The Reality of Stock Art in Design

by Matt Ward

on October 21, 2010

in design Resources

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Today, designers are faced with the incredible benefit of having an absolutely massive library of digital stock art that can be downloaded (either freely or for a fee) and incorporated into a design in a matter of minutes. Stock photography sites like iStock or Shutterstock provide photographs, videos and illustrations, while some really amazing companies out there are providing stunning stock vectors, like GoMedia’s renowned Arsenal or the various packs available from Designious.

Add sites like GraphicRiver, MediaLoot and hundreds and hundreds of others, and we have a virtually limitless supply of vectors, icons, brushes and other graphical resources right at our fingertips. This is, ultimately, an amazing privilege and an undoubtedly valuable resource.

But it’s not a substitute for good design.

In order to help promote themselves, many sites that are selling stock art of some description will partner with blog owners to sponsor giveaways, in which one or more lucky entrants will actually win licenses to download and use specific graphic files. This is an awesome way to get added exposure. I’ve run a few such giveaway over on the Echo Enduring Blog, and there have been some here on DesignM.ag in the past too.

The other day, however, I was pursuing some of the comments on one such giveaway, and I couldn’t help but notice (as I had on other such contests) that many of the entrants were suggesting that they would love to win this particular vector pack because they thought it would help them become a better designer. They may not have said so in those exact words, but that’s pretty much the sentiment that lurked beneath the surface of many of the comments.

I’m sorry to be the one to break the news – but that’s just not the case!

Stock Art is a Resource

The fact of the matter is that stock art (whether photographic, vector, brushes and so forth) is just another resource that you can keep in your design toolbox, right there along with various typefaces, colour swatches, pens, pencils on other invaluable items. It’s there to be called upon when you need it, but doesn’t automatically promise to make you a better designer simply by the reality of its presence.

In the same way that picking out some cool new font and slapping it on the page does not constitute true typography, neither does combining various pieces of stock art actually constitute design. I mean, I could take any number of the vector resources that I have sitting on my Mac, select a few of my favourites and bring them all together on top of some grungy, textured background in Photoshop and make something. In doing this the quality of the resource is certainly going to help with the overall visual appeal. Choosing something from GoMedia’s Arsenal, for instance, is almost always going to look better than anything from Microsoft’s ClipArt gallery.

That being said, however, just getting your hands on awesome vectors doesn’t automatically make you a better designer than you were before getting those vectors.

It all has to do with the very nature of design, which is the intentional framing of content for a very specific purpose. Being a good designer is not about just being able to create something that looks cool–though that is likely where most of us actually get our start. Being a designer means making intentional and well-reasoned choices for why we include certain elements, why we position them in a particular location on the page, and even why we choose a particular colour or effect.

Having all the best stock art in the world simply cannot help you in this regard. You’re still going to have to make the actual design decisions for yourself, and it’s the ability to make better choices that’s going to mark your improvement as a designer. To actually help achieve this improvement, all you can really do is continue to practice the craft, and learn make design decisions based on solid, well-informed reasoning.

The Real Benefit of Stock Art

Now, I want to make it clear that I am in no way suggesting that stock art is a bad thing. I’ve already mentioned GoMedia a couple times in this article, and that’s because I have a huge amount of respect for that organization and the quality of work that they have produced through their Arsenal line. I would even go so far as to say that I’m a big fan, and I absolutely love working with their stuff.

So, I simply wouldn’t tell anyone that you should never use stock art! It most certainly has its place in the larger design process, offering a number of key benefits.

Fill a Skill Void

Let’s face it, not every designer out there is also a highly skilled illustrator. We all have different skill sets, and equally different levels of sophistication and polish within those skills. If you’re not all that great of an illustrator, stock art can be a huge benefit, allowing you to draw on something that has already been fully rendered by a talented, professional illustrator. You may have to manipulate that stock art a bit in order to get it to fit in your design, but it’s a whole let better than having to create it from scratch yourself.

Fill a Style Void

It’s also true that not every illustrator works in the exact same style, even within the same medium. Some vector art involves cute, bright characters. Others include highly detailed and realistic renderings of people and objects. Then there’s an entire branch of grungy, black and white line art. Each style ultimately reflects uniqueness of the creator, and if a particular style does not really reflect your illustrative style, then using some stock art can be a great way to fill that void.

Work Faster

We’ve probably all heard the phrase that true genius cannot be rushed, but let’s face reality here. As design professionals, most of us just do not have the luxury of being able to take our time on most (if any) of the projects that we work on. Deadlines are always looming, and the fact of the matter is that stock art can help us do our jobs more quickly. Need an awesomely ugly zombie face? You could grab a piece of paper, draw it out, scan it and render it digitally, or you could just purchase this awesome pack of zombies from the Arsenal.

Need to place a fancy scroll in Photoshop? These brushes from Designious could be the perfect solution

Using stock art in this way is a great and simple way of speeding up your overall design process.

Conclusion

Of course, as I’ve already stated, these legitimate uses for stock art do not make it a shortcut to great design or a means of cutting corners. In the end, the inclusion any form of pre-fabricated artwork still involves a purposeful and intentional choice on your part. You have to decide if the artwork is right for your design, how to best incorporate it, where to position it, how to modify it (if at all). As such, using stock art in any of these ways is still very much a part of the larger design process.

This also brings us back to the opening premise of this article. Great stock art is not going to make you a great designer. Only time, effort and hard work can do that. Stock art can, however, be a valuable resource along the way!

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About Matt Ward