June 21, 2023

How Small Businesses & Startups Can Save Money with AI Images

Written by
James Ryan

As a serial tech entrepreneur, I’m always looking for ways to save time and reduce costs.  With high inflation and an ever-looming recession, the need to ferret out savings is even more top of mind.

While they don’t offer all the answers, the new generation of consumer-friendly AI tools, many of which are free, can definitely help. Text generation platforms like ChatGPT have grabbed a lot of attention for their ease of use and surprising ability with  a simple text prompt  to quickly generate high quality proposals, reports, emails, blog posts, even computer code.  I have found they are especially handy for generating marketing first drafts of content like blog posts, web copy, FAQs, emails and Twitter threads.

But to create and promote a brand or product, you also need images. And this is where the latest AI image generators can really save small businesses and sole proprietorships time and money. 

Start With Something Simple

Probably the easiest place to start is creating illustrations for blog or social media posts. While it takes a fair amount of work to get AI image generators to produce a very specific image, and they sometimes fall short of meeting exacting demands, current AI is very good at creating images that depict a general topic or concept. And fortunately most blog or social posts require an eye-catching image that does not need to be super specific. It just has to look nice and generally match the  topic at hand. At our tech startup we are generating nearly all of our social media and blog images very quickly and effectively with our own AI platform, saving tons of time and money. 

Text to image generators like BlueWillow work very similarly to text to text engines; you simply type a text description of the image you want and it spits it out in a minute or less. These prompts can be very elaborate, indicating artistic style, medium, lighting, theme, characters, mood, aspect ratio, etc, or they can just contain a few simple words such as “corgi on a motorcycle.”  Sometimes the simpler the prompt, the better the results. 

One easy way to generate an image for a blog or social post is to use the first couple of sentences of the post itself as your prompt. For example, as a test I used the opening lines of a blog post about California’s severe winter storms enabling Fourth of July skiing at many resorts. Within seconds it generated multiple  images of a skier on a sunny slope with an American flag flying in the background. A refresh gave me preposterous but still entertaining images with fireworks in the sky. 

This tip works for websites as well, you can sometimes just use as the prompt some of your company or product messaging with maybe some additional words to get the style or lighting to match the sensibility of your website.  I know of one person who illustrates his self-published poetry volumes by using the actual poem as an image prompt. 

The same rules would apply to images you wanted to generate for a printed flyer, brochure or newsletter.  A word of caution here: the resolution of the images from AI image generators  is relatively low compared to ones created manually in a graphics program such as Illustrator or Canva. So they probably wouldn’t be suitable to blow up large for a trade show booth which might require vector graphics or a high resolution PDF. 

AI Can’t Do Everything

Not every image a small business might need can be generated in AI. I have had mixed results with generating logos, for example, and noticed a lot of other people on AI platforms trying without much success. This is especially true if you are looking for something in the current style which leans towards minimalist icons that effectively convey your brand message or strongly hint at the purpose of your product. And you will likely want a vector file for your logo so you can use it across a variety of applications.  In other words, you may still need to go to a professional graphic designer for help with some of your critical graphics projects.  

One type of image AI is remarkably adept at creating is realistic photos. Most small businesses in need of photographic images don’t have the budget to hire models and photographers. So your only option in the past was to turn to stock images from photo licensing sites which are often dated, generic,  expensive and, of course,  used by a million other companies. AI can generate similarly high quality images in a fraction of the time it would take you to find the right image on a licensing site.  And it will be unique to your marketing and perhaps tailored to the race, gender, and nationality if your customer base in a way that a licensed photo might not be. One of the huge frustrations with stock image libraries is the models featured tend not to reflect the diversity of our society. Many (if not all) of the big AI models are explicitly trained toward diversity to avoid racial bias.   Here’s what I got with “friends eating at outdoor restaurant, wine.” 

Working Around Weaknesses

AI image generators are still relatively new and still being trained, and  therefore are not great at providing some types of final graphics.  That doesn’t mean that AI can’t still be helpful.  Many marketers and professional graphic designers still save a lot of effort by creating a first draft of an image with an AI image generator even if it needs to be tweaked  a bit so it is ready for publication.  AI, for example, still isn’t great at displaying text within an image.  But here are a few easy workarounds.   Sometimes I will ask the AI to create a character holding a blank sign, or maybe a landscape with a sign board. I can then import the image into another graphics program and in a few minutes use that sign space as a blank canvas to add my text messaging. 

Another trick is to create an image depicting a character, and then download a  transparent thought or chat bubble from the internet. These are available free from ad-supported image sites.  Just Google for what you need.  You can then paste that bubble over the top of your image and type in your text. The effect is similar to what you see in a comic book or comic strip.

Many AI platforms also offer something called “outpainting.” This enables you to generate additional space in the foreground (bottom) or background (top) of your image. You can then use that extra space for superimposing message text. You may want to clean up the space a little bit first, maybe color it in with a single background color, before adding your text.

And by the way, you don’t need to have an expensive graphics program like Photoshop or Illustrator or months of training to make these simple tweaks.  Slide creation tools such as Keynote or Powerpoint have a lot of simple graphic capabilities that can accomplish most of what you need. 

If you don’t have time or don’t trust yourself to make even minimal aesthetic choices, you can always hire a designer to finalize the images for you.  Freelancer hiring sites such as Upwork, Fiverr or Freelancer.com are all great places to find low-cost designers when AI falls short of generating exactly what you need. 

James Ryan is the VP of Community & Marketing at Bluewillow.ai