In the last post, I explored the use of a piece of stock illustration (or clip art) from iStockphoto that showed up in two places.
All of this started me thinking: Why are we, as designers, relying on stock illustration?
Isn’t creating original design the reason we got into this business. It’s certainly why I did.
• Are we just too lazy to create something of our own?
• Are our client’s budgets too small?
• Are we too in a hurry or are the deadlines too short?
• Or is it something more?
You can put a ten year old kid in front of any clip art site and say “find an illustration of a monkey and a ball” and I imagine that the kid could find at least 10 usable examples in 30 seconds flat. However, it takes something more to come up with something unique. That is our function as artists, to explore the bounds of our own creativity to come up with something hopefully fresh and new that speaks to people.
If the same illustration of a monkey and a ball was used to sell Wilson tennis balls as well as a promotion for a circus that has juggling monkeys, wouldn’t that confuse the viewer, the potential customer, as well as detract from an ad campaign? Wouldn’t it convey a perception that one was lifting from the other to sell their product? In some ways, I think it would be like car dealers — they all stand in front of an automobile, screaming at me from the television — I can’t differentiate one from another.
Back in the day, when I was a wee design student and walked uphill to class both ways in the snow each day, we sat with sharpies and sketchbooks brainstorming design. When we had a design project, in advertising or typography, we had to show something like 10 to 25 sketches at the beginning of a project. We had to prove evolution of a design & had to be able to back up a final design with how it came to be. We had to exhibit good and bad sketch ideas, as sometimes bad ideas can spring forth good ideas. This is all very valuable, as it helps to train the mind to be more creative.
I have a friend of a friend that got hired by a local doctor to work as a marketing associate for a clinic. I saw her one evening and asked how the new job was going. She replied “Dr. X is sending me to learn graphic design in a week” — my reply? “Good luck with that.” — in this case, a marketing position morphed into a graphic design position — the graphic design element of the job was filled with someone unqualified to do the job as the doctor was trying to cut costs; I imagine her defense of using stock illustration is a matter of time constraints as well as not knowing how to truly go about designing a logo, basic background, or thematic elements in a pinch. You just can’t learn that in a week. I for one struggle with logo design, and I have years of experience. You either have it, you don’t, or you work yourself to death to create something dynamic.
Tonight, my dear friend, the landscape architect, called lamenting the economy and expressing fear over whether he would keep his job at a large architecture firm. I lamented my own field of work, as graphic designers are always the first to take a hit in a backsliding economy. We were talking about how we have elevated fees for design, and he made the case that the reason we are able to charge the prices we do is that we have the years of experience and expertise to sit down and create good design – whether in landscape architecture or graphic design – whereas someone who is a novice will take more than twice the time to create and end up with a less than stellar result in the end. I told him about the previous post on my blog today, and he expressed his gratitude that his field has nothing of the sort. On the other hand, his field is deluged with people who try to cut corners because they saw someone plant a certain tree on HGTV and try to tell him how to do his job. But what if there was some kindred design issue in his field — like buying substandard plants and putting them at every job site? Wouldn’t that cheapen the view of that firm and drive business away?
A friend, a freelance graphic designer, made the comment, on the previous post, that commerce was to blame. And my argument back is that if I were a client, and I saw an element that was used in a supposed ORIGINAL logo or mark that I paid for, I would be livid. I would feel cheated. The trust would be gone. Of course, her valid response to that is that she employs full disclosure as to where her source material is coming from. I find that a little dangerous, as any person with a credit card can go on any of those sites, download an image and the designer is out of a job. That’s a little too “peek behind the curtain” for me.
I get the commerce angle. Each year I have a project, a booklet for a local tour of homes. And I have no budget. But now, I don’t run over to a clip art site and start grabbing elements. I usually sit down with a pencil and do a basic sketch – then I open Illustrator and start to play. With full disclosure and honesty, I used clip art in the past on the project, but I prefer the years where I didn’t. And I felt much more visually and creatively satisfied when I did it all on my own.
Each year, I have the goal for myself to redesign my own website as well as my logo. I get bored easily and like a fresh look. It gives me a reason to send out a mass email to former and potential clients to give them something new to look at. And it’s a good conversation piece. Last year, I redesigned what is currently in place. This was before everybody and their brother started using the font “Bleeding Cowboys”. Now, I see the font everywhere and each time I want to rush to the computer and do a whole redesign of my website. I would feel the same way if I religiously used stock illustration on my designs – and saw the same ones over and over.
I was thinking of the great logo designers. Would Saul Bass (designer of AT&T, Continental Airlines, Girl Scouts, Minolta, United Airlines, United Way, Warner Communications and the YWCA logos) or Paul Rand (designer of the logos for IBM, Westinghouse, & ABC) use clip art? They are held up to such high esteem because their work was ORIGINAL. It was thought out over a period of time. They didn’t just rush to a resource and use something someone else came up with. As for contemporary designers, I sincerely doubt Michael Beirut, David Carson, Paula Scher or Stefan Sagmeister use clip art on a consistent basis if they even use it at all. I would also hope & pray they wouldn’t advocate for it either. (I’d love it if one of them popped in here to offer an opinion!)
Most of the designers I know are freelancers. And we spend a lot of time pissing and moaning about why the truly qualified and talented people don’t get hired by big firms or fail to get their due. But aren’t we dumbing ourselves down by using the least common denominator in our art? What sets us apart from the people who rush out and buy Photoshop because “being a designer is fun and glamourous” is that we can draw, we can illustrate, we can design — we can do all of this without the aid of a computer because we were trained to do so.* For that reason, we should use our talent to elevate ourselves and stand out from the pack. Instead, in my opinion, we’re handicapping ourselves design-wise.
It’s not that I think clip art should never be used. That’s not my point here. It has it’s place. I personally use it sparingly and change it up to make it my own. I just hold the view that designers shouldn’t rely on it so heavily that everything in a portfolio is recognizable from another source. It can also make us lazy and/or complacent. Our design brains are like muscles: They must be exercised. I know the more I tap into creativity, the more it flows.
I’ve presented my position on this issue. Now what do you think?
*yes, I know people who possess no formal training that are very talented designers. So hold off on the hate email/comments.