At first glance on the magazine page, you notice the tightly-drawn outline of the Los Angeles skyline, and below it, a pool of blue-green water roughly splashed and dripping down the page. Within that three-dimensional puddle are any number of shapes that merge and swirl together like a Rorsharch inkblot: men resting in large inflatable rafts rendered in razor-sharp vector outlines, hand-drawn sketches meant to represent scribbled paparazzi with cameras raised to their faces. And did I mention the typography? The slab serif face fading in and out of the water, calling out different facets of the brand's services...
As I looked deep into the design, I began to pick out elements that I recognized from various stock agencies, from the ever-ubiquitous Getty Images and their iStockPhoto microstock service. The typeface resolved itself into a familiar friend, just distorted a little in Adobe Illustrator. In time, I could see little other than a vector illustration that was hand-created by some artistic soul, who then blew into their vision a rash of raster and type assets that were cleverly arranged and manipulated, but not singularly unique.
Such is the hazard of being a designer in today's stock-controlled environment for visual assets. The times can often seem fleeting for those designs that rest upon custom-created imagery and illustration -- those tiny details that elevate your creative work from an intelligent execution with commodity imagery to a singular work of commercial art.
You can create good design with mediocre imagery or so-so typefaces. But you can only create great design with great imagery and killer type use. And great imagery and type costs money, time, or both -- something many clients are loath to sacrifice for a deadline. They see sites like Getty Images or Corbis and assume that we can just go buy what we need, drop it into a layout, and we're "Good to go!"
Here's a few rules for ensuring that projects with custom asset needs escape into the world with some measure of soul.
1) Never use royalty-free imagery or microstock for high-level client work. Period.
These days, the shelf-life of a design is however long it takes for an image to "crash" into another. I vividly recall landing what seemed like the perfect photograph for a high-profile advertisement, and right when the ad ran, seeing the same photograph plastered across the Web site home page of a direct competitor.
The client, angry, called and asked how such a thing could occur. We explained to them that since they'd cut the photo budget out of the contract, we had no choice but to use royalty-free assets -- and even rights-managed assets would have held the risk of an "indirect" collision with another placement in a similar industry. The client wasn't thrilled with the outcome, but future projects did contain the proper amount of money for use of rights-managed imagery that was vetted through the stock agency to ensure there was no overlap of use across any close industry.
In the end, it would have been cheaper to just shoot the photographs!
Unless assets have been manipulated far beyond the original presentation, or used as a very quiet support in a layout, the use of royalty-free or microstock assets is much too risky.
2) Don't let clients negotiate the cost of assets out of your contracts as "padding." You'll burn time and money seeking out the right visuals, or salvaging poor imagery.
Make it clear to your clients that great design requires quality assets. No questions asked. Either they give them to you or you charge them for acquiring or creating them.
Ensure those costs are captured in your fees, no matter whether it's a photo shoot or the rights for high-quality stock imagery, plus markup. If they try to shake you down in this area, chances are that in the end, they may not value your overall design as much as you'd like.
If they are a marquee brand and the work you're creating has shelf life beyond the immediate deliverable, consider a photo shoot or custom illustration as part of the cost of doing business. (Also, it's a definite red flag if you're working with a major brand and they can't provide you with a pool of custom-created assets to support their overall brand needs.)
If you need to negotiate on price, work with your client to negotiate on your fees, but keep your photo costs and markup on those services to ensure profit. In the end, you'll likely save money by not having to burn countless hours searching through the stock pools for "that perfect image."
3) Always assume all visual assets, whether purchased from a stock agency or provided by the client, will require retouching. And budget accordingly.
Just because you bought an image at Getty Images doesn't mean it's going to print beautifully on a CMYK press. Never think that any image whose rights you acquire, from custom-created to stock-licensed, will ever be prepped for reproduction in print or proper use on the Internet. Always budget the time or the outside resources to assure the quality of your assets. I never let an image out into the world without some level of color-correction.
4) Don't go back to your client to get approval for using a new typeface. Factor the licensing costs for yourself and/or your studio into your fees.
Designers love to work outside the box, and projects such as logo development always ask for seeking out new flavors of type as inspiration. Just fold the potential costs of licensing a new font into your agency fees, instead of selling in a killer logo and then dropping the bomb on your client that they'll need to pony up an extra $500 to cover the typeface for your agency. This conversation usually ends with a pissed off client and a designer eating the cost as overhead.
The stock industry has created a beautiful illusion of instant-access imagery and fonts as a commodity for creative professionals, as well as anyone else who can afford the licensing fees. Let's do our best to educate our clients to the real complexities of ensuring quality visuals in our design work -- and get paid accordingly for it.