iStock, therefore I am

Stock art, once a synonym for lazy design and designers, seems to be everywhere, often used in smart and surprising ways. Stock images deal in the lowest common denominator of visual vocabulary. It makes business sense for the people selling stock: familiar images have broad appeal, but they also make for predictable pages. Stock has certainly been a small part of a designer’s toolkit over the years (date yourself by whether your first was a book of Dover engravings or a Photodisk CD). What explains the recent resurgence?

One key factor is certainly the launch of iStockphoto, a huge, low-cost online repository of photos, illustrations, and multimedia files. It’s now easy to find the idea you had in your head — maybe too easy — and download it for a few bucks. Yet some of the most interesting conceptual design starts with a cliche and subverts it. That’s where some of the best recent work has aimed: the sweet spot where the familiar becomes somewhat unfamiliar. Let’s take a look.


Perhaps the most visible sign that stock art had arrived came on the cover of Time magazine. It’s not the freshest concept or boldest execution, but the idea that the most M of the MSM would choose a $30 stock image over a studio shot was shocking to the community of photographers and sparked a lot of heated debate.

Not long after, Britain’s cutting edge design journal, Eye, sponsored an open call for the best work using stock images. The contest brought to light some great work, starting with Micah Weidmann’s cover for The New Statesman. Deliberately crude and energetic, it evokes both postage stamps and Jamie Reed’s cover art for the Sex Pistols at the same time.

Equally impressive but quite different in ambition and impact is the chillingly blank image used by Barbara Brown for the cover for “Columbine” by Dave Cullens. The power here is in the crop of Steve Peterson’s photo.

Another winner is the wraparound cover of “Map of Ireland” by Stephanie Grant. A deceptively simple solution, it’s  a smart and seductive illustration of the novel’s themes of race, ethnicity, and arson. What I love in  Catherine Casalino’s design (using a Corbis photo) is the surprise readers feel when they flip over to the back cover to read the blurbs. What starts on the the front as an image of flames is exposed as a portrait of a red-headed Irish girl on the reverse.

Part of the fun of working at an alternative newspaper is seeing just how much you can get away with when you’ve got no budget. Pam Shavalier of Miami New Times does it every week, it seems. Her HIV-positive cover hits so many notes at once: engaging, hilarious, disturbing, provocative. Top designer Robert Newman, best known for his magazine work but an altweekly alum, has collected more examples of her work at his Facebook gallery. It’s not all stock, but it’s all great. I love the way Tom Carlson’s  cover of St. Louis’s Riverfront Times nods to the classic George Lois Esquire cover but adds its own sick twist.

Designer Alyce Jones at the Washington Post’s Express didn’t have the same type of topic to work with, but her covers for the Fit and Lookout sections also incorporate a nice twist. Each of these fronts uses two stock images, either one of which would be fairly routine on their own, but combined they have some visual staying power. Note also how Jones brings the stock typography — which could feel advertorial — back to her paper’s brand by setting the “Daily flow” headline in the house font.

The Boston Globe’s Greg Klee also used merged two different stock images — at right a book jacket and a cityscape — to create a striking original in this Ideas section cover story calling for a new literature of the workplace. The story at left  is on the literal end of the office — a future where we’ll all be freelancers. (It kind of feels like we’re living in that future right now).

A nice example from a news section comes from the San Antonio Express-News. A rare hard freeze hit south Texas recently. Design Director Dean Lockwood picks up the story from there “We wanted, at the last minute, to do a 1A centerpiece  on it, focusing on wrapping pipes, protecting plants, etc. In about two hours Monte Bach took stock photo of a faucet, stock photo of an ice cube and ‘froze’ our pipes into a 1A centerpiece illustration. Desperation being mother of invention, it came off really well.” To my eyes, the illustration is improved by its proximity to the temperature forecasts. Dean also sent along this helpful infographic of the process:

There’s lots more work out there that started as generic stock art and ended up as a powerful graphic statement. Send me your favorites and I’ll post them (or add them to the comments). A final thought occurred to me: what do you get when you search for “design” on iStock? It’s not much, but maybe it’s a starting point. Your move…

Dan Zedek is the Assistant Managing Editor for Design at The Boston Globe and was site chair for SND Boston in 2007.

23 comments

To me, you have to give some credit to the designers/illustrators who took the stock art and did some more photoshopping to make it relevant. It’s one thing to just grab a photo of an ice cube or a jar or a piece of candy, it’s another to customize it.

I find stock art just helps me brainstorm.

In the hands of someone unskilled or unmotivated, stock art ran “as is” can definitely be lame. (Remember the piggy bank pic?)

But thought of as resource material for something larger/better/cooler, it’s invaluable. I would imagine the Amazing Andrea Levy has made use of loads of stock art in her award-winning photo illustrations. And there is nothing lame about her work.

Not to mention, many publications simply don’t have the staff for proper illustration or studio shoots that they once did. Nor the freelance budgets to outsource it.

Nothing is wrong with using stock images, in my opinion. If the central idea around the use of the image is strong enough, and if the overall execution of the page, cover or illustration conveys its information appropriately, should it matter whether the artwork was produced by five people in a studio or plucked from istockphoto? I don’t think it matters. Good design is good design.

Dean: I had the pleasure of working with (and acting as a hand model for) Andrea for several years, and you would be stunned at how many of those images are self-shot. You can tell it in the little things. For example, it’s no accident when her composite images adhere to a single light source. Just the same, I don’t have any personal hang-ups about working with stock photos. They’re great for piecing together quick conceptual ideas for a pitch to an editor.

Brian, I am with you on this. At the end of the day, we see a package. I don’t see any reason why the source should matter (stock or not). Unless somebody comes up here and explain to me.

Andrea Levy here. A tremendous source of pride in my work is that I do not use stock imagery. Except for the rare necessity when the subject matter requires, I never use stock. That said I have no criticism of others using it. I am a photographer so it is almost easier for me to shoot it than to find and buy it. The luxury of shooting it myself is a greater degree of control of the thinking and quality of the work. Another perk is that I know for sure I will not see the same image elsewhere. On my website (andrealevy.com) there is only a single image that makes use of photo I didn’t take. I would think the place to be careful with stock is that you don’t start allowing the lack of availability of specific imagery to lead or limit your thinking.

I agree completely with Andrea. If a concept is restrained to what you can dig up rather than what you are envisioning – then your concept is going to be muted. Also there tends to be an overwhelming feel of over photoshopping in the industry right now. There is something to be said about being able to hire someone, directing them, and completely utilizing their talents and abilities – not to mention the fact that you would be getting a wide variation of styles throughout a course of time. I’ve seen few exceptions for perfectly implemented stock art. Yes, money is an issue – but it’s your job as an art director, designer, or director to fight for a budget. Magazines, newspapers and websites make a lot of money. Say the New Yorker charges 150,000 for a full page – a reader wouldn’t expect to have them put a $30 image on the cover. That would just be weak. Every day a lot of that revenue is mismanaged and thrown away on projects that do nothing for a publication. Having a strong cover and editorial spots are an investment that will directly contribute to the quality of your publication (in a positive light). Nine times out of ten – hiring someone who you know can create exactly what you are envisioning in your head is better than paging through istock photos trying to find something that might be manipulated. Stop pigeon holing yourself. So go back to your office and bitch at your publisher for more money, because that money in your budget is a direct investment into your final product. That’s just my take.

Sammy, thanks for your perspective on this subject. I think a lot of this is so dependent on skill set and resources and the process of working through ideas en route to a great idea or concept. Good design and inspiration and art can come from anywhere. And should.

Stock imagery can be a boon to an overworked and understaffed newsroom. Way back in the 20th century, if I needed a photo of a jalapeno to put some sparks on the stem for an illustration, I had to fill out a photo request, wait a day until it could be worked into the schedule and meet with the photographer to get it shot. The whole thing probably cost more than $80 in personnel hourly costs and time.

If I can find that same photo on a stock site for $5 and have it instantly, that staff photographer can use that time to capture unique, local documentary images nobody else can get.

Thanks for this posting. Fine examples of great work. I agree with Andrea … stock is fine as long as it does not limit our thinking.

After writing and deleting a long-winded rant, all this boils down to balancing the lack of time and money with one’s standards of quality. I truly hate myself for using iStock on covers but you have to choose your battles.

Here’s my argument for using stock imagery as is: Readers don’t care — even subliminally — whether something is “fresh” or “original.” All that matters is that they GET it, preferably at a glance.

Sometimes that demands a different approach, and turning stock art on its head (as we see in the examples above) is a fine example of that. But as Josh said: When a $5 jalapeño does the trick as well as a $50 photo shoot — or a $500 commissioned illustration — then why not save the company some money (and your overworked staff some time) if it’s not going to compromise clarity?

I’m with Martin on this.
Time, money and the downsizing of staff’s, both in photography and design, is why we are seeing a resurgence of stock photography. Unless we can find a solution to handling more with limited resources I don’t see a way around using stock photos.
Anyone with suggestions of alternatives to using stock photos without using staff/freelance photographers or shooting photos yourself?

Newspapers closing or going bankrupt across North America, freelance budgets slashed or disappearing all together, proper design departments just a faint memory as pages are outsourced to other cities or countries, templated layouts. . . . These are dire times for designers. It’s no surprise that stock photos and illustrations have taken hold in desperate newsrooms. I would hazard a guess that some newsrooms won’t even use stock unless it’s free, preferring to recycle archived images. That’s just the way it is, and “bitching” at your publisher or editor for a budget while your co-workers get laid off will generate an eye-roll, at best.

I am the photographer of the final image used in the article – the “Design” image. While I appreciate using the photo from iStock, you are using a screenshot and not the actual image. The terms of use don’t allow this and your current use of it is illegal. If you purchased the image please replace it with the correct version, if not, please purchase the appropriate size so it can be used legally.

Alan, the image you’re referring to was a concept sketch from San Antonio. The final version used a licensed image.

Dan, my image was removed by an SND staffer after my original request to you went unanswered. Next time, perhaps you could spend the buck or two instead of using a screenshot for your article.

In a word – Tacky.

A rip off of someone’s music is when you take other work and pass it off as your own.

A sample is not a rip off, because the music taken is now merely a tool or a building block for a new idea.

I look at stock art the same way. Someone created an image to say something. I take that image as tool or building block to say something else.

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