3 Ways to Design Without Stock Images

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From banner ads to site headers, flyers to billboards, stock photography as well as stock icons and illustrations are prevalent. There are many reasons for that. Whether it’s a tight timeline, no budget to contract a photographer or designer, or the concern that your own employees just aren’t “camera-ready” the way a trained model or actor would be, defaulting to stock imagery is common and understandable. But while it may be convenient in the moment, it’s not the best way to go when it comes to results. Find out more about the pitfalls of stock imagery and how you can get along without it.

Why Avoid Stock Imagery?

One barrier to entry may be price. The costs to download stock images can feel steep if you’re not accustomed to purchasing visuals. If you feel you can’t afford stock images, you may be right — in more ways than one. It turns out that beyond the expense to purchase, using them in your work may deal another blow to your bottom line.

That’s because it’s been said that custom imagery converts 7x better than stock. So in essence, when you choose to purchase stock versus investing in more expensive — but more valuable — custom imagery, you’re missing out on potential revenue. With a 7x advantage, that increase in conversion rates could be well worth the expense.

Another reason to limit your usage of stock is that your viewers can tell the difference between stock and custom.Even as far back as 2011, the use of stock photography was already a measurable detriment to companies. In one study that year, replacing a stock photo with a photo of the company’s founder increased the site’s signups for free consultations by 35%. Imagine the impact of making a swap like this on your own site in 2019. Likewise, stock icons and illustrations may feel too generic compared to something that’s designed especially for your brand.

So how else can you visually communicate your message?

Alternative 1: Custom Photography or Cinematography

While new styles in stock photography in particular may have emerged over the years, it can still feel disingenuous when compared to custom photography, custom live footage, or custom illustration. In addition to the study cited above showing that stock vs. custom matters to your viewers, it’s also clear that these images are used all over the place, meaning you’re not the only one with that photo on your site. In one experiment, one stock photo from a website yielded around 175 results around the web! That’s a lot of people using the same image for different companies and messages. Custom ensures you’re showing viewers a design unique exclusively to you.

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Alternative 2: Custom Illustration

Because photography shows real life, it can seem like a no-brainer to use it to depict real-world items and scenes. However, depending on your brand and audience, in many cases illustration can be a superior choice. You might be communicating a process or metaphor that can’t easily be shown through just a couple of photos. You might also be showing something visually complex but needing text to accompany; this can create a lot of visual noise on a page or screen. Using an illustration or icon that’s simpler than the real-world application can improve usability and be more pleasing to the eye at the same time.

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Alternative 3: Custom Data Visualization

Let’s say you’re communicating numerical data but sticking to photos, icons, illustrations, and typography to show it. You might be doing a good job of communicating the overall theme or message of your information, but you’re missing out on the impact of letting the numbers speak for themselves. There are exceptions — some types of data are best suited to typography after all — but in most cases you could be taking advantage of a chart or graph to improve comprehension of your information. There’s a lot that goes into effective data visualization, and that’s why ensuring it’s custom is key. You need to pick the right type of data visualization for your image, ensure that it’s accurate, and consider if any other visual enhancements like icons or illustrations may be an effective supplement. Working with a designer or design agency gives you this unique insight. But when you’re wrestling with a template or DIY tool, it’s tough to make those same decisions without a design background.

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Photography, icons, illustrations, and data visualizations are all valuable components of visual communication. But when you use stock work, you risk miscommunicating the information or disengaging your audience. Stick with custom for work you can be proud of — work that generates results.

Lucy Todd

Author Lucy Todd

Lucy Todd is the Chief Process Officer at Killer Visual Strategies. She is a Seattle native and Western Washington University graduate. Her degree in Creative Writing and her customer service background both inform her work daily. A Killer employee since 2011 and executive since 2014, Lucy has researched for, written, and/or project-managed over 4,000 projects for the company, affording her key insight into our processes and projects. This experience is invaluable in allowing her to lead and empower Killer’s content and project management teams to success. Lucy enjoys managing the day-to-day at the office, offering a unique perspective when a team or colleague feels stuck, and learning from her peers and clients each day.

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