How to create eye-catching YouTube thumbnails?

The secrets to create custom thumbnails that boost views and watch time while keeping a consistent visual identity for your channel.

How to create eye-catching YouTube thumbnails for your videos?

When YouTube users make the decision to watch a video, even before they read the video title or identify the uploader, the first thing they see very often is a little window with an image as a preview of the video. If that’s the first thing viewers will associate with your video, you should put some extra effort into making it, don’t you think?

In the process of uploading a video, you can choose one of the three still images automatically taken from somewhere around the introduction, middle and end of your video. However, using one of this three would be a lazy decision that could impact your channel negatively.

Do better: upload a custom YouTube thumbnail that includes an attractive image with additional information to, ultimately, get more clicks and, consequently, more views, watch time and a better engagement indicator for your video and for the channel, overall. Thumbnails are also a great way to keep a consistent branding and visual identity across your channel, to make all your videos easily identifiable on search results, suggested videos, etc.

This is all you need to know to create eye-catching YouTube thumbnails that will turn all the eyes towards your videos, from the image size to other best practices and special tricks. 

Make the perfect custom thumbnail image for a YouTube video

First of all, before designing, these are the recommendations and file specifications from YouTube that you need to know:

  • An image must have a resolution of 1280×720 pixels in order to fulfil the screen (the minimum width required is 640 pixels).
  • Accepted image formats for the custom thumbnails are .jpg, .jpeg, .bmp, .png or .gif (but animated images don’t work).
  • The image file size should remain under 2 MB.
  • 16:9 is the preferred image ratio.

Besides these technicalities, the most important thing on a custom thumbnail is to faithfully represent and anticipate what’s the actual content of a video. As discussed on a previous article, you don’t want to use an image that misleads on the actual content of the video, because users who click will be disappointed and won’t actually watch the video for very long, hence affecting negatively key metrics for your channel like the audience retention.

Brand consistency is important for your channel. A best practice to consider for your thumbnails is to have a layer with your channel logo on top of an attractive, intriguing and/or clickable image, often in the bottom-left corner, so that video is easily identifiable as part of the collection of videos that is your channel. Take a look at the channels FullBleed or Tram Sessions for some examples of that.

On channels with a wide variety of types content, the thumbnails can help viewers identify specific shows or video series visually. That’s how the official Star Wars channel distinguish videos of The Star Wars Show or the animated series Star Wars Resistance.

I prepared this image to help you structure the visual elements of a custom thumbnail:

Safe area to design a YouTube custom thumbnail

Remember the full size of a YouTube thumbnail is 1280 x 720 pixels, but the top 100 pixels in the image are a red area to avoid because the video title might overlay, for instance, when you use an embed player.

The rectangle in the bottom-right corner (around 310 x 165 pixels) is another red area that will often appear hidden under the timecode.

The remaining canvas is a safe green area that you can use creatively. Keep in mind that, as seen in the image below, the middle of the image often appears hidden under a YouTube play button, as well.

If you are adding text on your custom YouTube thumbnail, test that it’s readable on all the devices (desktop, mobile, tablet, smart TV, etc.).

To have a well-defined design for all your custom thumbnails that is applied consistently across your channel, a best practice is to have a template – for instance, create a .psd file on Photoshop – with the overall structure of a custom thumbnail (including text, logos, etc.) and change only the text and the specific image from each individual video.

If you want to learn from the most successful channels on YouTube, this complete guide on Tubefilter goes through other ideas in more depth: use of text, bright colours, high contrast and outlines, branding… It’s an old guide from 2014, but the key learnings that you can take away to apply in your channel are still valid.

The uploading process for a thumbnail on YouTube and how to do it properly

To make sure that the custom thumbnail you designed is seen by the public as soon as your video is released, I recommend to upload a customized thumbnail as you are uploading the video or while you are optimizing it, always before the video goes public.

A custom thumbnail is something that can be uploaded or replaced anytime, though. If you change it when the video is already public, possibly you will not see the change applied right away. The previous version could remain on your browser cache or the YouTube system might take a while to update itself. However, it shouldn’t take longer than 24 hours to see the new custom thumbnail on all browsers and devices. Otherwise, try to upload the image file again.

If you need the image file of a custom thumbnail from one of your videos or others, you can generally get the image from your videos on the Creator Studio, when you edit the metadata of a video, but that doesn’t always work. There are always other options like the Thumbnail Download that you can use for free, you just need the link to the video.

Say NO to clickbait

In almost all my articles about YouTube I talk about the 2012’s changes in the algorithm that shifted the attention to watch time over views, but it’s an important you must understand to succeed on YouTube.

It’s not uncommon to find videos with an attractive custom thumbnail that promise content that is actually not what the video is about, but the fact that you see it often doesn’t make it right. If you do that, viewers will be disappointed and leave swiftly. You may earn a mislead view if someone watched more than 30 seconds, but the watch time will remain low and the YouTube algorithm received a sign of the low audience retention on your video, heavily affecting your overall positioning. Just don’t do it, it’s not worth it on the long-run.

You should create YouTube custom thumbnails that are appealing and eye-catching but encapsulate what the video is truly about.

In fact, for almost two years now, YouTube started rolling out animated thumbnails that preview the images (no audio) from three seconds of the video when you browse over them, before you click. On the YouTube mobile app, the video automatically plays so you get to see what the first images are (no audio, sometimes subtitles). Are custom thumbnails going to disappear, eventually? Maybe… The idea behind both upgrades is to fight against clickbait, not wasting your time clicking on videos that don’t offer what the image anticipated. Does it sound familiar? You might not want to admit it, but you probably have seen animated thumbnails before on porn sites, PornHub has being doing that for a long time!



If you are not a master of graphic design, Microsoft Paint looks basic but you find Adobe Photoshop is too complicated, there’s a free & online design tool alternative that you can use to design original and visually appealing custom YouTube thumbnails with a professional look.

You can use Canva on desktop or even on your mobile to design posters, banners, flyers and, yes, YouTube custom thumbnails, too.

There are many templates you can choose or you can start your design from scratch, use a library of visual elements like banners, icons or frames, add text or change the background, colors, filters and fonts (+130 types of fonts to choose from!).

When you finish your design, you can save, download and upload it to your YouTube video as any other image. It’s as easy as it sounds!


I’m not a youtuber but I worked with channels that have thousands of subscribers and millions of views, that’s where all my expertise comes from. I have official certifications from YouTube on Channel Growth, Audience Growth, Digital Rights and Content Ownership.

On my recently updated About page or LinkedIn you can find all the key areas I work on, not just YouTube channel management & optimisation.

If you think I could work with you, please send me a message!

Author: Oriol Salvador

Journalist in the age of new media. Pop culture nerd and social media Jedi. Exploring the potential of technology and media to deliver information and entertainment through digital platforms.

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