It stands out as unique among others in the same category or genre, and stops the viewer’s scroll long enough for them to move their attention to your title.

YouTuber Veritasium on a boat in a reservoir covered with black shade balls
Why Are 96,000,000 Black Balls on This Reservoir? — Veritasium (YouTube)

Then, it’s your title’s job to fully open a curiosity gap, and together with its thumbnail—pose a question so captivating and urgent that it demands an answer.

Finally, the job of your actual video content is to answer that question and resolve the curiosity gap posed by your intriguing thumbnail and title.

And there you have it: The modern video creation experience in a nutshell.

So, what’s the best way to achieve this?

Flip the Script—Why You Should Design Your Thumbnail First

The majority of video creators treat thumbnails as a last-minute design task—an afterthought.

“Yes! I finally finished the video! Oh right, I guess I need to come up with a thumbnail…”

Unfortunately, the overwhelming advice is that this is not a great strategy for success.

In fact, most successful creators say you should come up with and design your thumbnail image BEFORE you create your video, making it literally the first thing to do in your video creation process—right alongside your content idea generation and research.

Matt D'Avella surrounded by an array of everyday items from kitchenware to electronics
I counted everything I own as a minimalist. — Matt D’Avella (YouTube)

By designing your thumbnail first, you set yourself up to create a cohesive content package.

You gain additional clarity on:

  • Your target audience
  • The promise of the video
  • What questions, challenges, or ideas need to be answered or addressed
  • How you might need to structure the script to do that

Ultimately, a thumbnail-first approach is likely to result in a more engaging and seamless viewing experience.

Crafting Thumbnails That Click: 7 Tips for Conveying Your Video’s Message Instantly and Uniquely

How can you instantly convey your video’s message and engage your audience?

Remember: Design plays an important role, but it’s not about elaborate or intricate design elements.

Close-up of a man's eyes looking through blinds, in black and white
How to quickly ruin the rest of your life — Better Ideas (YouTube)

It’s about creating a captivating question that compels the viewer to click to find an answer.

It’s also about making something that stands out in a crowded space.

Here are 7 ways to help you do just that:

1. Keep Your Thumbnail Design Simple

  • We’ve all heard K.I.S.S. right? Remember: Less is more.
  • Complexity in your thumbnail image is something you want to avoid at all costs. A busy thumbnail is one that doesn’t immediately paint a clear picture to a potential viewer.
  • Have 2 or 3 primary elements AT MOST—a face, an object, some text. These are typically very prominent in the thumbnail design.
Content creator holding a sign 'OVERSUBSCRIBED' with luxury items floating around
Creating Demand: Sell Out Every Time! — The Futur (YouTube)

2. Make Your Thumbnail Unique in Your Category

  • Take a look at other thumbnails in your genre or category, and instead of mimicking them—try doing the opposite.
  • This might help your thumbnail stand out from the crowd.
  • For example, the below thumbnail from Aprilynne Alter stands out because most of the videos in her genre primarily use dark backgrounds.
Curious woman looking at a selection of colorful gradient thumbnails with a cursor
how to make a killer thumbnail (to blow up your channel) — Aprilynne Alter (YouTube)

3. Use Contrast to Make It Pop

  • Use bold and exciting colors (preferably different to other popular videos in your category)… complimentary colors are a great way to establish contrast.
  • Contrast draws the eye and makes for striking imagery.
  • Try to keep it to a minimum of 2-3 prominent colors
Hayden Hillier-Smith shows us the difference between a boring edit and an amazing one. Focusing on sound design can really make your videos stand out.
The One Step You’re Neglecting In Your Edits, Here’s Proof It Works. — HillierSmith (YouTube)

4. Make Text LARGE & BOLD, and Don’t Use Many Words

  • A good rule of thumb (get it? 🤣) is to keep on-screen text to a minimum… preferably fewer than 5 or 6 words in total.
  • Text should be impactful and additive.
  • Use it to elevate curiosity, mystery, fear, urgency, or desire.
  • Don’t just repeat your title with on-screen text—this is just wasted screen real estate. Instead, have them compliment each other.
Jenny Hoyos smiling with glasses in a pink shirt speaking into a microphone with on-screen text that says "I can make anything viral."
Meet the YouTuber Who Solved Shorts (Jenny Hoyos Interview) — Jay Clouse (YouTube)

5. Zoom Out—Analyze Your Thumbnail at a Very Small Size

  • Make sure your primary elements still stand out when the image is very small.
  • Remember: 99.96413% (I did a study…) of people won’t be looking at your thumbnail in it’s GLORIOUS 4K resolution… and plenty of them will be on a mobile device.
Notion can be a total game changer. Learn to transform your productivity and research by capturing, organizing, and creating in a single application.
Notion Masterclass: Build a Second Brain from Scratch — Thomas Frank Explains (YouTube)

6. Use Your Face!

  • Want a sure-fire way to make sure your thumbnails are unique? Use your face!
  • I’m sure you’re as tired as I am of the over-exaggerated faces some YouTubers make on their thumbnails… but the truth is: it works.
  • We are instinctually drawn to human faces—especially familiar or highly expressive ones that are displaying a strong emotion.
Confident man with sunglasses holding a mug and camera with a to-do list
How To Make Videos Like a PRO YouTuber — finzar (YouTube)

7. Establish a Consistent Branded Look

  • Creating a consistent “look” can be very powerful. By keeping a consistent style, color palette, and design… you are essentially building in familiarity.
  • One of my favorite recent examples of this is David Perell’s “How I Write” podcast series below:
Unlock the secrets of copywriting from a media mogul who built a multi-million dollar publishing empire that captivates audiences and transforms careers.
How To Write Your Way To Millions of Dollars and Subscribers (YouTube)
Illustrated portrait of Marc Andreessen with 'How I Write' text
A Masterclass to Fuel Your Online Writing (YouTube)
Illustrated image of Kevin Kelly with 'How I Write' podcast title
The Unexpected Guide to Writing that Amazes (YouTube)

How to Improve Your Thumbnail Design and Strategy Skills

Start by sharpening your graphic design skills as a whole:

  • Study basic design principles like composition, balance, contrast, and alignment
  • Learn color theory—how different colors interact and how to use color palettes to convey different moods
  • Avoid clutter by keeping things simple and focused
  • Analyze and learn from successful movie posters and other YouTube thumbnails
  • Experiment and iterate with different designs—varying layouts, color schemes, and typography

Want to level-up your graphic design knowledge and skills?

Check out Nate Kadlac’s recent “How To Design Click-Worthy Images” article, and learn how to create click magnets that bring in the views.

The truth is: If you’re truly paying attention, you’ll start to notice that beautiful design is all around us.

Movie poster for "Jaws"
“Jaws” Movie Poster
Movie poster for "Scarface"
“Scarface” Movie Poster
Movie poster for "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial"
“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” Movie Poster

However, improving your thumbnail strategy and psychology skills can be a little more tricky, as the best way to grow this skill requires a kind of self-awareness and meta-observation.

Strive to be an active observer and mindful consumer when browsing content, and train yourself to pay attention to and analyze what grabs your attention (as a consumer).

This is easier said than done, and something we can all get better at… but here are a few ways that can be helpful:

  • Take note of when a particular thumbnail catches your eye, and more importantly… try figure out WHY it caught your eye
  • Consider keeping a database of quality YouTube thumbnails (I highly recommend Notion for this)—complete with explanations of what makes each stand out
  • Study the thumbnails of successful YouTube videos, and continually analyze the thumbnails of others in your niche to determine how you can differentiate
  • Experiment with variations of your thumbnail design (For example, A/B testing 2 different thumbnails for one video), while keeping an eye on analytics to see which performs better

Additional Resources for Thumbnail Design and Strategy

A great thumbnail can make all the difference on YouTube.

It can take a video that might otherwise go unnoticed… and turn it into a viral sensation.

So when it comes to great thumbnail design strategy, there’s always more to learn. Here are some additional resources you might find useful and valuable:

Final Thoughts

If (like most people) you have already created a video and are stuck when it comes to designing a thumbnail for it…

Prioritize the video’s main idea.

You don’t have to get fancy. A simple screenshot of a key moment in your video can work great—especially if you pair it with an intriguing title.

Remember, the ultimate goal of your thumbnail design is not to be a unique work of art—but instead an effective tool in attracting viewers.

It should be clear, concise, and directly aligned with the content of your video.

YouTube is a highly competitive environment, and a well-crafted thumbnail can make all the difference in capturing and maintaining the viewer’s interest.

Man with a confident smile next to the text "100+ VIRAL IDEAS"
How To Generate 100+ Viral Content Ideas In 30 Minutes — Ship 30 for 30 (YouTube)

Finally, while implementing some of the above strategies may feel like clickbait… if your content ANSWERS the intriguing question or idea posed by the thumbnail and title:

It’s not clickbait, it’s just catchy marketing.

Your Turn

This article’s primary focus was on addressing great thumbnail design strategy… but what about the graphic design tools that go into creating a thumbnail?

If you’re interested in an article dedicated to the specific tools I use to create a thumbnail, let me know in the comments below!

Also, let us know if there are other techniques or strategies you’ve found helpful when coming up with unique, click-worthy thumbnail designs.

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