Stream Design 101: A Beginner’s Guide
New to streaming? You’ve probably got a million questions. “How do my PC specs hold up?” “Which broadcasting software should I use?” “What about production hardware; am I missing anything?”
Luckily, our friends at NVIDIA have already answered those questions and more. (Spoiler, their GeForce GPU’s NVENC encoder is god-tier.)
However, some of the most common and frustrating questions for new broadcasters deal with stream design. “What are overlays?” “Where can I find them?” “What are the essential graphics I need to start broadcasting?” “How do I set them up on my stream?”
Today our team at Visuals by Impulse is going to answer these questions, one by one. As the world’s largest creative studio for streamers, we think we’re pretty qualified. When we’re finished, you’ll have everything you need to look your best on-air.
So let’s get started with the basics…
What are Overlays?
Overlays are graphics that, well… lay over your gameplay and camera feed (name making sense yet?).
Think of overlays like pizza toppings. In this instance, the pizza’s large cheese area represents your main gameplay feed. As you sit new toppings (or overlays) on top of the pizza, you’re obscuring a small view of the cheese layer (or gameplay) behind. But with each new topping you add, your pizza becomes tastier and more attractive to onlookers.
And just like pizza toppings, overlays come in a variety of styles, shapes, and colors. You can customize your layout to make a one-of-a-kind creation. But what happens when you overload on toppings? Your pizza becomes a soggy, cluttered mess. The same is true with overlays; you need to be selective and strategic in which graphics to feature.
So who’s hungry yet?
Most commonly, overlays are transparent PNG files, which allows you to neatly layer graphics over background sources. We’ll explore some of the most common examples soon, but understand that we use the term ‘overlay’ broadly to refer to multiple graphic types. Most can be scaled and positioned using your favorite streaming software, such as OBS Studio or Streamlabs (more to come on this later).
We recommend overlays for every new streamer, as they help separate professionals from amateurs. Some give you an aesthetic, branding edge. Others will spark viewer engagement. Still more help to jumpstart your channel monetization. When done right, overlays are a powerful tool that can separate you from the millions of other small streamers out there.
Where to Find Overlays
Luckily, overlays are easy to find, if you know where to look. There’s no shortage of designs and designers around the web. They’re also surprisingly affordable. Most beginner packages can be acquired for anywhere from free to $30 for a full animated set (anything more and buyer-beware).
A word of caution, first. Not all overlays are made alike; don’t be tricked by just a pretty face. Some of the best-looking designs out there are surprisingly restrictive and outdated. We recommend instead looking for a combination of looks, customization, and innovation. Never sacrifice utility for a flashy design.
A note on customization. In today’s market, you should be able to adjust every element of your overlays. If you can’t make them your own, what’s to separate you from the thousands of other creators using the same overlay package? Choose a design team that champions customization options – don’t settle for one-size-fits-all graphics.
With that said, here are a few of the most popular overlay sources:
- Visuals by Impulse (Duh)
- Nerd or Die
- Streamlabs Prime
For those with bigger budgets, custom design might be the option for you. Many artists (including our team here at VBI) will create one-of-a-kind designs for your brand. For the majority of new streamers however, we’d recommend starting with a set of professional, premade overlays. At least until you’re comfortable with broadcasting and have built up a loyal audience.
Five Essential Graphics (Plus Setup)
Now that you know what an overlay is and where to find them, let’s take a look at popular overlay types.
To avoid overwhelming you, we’re only going to focus on the five overlays we consider essential for new streamers. These are basic, beginner graphics that form the foundation of every streamer’s channel design. Spend a few months (at least) mastering these five overlays.
We’ll also show you setup guides for each overlay type. For most beginners, a basic knowledge of streaming software should be enough to get started. To keep things simple, we’ve focused on the three most popular streaming software; Streamlabs OBS, OBS Studio, and StreamElements (OBS.Live).
The most basic of overlays is the webcam frame. It acts as a simple border along the edges of your live camera feed; a thin, stylized frame separating your camera and background gameplay. It is also commonly referred to as a ‘webcam border’ or a ‘webcam overlay’.
The vast majority of live streamers use camera frames. Why? Because they are the mark of a ‘professional’ streamer. Alone, camera feeds often blend into background visuals, especially if your gameplay features bright colors. A webcam frame helps separate the two video sources, preventing confusion and eye-weariness for your viewers. They also look great and identify you as a dedicated broadcaster who cares about building a community and brand.
You have a few important options when it comes to your webcam frame.
First, 16:9 or 4:3? These are the two most popular frame aspect ratios, with 16:9 being more common. The choice comes down to your personal preference. Go 16:9 for a wider, rectangular look, or choose 4:3 for a taller ‘box’ view. One advanced option to consider later is a greenscreen bar, which features only a bottom border – but we’ll leave that conversation for a future blog post.
Next, animated or not? Most professional cam frames come in both variations. In our opinion, you can’t really go wrong either way. Static (ie, unanimated) frames provide a clean, streamlined look, ideal for competitive gaming and esports. Animations add energy and personality, a great idea for energetic, upbeat broadcasters. A word of warning though: if you choose animated, make sure the animations are subtle and/or minimal. The last thing you want is flashy animations distracting viewers from gameplay and your beautiful face.
How To Set Up Webcam Frames
Since webcams don’t require many advanced settings, it’s super easy to add them as overlays with OBS Studio, Streamlabs OBS, and StreamElements (OBS.Live). Let’s run through the steps briefly.
First you’ll need to add your webcam frame as a source. A source is any media asset (images, animations, sounds, etc) that can be featured on your broadcast. To get started, hit the “+” (plus) button under the Sources box to add a new source. If your webcam is static, you’ll want to select “Image” from the list. For animated frames (most commonly .webm, .mp4 or .mov files), select “Media Source”. Name your source, then click “Browse” in the next window and navigate to your webcam file.
One quick note. If you’re using an animated file, we suggest turning on the following settings: “Loop”, “Restart playback when source becomes active”, and “Close file when inactive”. This will ensure that your CPU usage % doesn’t skyrocket and cause stream lag.
Your webcam graphic should now appear in the preview window. From here you can reposition and resize the frame to fit your unique layout. To add your camera feed, click the “+” to add another source, then select “Video capture device”. Name it, then make sure you’ve selected the correct camera device in the next window. Now drag and resize your camera source so that it fits neatly within your frame. In the Sources box, drag your webcam frame just above your new camera source; that way it will appear as the top-most visible graphic for viewers.
The second most-important visuals for any streamer: stream alerts. Consider these a requirement if you’re trying to monetize your stream – or build an engaged, loyal community. At their most basic, alerts are notifications that appear on-screen when viewers interact with your stream. Most commonly, they’re used to display events like new subscribers, channel followers, and donations.
What makes them so important? Well, alerts provide an incentive for viewers to support your stream. That incentive can be many things. For some, it’s an opportunity to form a more direct relationship with you, the streamer. For others, it’s about winning a brief moment of internet fame; competing for a top spot in your channel’s ‘inner-circle’. Regardless, without alerts your viewers have very little incentive to participate and interact.
There are tons of alert styles out there. So many, in fact, that it may seem overwhelming at first. For new streamers, consider the main options below. These will help you narrow down your search and land on something you’re proud of:
- Static or animated? In today’s livestream environment, we almost always recommend animated. Sure, you may pay a bit extra, but the payoff is huge. Reward your viewers with a multi-dimensional presentation to keep them coming back.
- Subtle or bold? What sort of streamer are you? If you’re a competitive esports gamer we recommend a subtle, minimalist approach. This helps keep viewers’ eyes on the gameplay, without distracting. On the flip-side, if you’re an upbeat, community-oriented creator, you might want to consider higher-energy alert styles – to keep chat happy and entertained.
- Multi-tiered? This one is a bit advanced, but something you’ll eventually want to consider. Some of the best alerts out there contain multiple tiers of animation. This means they ‘scale’ based on the size of your viewer’s support. For example, a $50 donation will trigger a flashier, more complex animation than a $5 dono. The same for a Tier Three Twitch sub vs Tier One. As your community grows, this is a great way to incentivize larger donos.
How To Set Up Stream Alerts
Luckily, uploading and setting up alerts is pretty similar for both Streamlabs and StreamElements. Today, most professional alerts come with ‘One-Click Setup’, which makes installation easier and faster than ever.
To get started, find the download files for your new alerts, then select your streaming software. You’ll be redirected to your internet browser to log in and start customizing your alerts. Take some time to explore the available settings and adjust things like colors, fonts, and animations. When you’re finished, you’ll want to copy the browser source URL for your alerts. We’ve prepared more detailed guides here, here and here.
Now return to your streaming software. Add a new source and this time select “Browser Source” from the available options. Paste in your URL; your settings and any custom coding will be automatically copied over (pog!). Before you move on, make sure to double-check the alert box’s width and height. Your designer should have provided recommended dimensions; make sure the values match! Now you can start rearranging, resizing, and testing your alert displays.
If your alerts do not feature one-click setup, check out this fantastic guide by Gauging Gadgets.
OK, we admit. This one’s a bit trickier. Why? Because the streaming community hasn’t agreed on what to call these overlays. We’ve heard them also referred to as ‘events’, ‘recents’, ‘overlay bars’, ‘stream labels’, ‘tickers’, ‘supporter bars’, or just plain ‘overlays’. For the sake of this piece, we’ll call them ‘event overlays’.
Generally, these items act as a sort of ‘leaderboard’ or ‘ticker’, displaying the names of your most loyal channel supporters. Most (if not all) beginner creators should feature these on-stream. Even the biggest streamers in the game use event overlays, in some form of another.
Trust us, your viewers will thank you. Because who doesn’t want to see their name up on the big-screen? Event overlays act as a ‘hall of fame’, recognizing your top donators and fans. They add extra incentive for viewers to support your channel, while showing that you care about your community. Sit back and watch as your viewers compete with each other for that top spot… and a moment of e-fame.
So what sort of information should be displayed here? Some of the most common options for beginners are:
- Recent Subscriber: Shout out the name of your latest sub or re-sub.
- Recent Donator: Just received a third-party dono? Thank them here.
- Top Donation: Reserve this spot for the largest dono you’ve received in the current streaming session.
- Latest Follower: Nothing says ‘welcome’ like showing off your newest channel follower!
- Latest Bits Cheer: Racking up the Twitch bits? Shout out your latest cheer dono here.
- Sub Count: What’s your sub goal? 20? 50? 100? Track progression here – chat will be more likely to help out.
What about layout? Where should you place your event overlays? Luckily, these graphics are typically small and ultra-condensed, so you have plenty of freedom here. Many streamers position them just below their webcam frame. (In fact, many modern cam frames already have built-in slots for event labels like these). Other creators choose to pin them to the top or bottom border of the screen. Jump into your streaming software and start experimenting until you find a layout that fits your style.
How To Set Up Event Overlays
For Streamlabs OBS users, hit the “+” sign within the Sources tab to add a new source. In the next window, select “Stream Label”, listed under the Widgets column. After you’ve named the source, you’ll be able to customize and preview your text. Pick a label type, then start experimenting with different fonts, colors, sizes, and more. For a more detailed guide, check out this tutorial from Streamlabs.
[We suggest selecting the option to add custom text extents, which limits the width and height of your label text. This is great for donators with long usernames, since you don’t want text accidentally spilling out of your overlay containers. You may also want to add filters such as scrolling text – for displaying longer text information or even multiple viewer names!]
For OBS Studio users, the process is a bit different. You’ll first need to download the Stream Labels widget software. If you haven’t already, visit the Streamlabs website and link your channel to log in. From your dashboard, visit the “All Widgets” tab and select “Stream Labels” to start downloading. Once ready, you’ll use the app to first customize your labels, and then add them as “Text” sources within OBS. Don’t worry, this article and the two video walkthroughs here and here will walk you through the process.
StreamElements users have another option. You’ll be creating labels within StreamElements itself, and then adding them as “Browser Source” URLs within OBS. Check out our complete walkthrough guide for more information.
No matter your streaming software, the last step is to arrange your labels inside your event overlays. If you haven’t already, add your event overlay file as a new “Image” source (“Media Source” for animated), then position them within your OBS layout. Now just drag your new stream label into the empty slot in your event overlays. Repeat this process until you’ve filled all empty slots with your stream’s most important viewer information.
If you’re streaming on Twitch or Mixer, consider these a must-have. Panels appear on your channel profile, just below your livestream window. They are static graphics with two main purposes: to introduce viewers to your channel and to help them perform actions on third-party sites.
So what makes them essential? For starters, panels break your profile into readable chunks, allowing your viewers to quickly skim and locate stream info. They also serve as permanent reminders of your most important channel details (such as schedules, PC specs, rules, etc) – so you can avoid answering the same questions thousands of times on-air. Lastly, panels serve as valuable ‘call-to-actions’, guiding viewers to support or keep up with your channel (for ex, donations, merch, social media).
Panels typically come in one of two variations. The most common is a horizontal, rectangular PNG graphic. A more advanced option features taller, ‘boxier’ frames, usually reserved for sponsor or merch shoutouts. For new streamers, we 100% recommend the standard rectangular option.
Panels seem straightforward, we get it. But you’d be surprised at how creative you can get with their design. Generally, streamers like to feature a combination of icons and title text. But who says you can’t experiment with only icons, or text-only? You can also play with curved borders and non-linear shapes, since panels feature transparent PNG backgrounds. Try out our free panel maker and see what you can create.
So which panels should you use on your profile? Here are our top options for newbies:
- Donate: Show viewers how to support your stream via third-party donation services. This one is essential if you’re looking to monetize your channel!
- Social Media: Build a social following by posting links to your Twitter, Instagram, Discord, and more.
- About: Briefly introduce viewers to you, your channel, and your community. (Briefly is the key word!)
- Subscribe: Drive new subs and re-subs by including a separate panel callout in your profile.
- PC Specs: Proud of your beast gaming PC? Show off your hardware for tech-savvy viewers
- Rules: Save yourself (and your mods) some headache by pinning chat rules for all to see. If nothing else, you’ll feel less guilty when you time out or ban toxic chat members.
- Schedule: Do you keep a consistent streaming schedule? If so, make sure your viewers know when you’ll be live next.
How To Set Up Twitch Panels
Lucky for you, setting up Twitch panels is a breeze. Or at least, it was a breeze, until Twitch recently updated their UI layout. Now it’s just slightly more confusing, but nothing too challenging.
First, head to your Twitch page, then navigate to the “About” tab. Scroll down until you see the “Edit Panels” toggle. Once turned on, you’ll see fields to input all your important panel information. You can add panel titles, embed links, and customize descriptions (make sure you’re using proper markdown etiquette). Lastly, click the big “+” button to upload your custom panel PNG file.
Once finished, you can turn off the “Edit Panels” toggle to see how your new panel looks. Re-enter edit mode anytime to rearrange your panel order – just drag and drop until you’ve got the perfect layout. It’s as easy as that!
The last of the ‘essentials’… and probably the least understood. Screens, also referred to as ‘scenes’, allow alternate visual layouts for your broadcasts. We’ll explain.
The ‘classic’ streamer layout is the simple ‘webcam over gameplay’. You know the look; a webcam perched in the corner over background gameplay. This layout is great for gaming because it is minimal, and – for the most part – does not interfere with or obstruct your gameplay. But it is definitely not the right choice for all occasions.
After all, you’re not always gaming, are you? What about when you’re between matches? What if you just feel like chatting? Then there are bio-breaks, snack breaks, stretch breaks… you name it. And what about when you’re offline?
That’s where stream screens come in. With a handful of screen options in your back pocket, you won’t have to worry about losing viewers each time you step away from camera. You can branch into non-gaming, IRL content without tanking your view count.
Screens come in tons of variants, but here are a few we consider essential for beginner streamers:
- Intermission: Our favorite screen variant, and incredibly useful for streamers of all sizes. Intermission screens come in handy any time you’re out of gameplay but remain on-camera. Most feature enlarged webcam slots and a separate chat window, which creates a more personal, engaging atmosphere. Best used when between matches or chatting IRL.
- Be Right Back (BRB): If you don’t have a BRB screen, you’re losing viewers. Guaranteed. What happens when a new viewer arrives on your channel just as you’ve left for a bio-break? Do you think they’ll stick around and stare at your empty chair? Doubt it. Choose a BRB screen that’s simple and to-the-point. It won’t get much screen-time, but when it does it could mean the difference between a new fan and a lost viewer.
- Offline: Consider offline screens a requirement if you stream on Twitch or Mixer. These screens display when a viewer lands on your channel when you’re not streaming. They typically inform viewers that you’re offline – and show them how to keep up with your channel (usually via social media). [Editor’s Note: Recent Twitch UI updates have made Offline Screens less critical than in the past, but we still highly-recommend them for new creators]
How To Set Up Stream Screens
By now you’ve got some practice adding overlays to OBS and Streamlabs. The process for adding stream screens should be very familiar.
Under the Sources tab click the “+” to add a new source. If your screen is static, select “Image” from the following list. For animated screens, select “Media Source” – just remember to turn on “Loop”, “Restart playback when source becomes active”, and “Close file when inactive” settings to save on CPU usage percentage. Lastly, select “Browse” and navigate to your screen design file.
And just like that, your first stream screen is ready for action!
As your channel grows, you may consider expanding into more advanced overlay types. Some of the most popular for growing streamers are:
- Stinger Transitions: At some point, you’ll have a number of screen variations in your collection. When this happens, you’ll want to avoid jarring jump-cuts as you switch from one scene to another. That’s where stinger transitions come into play; they allow you to seamlessly guide viewers forward, without losing momentum or style points. Here’s a good example.
- Social Media Callouts: These are great, intermediate tools for driving new followers to your social channels. There’s a reason most top creators feature on-screen social media callouts, and that’s because they’re ultra-effective. Check out Snapform to see the full potential.
- Intros & Outros: It’s your stage; why not put on a show? Think of intros as a pre-show waiting room. You get time to finish preparing, while your viewers assemble. On the flip side, outros allow for a gradual ‘goodbye’, as viewers move on and energy levels taper.
As a beginner however, you don’t have to sweat these just yet. With the five graphics explored above, you have everything you need to get started.
Well, almost everything… We mentioned it once before, but a pro encoder is your streaming superweapon. Your graphics won’t be worth much if you’re dropping frames and resolution quality. We highly recommend NVIDIA’s encoder, NVENC, for beginner and veteran streamers alike. It’s what our team uses internally, and we’ve found the performance outdoes all the competition.
And there you have it. Consider this your design crash course; stream design 101. Still have questions? We’re happy to help with setup and customization. Drop us a line to get started.