Web design
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Jun 16, 2015

The importance of avoiding bad stock art

A primer for those who are unaware
Great design resources are more readily available than ever before. Don't rush into choosing your assets though—choosing the right stock for your project should be a careful and deliberate process. By the end of this article, you’ll understand the importance of avoiding bad stock content.

We share our secrets with attractive sites

Within the first few seconds of loading up a web page in your browser, your brain has gone through a list of questions to arrive at a snap judgment:

What is this site?

Is it something I’m interested in?

Does it look reputable?

Would I trust this company with my credit card information, or even just my email address?

How can you possibly decide all of this in three seconds with any degree of reliability? The realistic answer is that you can't. You probably shouldn't base your decision to give a company your credit card information on the stock photo they used on their homepage, but you do it every day. We all do.

There are a ton of options for just about anything you could want on the web, which means that when you come across a site that doesn't quite feel legit, maybe the design is bad or something just feels off, you waste no time closing the tab and moving on to the next search result.

An exaggerated example

Let's go through an example of how this might play out. Let's say you want to start a personal journal online. These are your private thoughts, so security is a legitimate factor. You run a quick Google search and come across the following two sites:

Now, put aside thoughts of user experience, attractive UI, etc. for a second. If you had to put all your most personal thoughts and feelings into one of these two sites, which would you choose? Which site do you instinctively feel is more secure?

Obviously, this is an exaggerated example. The second site has a certain late 1990s aesthetic that would cause most users to wonder if it had been updated in the last decade, making Penzu the clear choice.

The same principles apply when the choice is more subtle though. Consider this third alternative:

Between Penmia and Penzu, the choice might not be as clear. At this point, careful prospective customers will dig into the features and promised security of both platforms. The rest of us though will still make that snap judgement based simply on which design we like best. For me, I think Penzu's design, though perhaps not on board with current flat design trends, still looks more finished and distinguished than Penmia, so I'd probably start there.

This is admittedly a weak method for choosing the safest, most secure site. For all I know, the least attractive of these sites could be the most secure. The simple truth though is that this is exactly how Internet consumers make decisions. That's why we're talking about it.

Earning your user’s trust

As a designer or business owner, one of your top priorities for your site should be to create something that people instantly trust. Whether the company has one or one thousand employees, the site should help visitors understand that it is established and trustworthy. Here's a short list of goals:

Use great design to convey a sense of professionalism.

Honor this trust by following best-in-industry security practices.

If the information is particularly sensitive, reassure your users that their information is safe and describe the lengths you're going through to protect it.

The financial planner Mint.com (shown below) is a great example of a site that goes the extra mile to make users feel comfortable about handing over their most sensitive data.

What makes stock bad? (Hint: It’s not just how it looks)

Now that we've established that bad design kills your credibility, how does that extend to stock imagery? The answer is that your design is only as good as what you put into it. To steal an aphorism from programming, "garbage in, garbage out.”

The key to avoiding bad stock in your design is simply knowing how to identify it. Here are some obvious and perhaps not-so-obvious ways to identify "bad" stock. Let’s take a look.

The quality is poor

If you have an eye for aesthetics, this problem should be the easiest to identify. For starters, you should avoid Microsoft Word clipart and unprofessional photos. Look out for photos that are outdated (which we'll talk about in the next section), grainy, poorly or harshly lit, or simply unnatural in subject and content.

There are plenty of other things to consider that aren't so apparent though. For instance, I find myself constantly frustrated with free fonts (which are another form of stock content). Terrible kerning, awkward word spacing, and missing characters plague the free font world (you get what you pay for).

Compare this with even a modestly-priced premium font and the difference is pretty drastic. The $25 Veryberry Script not only gives you all the major characters you need, it also tosses in tons of stylistic alternates, ligatures, ornaments, and more. This is what a well-designed font looks like.

When a font includes a full character map, you won't have to fake punctuation and other characters yourself, which can often result in a messy, mismatched look for your type.

The style is out of date

There are perhaps millions of pieces of stock art available on the web that resulted from a talented professional putting in hours of work to create something that looked really attractive... in its time. Unfortunately, styles and trends change over time, and using artwork that people associate with outdated tastes reflects poorly on your project.

The resource is overused

This is the trickiest one of all. Sometimes great stock goes bad simply because it's so good that everyoneuses it. The most prominent place we see this today is with free stock photos.

The images above are beautiful, so kudos to the photographers who took them. That being said, because such attractive images are being offered up free of charge, you see the same images on hundreds or even thousands of sites, blog posts, and more.

When you're trying to make your business stand out among the all the companies in your industry with similar offerings, relying on overused stock can be damaging. The result is that you accomplish the opposite of your goals and simply blend in with everyone else.

It’s illegal

The final thing to watch out for with photos, graphics, etc., is simply that you have the necessary rights to use them. Let's start with the obvious: taking photos and graphics from Google images is never an acceptable practice for a professional designer.

Google indexes everything, and will show you everything. This means the vast majority of images you'll see are copyrighted with very specific usage rights (which don't appear on the search results page).

This issue goes well beyond stealing images from Google though. Often, designers who go out of their way to do the right thing and purchase an image from a reputable source still mess up by not carefully reading the associated license. For instance, some images have restrictions when it comes to commercial use, or prohibit use on anything that will be sold. Always read the fine print and never make any assumptions. Lawsuits over stock imagery misuse are rare, but they damage the credibility of your brand if they become public knowledge. 

Set goals for your stock

Each project you undertake is unique and has its own set of goals. Before you download or purchase anything, decide what it is that you're looking to accomplish by using stock, and how that works into your overall project vision. Don’t just fall back on a series of images you once bookmarked because “they looked nice." It helps to actually go through and make a list of what your content needs so your goals are crystal clear and your content is directed.

For example, let's say you're on the hunt for a photo of some interesting architecture and you find the following two photos that you like:

Both of these photos are great, but very different. This is where your list of goals comes in handy. Let's say you wrote down the following before the project began.

The stock resources that I use should make my design look:

Interesting

Unique

Fun

Exciting

Bold

Modern

If we compare this set of goals to the two images above, we find that the second photo is the clear choice. Both the photo itself and the subject are fairly unique (the building is crazy and I haven't seen this exact photo on other sites), the architecture style is definitely bold and fun, and the colors are bright. It's a perfect match. By contrast, the other image evokes an old world feel. It's rustic, quaint, and comforting—while the second photo is much less traditional and even bizarre.

Note: Want to learn how and where to find high quality design resources? Check out our previous article.

It doesn’t have to cost money if it works

What matters more than how much you pay for a resource is whether or not it is accomplishing what you want it to when you consider things like quality, trends, originality, and legality. Whether you pay $1,000 or $0 for a design resource, just make sure it's helping your design more than it's hurting it. You rarely need expensive HD photography, but you also almost always want to avoid going the “stock and cheap everywhere" route.

It may seem like I'm bashing free resources a bit, but that's not at all the point. I use and love high quality free resources every day. Creative Market, which is the premium stock site that employs me, gives away six free goods every week.

How do you use stock in your work?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How do you use stock resources in your work? What are your favorite sources and examples? Let me know in the comments below.

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Josh Johnson

Guest author from Creative Market

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