| Branding, Design Basics, Design Trends

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If you haven’t noticed, the bar for the quality of photos used in most marketing materials is extremely low. It seems that everyone wants the benefit of photography without paying much for it.

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that is why photography so often plays a critical role in a web design, printed marketing materials, book cover design, etc. But it seems like very few people have the budget to pay for a photographer, so more and more we rely on stock photography and royalty-free photography. (Read this for an explanation of the difference between stock and royalty-free photos.)

As a designer, I have many clients who expect photography as part of a design solution but are not prepared for the extra costs, therefore we are forced to use these same low-cost options. Here at Visible Logic, the other designers and I have learned to quickly sort through the loads of poor-quality photos and find those diamonds in the rough.

With our experienced eye we can:

  • sort though and determine which photos are the best
  • crop them in a way to make them look better
  • colorize them or apply another treatment to create a more distinct look for them
  • integrate them into a design so that they become part of a larger (better) design solution

The funny thing about doing this is that you realize that all the talented designers out there are doing the same the thing. We’re all trying to get blood from a stone and we tend to find the same stones to work with.

In other words, the few low-cost, royalty-free photos that are of the highest quality get used over and over again.

An example of an overused royalty-free image

For our client, ClaimVantage we have designed their logo, web site, print marketing materials, trade booth graphics, ads and more. As part of their new logo design and rebranding we chose five photos that worked on the home page of their web site. With all of the photos, we applied an effect that suggested the digitizing of content, because they are a claims processing software company. You can see the effect live on the claimvantage web site. And I’ve posted it below.

Web design graphic
One of the graphics used on the ClaimVantage.com web site

As you can see, one of the images is a high speed train that blurs out on the edges. We added a digitized look that fades out around the edges. The photo is a royalty-free image that we purchased from Getty. I would classify Getty as main stream, but not as cheap as someplace like iStock.

This image has been on our client’s web site and incorporated into their tradebooth graphics, some ads and other printed marketing materials for the past year or so.

Last week, I had a meeting with the client and we used join.me to do a screen sharing session. (That is not an affiliate link, but they are my favorite screen sharing program because it’s so easy to use). The Join.me web site has a number of images that they randomly place as large-scale graphics behind the main login screen. As my friends from ClaimVantage all huddled around my computer, this screen popped up.

Screen shot from Join.me
Screen shot of the home page of join.me

We all got a good laugh!

We always warn our clients about the potential for others to use the same image when you choose royalty free images. Most of them feel that the cost savings outweighs the risks of this happening.

What is the risk when using low-cost, royalty-free images?

Join.me is not a competitor of my client. They are not in the same industry. So it’s not a huge problem. But imagine a few other possible scenarios:

  • Your competitor uses the same photo as a large, hallmark image on their website. Or even worse, on their tradebooth. Can you imagine two trade booths both using the same image? I think that would be at least as awkward as two women wearing the same dress to a major social event.
  • The image becomes so widely used, even if not in your industry, to make it become no longer distinct.

The main risk when relying on these over-used images is that you are trying to position your product or service as different, unique, and better but your brand’s visuals say that you are cheap like everyone else.

What to do?

I am a small business owner too, so I understand that every purchase must have real value to your company. Investing in custom photography may not, realistically, be a good investment for you. I would advise you to do the following:

  • Work with a professional designer who can make the most of these non-unique images.
  • Avoid using poor-quality images as filler on your web site or marketing materials. They can do more harm than good.
  • Use low-cost images as part of a larger, more developed brand identity. (See our 8 Essential Elements to a Comprehensive Brand Identity)

What other stories do you have of seeing the same photo more than one place?

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