Design Tip #4 : Does Clip Art and Stock Photography Add Meaning to Your Communications?

No. Here’s why. Clip art and stock photography are readily available for purchase and can be used by anyone for anything. For companies that sell clip art and stock photography to make money, the images need to be generic so that they are attractive to the widest audience and their variety of needs. Being readily available and generic, means that these images won’t add meaning to your communications. To be more meaningful, you need images that support your message in a way that is specific, authentic, and memorable for your audience.

Here are some examples – starting with the use of photography. Below, we have provided a stock photograph of a group of people in suits. It could be inferred that they are office workers and this image could be used to advertise a business. But, what does it really say? What is the message that the photo expresses? Who are these people, why are they together, where are they, and why are they there? As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. But, in the case of stock photography, a picture is worth a thousand questions.

1356604702406402398people in the office2-hi


Don’t let this happen to your communications. Work with a photographer to take photographs that are specific to the message and tone that will engage your audience. We have provided a second image showing one of our team members, Liz Faris. We know her and want our client’s to know her as well. It shows her performing a service we provide – customer surveys. It places her at a train station. Our firm specializes in communications about transportation systems. It shows her with a community member listening to what they are saying – a key skill for effective community involvement – a specialty of our firm. So, in context of our marketing materials this image expresses a lot about our firm by answering the who, what, where, when, why of what we do. In this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words.


Here is a compare and contrast of two illustrations that express time. One is clip art and the other is original artwork. The clip art is a clock with a happy face to express the emotion of the exclamatory copy below it: “It’s time!” but, time for what, for who, and why so happy? Why is “time!” important? These are unanswered questions that the happy clock cannot answer. The contrast to this is the graphic that we developed for a client that is on the right. It also focuses on time and provides specific information about how San Diegan’s can save water by answering the who, what, when, where, and why questions about watering a yard.

Credit: / The City of San Diego Water Conservation Program

Credit: / The City of San Diego Water Conservation Program


In short, art – be it illustrative or photographic – that is developed to specifically express the message and tone of your communication will make it both meaningful and memorable to your audience.

We hope you found this month’s design tips from Warner Architecture + Design insightful and useful. To learn more about Warner Architecture + Design visit their website or Facebook page.

Later this week the Collaborative Services blog will finish it’s series on visual communications. We will take a look into the future and speak with members of the creative team behind Google’s Art, Copy & Code advertising series.

Laura Warner, President & Steve Luoma, Art Director
Warner Architecture + Design

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