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.

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