I recently came across an RSS feed about do-s and don’t-s of web site design and one of the points that they made was that the ornamental design element and irrelevant stock image actually detracts from the user experience. I couldn’t agree more, with the operative word being irrelevant.
I have many small business clients that cannot afford to stage shoots or purchase original images from the artist. Some rights-managed images can amount to thousands of dollars on a website or medium-sized direct mail job. So I turn to stock image vendors. There are a zillion of them, but I happen to like iStockphoto and Veer for images and Thought Equity for video.
The key to good use of stock photography is to find images that support the content; those that help move the story along. My techniques is to use the same keywords for image research as I do for SEO and see what comes up. I refine the results based on color, size, subject matter, the visual story, etc.
So now I will get theoretical on you and give you some guidelines on how properly used stock photo helps a design:
The image is demonstrative. The image shows the typical use of the product or service being used. Imagine a woman using a facial cream or a couple sitting down at a third person’s desk getting home buying/insurance/estate planning advice.
The image is atmospheric. The image conveys some sort of mood that jibes with the tone of the site. Think of a beach scene for a travel site or the Andes for a hiking shoe company.
The image is aspirational. The image conveys an imagined result of following the call to action. Imagine a man in a hammock sipping lemonade for a financial planning website.
The image is illustrative. The image is a visual representation of a key selling point or value proposition. These can be tricky and where many people can get sidetracked because the meaning of an image can be misinterpreted. Imagine an image of a well-decorated room for an interior design service or furniture company.
The image is representative. Here, the image is an archetype of the target market. Attractive singles for a dating site, perhaps.
Some images may be more than one type, but only in rare circumstances should an image be used more than once in any given project.
Avoid overlap. Do your homework! One of the most distracting things about a stock image in digital or print creative is if it has appeared somewhere else. Istock will indicate how popular a photo is, so try to avoid the very popular images to prevent that happening to you. Veer tends to have more exclusive images, so you should be fairly safe there. To be absolutely safe, Google images with the same search terms that you used on your stock image site(s) and see if they pop up on sites other than the stock site.
If push comes to shove, then try/ask your creative to apply a treatment to the image(s) to make it less ordinary.
NEVER mislead the user. if your stock image creates an expectation that your product cannot fulfill, then you have done more damage than if you had no image at all.
Used properly, stock images and graphics can be a creative’s (and their client’s) best friend.