Our 33rd Annual Stock Visual Survey

Feeding The Beast and Sometimes The Soul

By Gordon Kaye

The most resonate quote from GDUSA’s 33rd annual stock visual reader survey is thus: “We are a visually hungry society: stock imagery feeds the beast and the very best of it feeds the soul.” And they say graphic designers are not word people. As the quote suggests, we have become an insanely insatiable visual society. More on that below.

For good or ill, stock visuals — photos, illustrations, motion graphics — are vital resources to help content creators do their jobs with as much grace and dignity as possible. I believe it is largely for the good, or at least the inevitable, and 33 years ago — Ronald Reagan was President, Mike Tyson boxing champ, Oprah Winfrey a television newbie, Pac Man was the video game rage, the space station was launched, the Monkees were the top grossing tour band — we began to follow and document the stock visual industry’s ascent from marginal to mainstream to essential.

Here are our main takeaways from the 2019 survey of 5,000 GDUSA readers, who were kind enough to respond to short answer questions and provide comments when applicable.

1. Feeding The Visual Beast.

Stock visuals are a vital creative resource for graphic designers, transitioning over decades from marginal to mainstream to essential. Why? There are a thousand reasons that boil down to a single core explanation. Society and business has become more visually hungry and more visually sophisticated at the same time that creative businesses are squeezed by tight budgets, short turnarounds, challenging assignments, multiple media, demanding clients and digital workflow. Stock visuals offer a solution because the central value proposition, choice, content, accessibility, affordability, convenience and speed‒dovetails perfectly with the intense demand for more imagery. There has rarely been such a convergence of a product and its times. By the way much of this is a tribute to the brilliance and hard work of stock visual agencies who, ironically, are being winnowed down to a select few because of the intense price competition that falling barriers have wrought.

2. More and Faster and Better.

In 2018, creatives say that stock imagery is just plain better in terms of quality, quantity, selection, subject matter, affordability, search and delivery. This, of course, varies from provider to provider, but the overall result is an abundance of choices at a range of price points delivered by an increasingly robust infrastructure. Put simply, the right image is easier to find, access, license, use and repurpose.

3. Legitimacy and Acceptance.

In the 1960s and 1970s GDUSA turned down stock photo ads. Not that we could afford to do so — bankruptcy was always lurking — or that the magazine was too classy — it was frequently a hot (type) mess. But stock imagery and its use carried a stigma. It was considered fake, phony, fraudulent, cheap, stagey and lazy. For so many reasons, today stock is legitimate, accepted, largely a non-issue. This may not be news to young designers, but it is stunning in the broad historical sweep. Stock providers are seen as necessary – often desirable – professional partners, collaborators, even trendsetters. This is not to say that concerns about exclusivity, originality or artistic integrity have evaporated but they are tamped down.

4. A ‘Go-To’ Resource.

In light of the above points, it is no surprise that stock visuals are in vogue. What may be a surprise to the uninitiated are the absolutely soaring levels of use recorded in our last several annual surveys. This year, for example, more than nine-in-ten designers use stock visuals in their work; five-in-ten use more than 100 images a year; and the vast majority use over 50 images a year. Directionally speaking, nearly five times more respondents say they are turning to stock imagery “more often” than those who say “less often.”

5. Creatives As Decision Makers.

The 2019 survey reaffirms that creative professionals control are the decision makers with regard to source, imagery and method of license. After all, they are creating the content, trying to gain approvals, and struggling to stay within budget. Thus, virtually everyone is deeply involved in the decision; a mere one percent disclaim any role. What are the primary reasons for selecting a particular stock provider? Price, quality, quantity and searchability top the rankings. By far. And on what devices do designers search and license? Desktops and laptops still largely hold sway with an uptick in smartphone use.

6. Cross Media Licensing.

In the beginning, stock visuals were licensed for print. The 2019 survey demonstrates that times have changed. A lot. Today, it goes without saying that creatives work in and across multiple channels, and more than three-in-four stock images are licensed for use across media. Interestingly, print is still atop the leaderboard in terms of stock use, and packaging, point-of-sale and signs are also in the mix. Nevertheless, all the buzz and much of the growth is in image licensing for internet and interactive design, social media, and motion graphics.

7. Business Friendly.

For 33 straight years, two categories — “People” and “Business/Industry” — have topped the survey. For the second time in a row, business-related imagery ranked number one. Feel free to speculate: is it a growing economy or a business-friendly administration or a fear of tariffs and trade wars or the growing demand for corporate accountability? Less speculative is the continuing trend toward breadth: in all, more than two dozen identifiable subject categories registered significant activity. For instance, “Health/Wellness” and “Multicultural/ Ethnic” imagery continue to rise on the list of most licensed categories. Is this because these topics are at the epicenter of our national conversation? “Nature” and “Fine Art” are also quite strong; an embrace of beauty, stability, serenity? Again, feel free to speculate.

8. Diversity and Inclusion.

No story of any kind, anywhere, about anything can leave out the words “diversity and inclusion.” A story about stock imagery is no different. For years, greater diversity and inclusiveness in stock content has topped the wish list of creative professionals. According to survey respondents, that wish is becoming a reality. Generally, the lodestar for judging “diversity” has been racial, ethnic, religious, gender and age inclusiveness within stock collections. More recently, the concept of fluidity has also entered the lexicon, referring to changes in social mores that are reshaping lifestyles, workplaces, institutions, behaviors and traditions as well as demography. On both accounts, most respondents believe the stock agencies are doing a better job of reflecting real life. Even the contrarians acknowledge some progress, albeit slow, superficial, and sometimes contrived rather than natural.

9. Impact of Social Media.

The growing dominance of social media platforms is transforming — or should I say disrupting? — the way we communicate. In this year’s survey, the vast majority 66% to be exact of designers report using stock imagery that ended up as social media messaging. Respondents are still grappling with what this means regarding imagery. A growing consensus is that social media is placing a priority on images that are simple, clear, user-friendly, and that “pop”, i.e., can capture attention in fleeting instant. You can see that trend in logos and trademarks as well. Finding the right formats also matter, especially since so much of social media is consumed on small and often vertical screens. Those who worry that these developments are diminishing the quality, craftsmanship and professionalism of photography and design are respected by us, but are fewer and further between.

10. Smart Phones.

Smartphones are revolutionizing photography ‒and are having an inevitable effect on stock providers and users. For many stock agencies, mobile photography is growing, enhancing and even reshaping their collections with millions of uploaded photos. For the creative community, traditional design principles are evolving in response to the informality and immediacy of mobile photography, and the demands and constraints of mobile web browsing. How this will ultimately transform visual communication is beyond my pay grade. Two narrower questions relate to today’s survey. One is whether designers are happy to license stock images shot on an iPhone. The answer is yes and no: purists are aghast but most people judge quality and appropriateness on a project-by-project basis. The other narrow question is whether smartphones can be a popular device for searching and licensing stock imagery. Today’s survey suggests this practice is on the rise but that creatives are way more comfortable searching on larger screens.

The Numbers