How to Make a Custom Thumbnail for Your YouTube Videos

When I first started making videos and uploading them to YouTube, I did not think much about how viewers made their decisions to click on one of my videos instead of one posted by someone else. In an Internet search, several videos may be suggested. People often decide on which one to watch based on the thumbnail image. One way to make your video stand out to viewers and tell them that your video is what they want to watch is with a custom thumbnail.

An eye-catching thumbnail is an easy way to attract viewers to your YouTube videos. If you’ve gone to the trouble of making a great video, then you shouldn’t hesitate to spend a bit more time to make sure people notice your video and decide to watch it. In a new tutorial (see player window below), I show how to design and create a custom thumbnail in PowerPoint and how to attach it to your YouTube video. Although Photoshop or Illustrator can be used for crafting the thumbnail image, many people do not have this software or do not know how to use it. In this tutorial, I use PowerPoint, which many people are familiar with, to create a custom thumbnail. Moreover, if you create a thumbnail template in PowerPoint, you can use it to quickly create thumbnails for all your videos.

But first, let’s go over some important information to help you design the best custom thumbnail for your video.

What is a thumbnail?

A thumbnail is a small image, often clickable, created for a webpage and that represents a file such as a photograph or a video. When someone conducts a search for a video, the thumbnail gives the viewer a visual preview of what your video is about. Some thumbnails stand out more than others. These are custom thumbnails. When you upload your video to YouTube, you are presented with three random frames from which to choose a thumbnail. Now, these are totally random, which means you basically get to choose among three really bad choices. Obviously, being able to create a custom thumbnail that best represents your video is preferable.

Who is eligible to use custom thumbnails?

Some forums suggest that you must become a YouTube Partner to enable advanced options like custom thumbnails. This is not true; if your channel is verified, you then become eligible to upload custom thumbnails. This option became available to me as a YouTube video creator in late 2013. Since then, crafting a custom thumbnail has become a routine part of my workflow when making a video. I consider it a key part of the process in creating an effective video and actually enjoy the challenge of finding just the right image and text design to use in the custom thumbnail.

What factors should be considered in designing a thumbnail?

  • First, take a look at other thumbnails for your topic and see what other video creators have used. Although this review will give you some ideas for crafting your thumbnail, you also want to take note of the features most often used and think of new ones to use for your thumbnail. In other words, you should try to design a thumbnail that stands out from the crowd.
  • Second, select an image that best represents your video. This image should be distinct but not misleading. Images featuring a person tend to attract the eye. If you can also show that person doing something related to the topic of the video, then your thumbnail image will be informative. For example, if your video is showing a scientific method, a photo of a person using an instrument or demonstrating the method is what you want. Those thumbnails featuring an image of a person jump out at you, which is why many people use them. However, you can also feature a photo of an instrument, an organism, a landscape, or a graphic—assuming it has something to do with the topic of your video. Planning ahead for the thumbnail and getting that photo while filming is the best approach. Failing this, you can extract a freeze frame from your raw footage. I show how to do this in the tutorial.
  • Third, resize and crop your image to ensure a good quality thumbnail that also meets specifications suggested by YouTube. In general, follow the rule of thirds to create a more interesting visual but mainly to allow space for text. YouTube suggests an image size of 1280 x 720 pixels, which is a 16:9 aspect ratio. You should keep the file at 2 MB or less and in an acceptable format such as jpg or png.
  • Fourth, add text to your video, which informs the viewer and reinforces what the video is about. Include keywords that people will use in their search. In many cases, all you need to do is restate the title of your video using a larger font and colors that make the text stand out.
  • Fifth, strive for a combination of an informative image and eye-catching text. In the tutorial below, I show some examples. You can make things easier on yourself if you use an image with some blank space in it, such as the sky, a solid fence or wall, as background for the text. In the tutorial, however, I show how to deal with a busy background.

What software should I use to create a custom thumbnail?

If you want to create a thumbnail from scratch, you have a number of options, including Photoshop, Illustrator, or PowerPoint. I’ve used PowerPoint in this tutorial because it’s a program that most science professionals use and are comfortable with. Photoshop and Illustrator are a bit more challenging to use and require some training and practice to use effectively. There are also online design sites that will assist you in creating a thumbnail. Canva is one example of a graphic design site, which offers templates and a user-friendly interface. I’ve not tried it, so can only recommend it as a possible site to check out. Although advertised as a “free” application, access to some key options seems to require a monthly subscription. In the end, you should use the software you are most comfortable with.

So with that bit of background, here is the tutorial showing how to create a thumbnail in PowerPoint (and direct link in case you can’t see the player window):

Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film

Many people get their impressions of scientists and what scientists do from the movies. Film can depict the realities of careers in science and technology while telling a story about the characters who happen to be scientists. Film is also important in developing and perpetuating society’s myths about scientists. We are all familiar with the cliché of the mad (typically male) scientist in fictional film. But what about female scientists? In a new video series, I explore six stereotypes of female scientists seen in the cinema.

All of these videos are posted on my YouTube channel. I used examples from the movies to illustrate each stereotype, but as you’ll see, I did not use clips from the original movies, but instead created the videos using images in the public domain (or otherwise free to use). I took this approach for several reasons: to avoid any copyright infringement claims, to challenge myself to create videos using only still images and voiceovers, and to aid the viewer in envisioning these stereotypes beyond the specific movie examples I offered.

The following list provides links to the series of videos describing the six stereotypes:

Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film: Introduction

Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film: The Male Woman

Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film: The Old Maid

Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film: The Lonely Heroine

Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film: The Daughter or Assistant

Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film: The Naive Expert

Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film: The Evil Plotter

Female Scientist Stereotypes in Film: Conclusions

If you wish to learn how to create a video using still images (montage), here is a tutorial showing how in the movie-editing app, iMovie:

Book Giveaway

Just a quick post to remind readers that the Instafreebie book giveaway (20 Environmental Authors) I mentioned in the previous post is still going on. It will end on June 15, 2017. If you haven’t gotten my book yet, this is your chance to get a free copy of The Scientist Videographer. Although it’s not as interactive (or attractive) as the version I published in the iTunes Store (and made with iBooks Author), the Instafreebie text version contains hyperlinks to video tutorials and other online information.

A few reviewer comments:

“Very practical, the story building tips helped me tremendously.”

“This book is great! I had absolutely no experience with video when I stumbled onto Karen McKee’s website, video tutorials, and this book. I learned everything I need to know to start making videos, and videos that I am proud to show others.”

“This book is laced with demo videos to help you understand and apply what you are learning. Most important to me was the step by step help in editing, both enhancing the science story and the technical skills needed to work with common editing software.”

“The Scientist Videographer is cutting edge, practical, and relevant–there’s much to learn.”

“The Scientist Videographer is an inspiration and deserves a spot with the best science communicators of our time.”

If you’ve enjoyed any of my free video tutorials or blog posts about making science videos, please consider contributing to this effort by purchasing my book ($14.99) or recommending it to a colleague, student, or friend.

  • If you don’t own an Apple device, you can purchase the text-only version of my book at Amazon Kindle or Smashwords.
  • You can get the fully interactive version of The Scientist Videographer to read on your Apple device in the iTunes Store. It’s readable on a Mac, iPad, or iPhone. Here is a preview of what this version offers to readers.

Barriers to Science Communication and How to Overcome Them

I embarked on an effort to help colleagues and students use video as a communication tool on May 21, 2012, just over five years ago. During that time, I’ve learned a lot, especially about what can deter science professionals from trying a new means of communicating their science.

One of the most frequent comments I have gotten from colleagues is that they don’t really see the need for them to spend time 1) learning non-traditional ways to communicate (social media, blogs, videos) or 2) engaging the public. While such comments did not surprise me (I had once thought the same thing), I recognized the potential consequences of this attitude. Among other things, I understood that scientists needed to be familiar to and trusted by the general public, but that our traditional behaviors were sometimes interpreted to be arrogant, uncaring, or self-serving.

In my early talks on science communication, I often included a prophetic quote from a British report on science communication: “In modern democratic conditions, science, like any other player in the public arena ignores public attitudes and values at its peril” (Anon. Science and Society Report, House of Lords, 2000). As we’ve all seen in recent months, the scientific community in the U.S. has received a rude wake-up call to the fact that the science enterprise is under attack and that one reason is the failure on the part of science practitioners to effectively communicate why science is important to society. As a consequence, some science professionals are rethinking their past practice of staying sequestered in their ivory towers and avoiding contact with the people who fund their research (i.e., taxpayers). The most dramatic manifestation of this shift was the March for Science, held in Washington, D.C. April 22, 2017 and in various other locations around the world.

Granted, there are lots of pitfalls in putting yourself and your science on public display, especially without the training to do it properly. But I think we’re seeing that staying disengaged from the public is perhaps even more dangerous. We are in a critical transition period—from a time when only a select few scientists communicated with the public to a situation in which anyone with a cell phone and an Internet connection can reach millions of viewers with their science message. At the same time, antiscience groups are on the rise and taking advantage of advances in communication technology. My impression is that those who are attacking science and “facts” are far more skilled at crafting and delivering their messages than those of us in science. And they appear to be far better organized and dedicated to communicating their message than we are. This dichotomy should be disturbing to all science professionals.

Those of us in science are still learning how (and whether) to make use of new means of communication; not surprisingly, there can be mistakes and failures during this learning phase. However, with proper training and preparation, the next generation of science professionals will be better positioned to navigate this new communication landscape. Better training, combined with a new impetus for scientists to engage in non-traditional means of communicating their science, will help to overcome the barriers described above.

When I started this blog, there was some help for scientists interested in learning new communication approaches, but not a lot focused on teaching science professionals how to use video to share their work. In this blog and on my YouTube channel, I’ve aimed my tips and tutorials at the working science professional who doesn’t have the resources to hire a media specialist or the technical skills and training to make their own videos (as opposed to professional science communicators who have formal training in crafting science messages and in the use of audiovisual media to convey those messages). My goal has been to help others avoid mistakes and waste time in preparing science videos.

In celebration of my blog’s anniversary (and reward for reading to the end of this post), I’ve made my book, The Scientist Videographer (text version) available for free at InstaFreebie. It’s part of a 20-author giveaway–check it out!

Basic Steps to Making a Science Video with a Smartphone

One of the biggest barriers for scientists to use video as a communication tool is the perception that video making is time consuming, expensive, and technically challenging. I know that this idea is out there not only because of comments from colleagues, but because this was my impression before I got involved in making videos. What I eventually learned was that advances in communication technology have made it possible for anyone to make a video—with inexpensive equipment and a minimum of time and effort. We now have (1) devices and software that make it ridiculously easy to create an effective and powerful video message and (2) the Internet where we can instantly share our knowledge globally.

To address this particular barrier, I’ve created a new tutorial that is designed to show the science professional just how easy it is now to create a video to share science. My goal with this brief tutorial was to demystify the video-making process for colleagues and students unfamiliar with it and to show how easy it is to plan, film, and edit a video with a smartphone (iPhone). I’ve emphasized the use of smartphones in this particular tutorial because: (1) most people already have one and know how to use it, (2) they have excellent cameras that can produce high definition video, (3) there are excellent movie-editing apps for mobile devices, (4) both the camera and editing software can be readily mastered with minimal training and effort, (5) their Internet accessibility facilitates sharing the video with others, and (6) filming, editing, and sharing a video is accomplished with a single device. Although other types of recording devices and more sophisticated editing software are available, they require somewhat more time and effort to master.

Here’s that tutorial (click here for a direct link):