Our 30th Annual Stock Visual Reader Survey

It’s Like Night and Day

In the 1960s and early 1970s GDUSA turned down stock photo agency advertising. Not that the publishers could afford to do so – bankruptcy was always lurking – or that the magazine was too classy for that – in fact, it was frequently a hot mess in cold type.

But stock imagery and its use carried a stigma. It was considered a fake, phoney, fraudulent, cheap, stagey and lazy way to design and produce. In the Mad Men days there was a very real fear of backlash by readers and other industry advertisers if a stock photo agency appeared too prominently in a design publication.

How times have changed.

A half century after GDUSA began publishing and 30 years after introducing our annual Stock Visual Reader Survey, the situation is, as one response to today’s survey put it, “like night and day.” Stock visuals have become a vital creative resource for graphic designers, moving from marginal to mainstream to essential. Why? There are a thousand reasons that boil down to one explanation.

Society and business has become more visually hungry and more visually sophisticated at the same time the creative business is squeezed by tight budgets, short turnarounds, challenging assignments, multiple media, demanding clients and digital workflow. Stock visuals provide a meaningful option for creative professionals 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.

The results and commentary generated by our 2016 annual survey provide insight into where stock-for-designers stands today and how it has changed over the decades.

1. Stock Feeds A Visual Hunger

The world of 2016 is an image-centric place and stock visual use has evolved into an essential designer resource. You can name the reasons why audiences are more visually demanding now – easy access to multiple media comes immediately to mind – though the complete answer is above my pay grade. To call stock visuals “essential” was once controversial. No longer. If you simply look at frequency of stock visual use, it is hard to argue otherwise. In 1986 about half of creatives used a stock photo, and those who did were selective about it, most turning to stock one or two or, perhaps, three times a year. In 2016, use and frequency are at all-time, record-breaking, once-unimaginable level. More than nine-in-ten designers uses stock visuals in his or her work, and it is not unusual to utilize several images in a project and hundreds over the course of a year. For the first time, our survey finds that over 40 percent of designers use stock imagery more than 100 times a year.

2. Stock Achieves Legitimacy

Stock has achieved legitimacy. It is a widely accepted, largely appreciated and often preferred source of imagery. This may not be news to a new generation of designers, but, as I alluded to above, it stunning in the broad historical sweep. Stock visuals remained the subject of stigma, suspicion and skepticism for a long time, even as usage consistently grew. But we are now we are in the post-skeptical period. Stock providers are perceived as helpmates who make it possible for creatives to work smarter and stay balanced on the tightrope, as gracefully as possible, that is the creative business of today. Indeed, given the current proliferation of amateurish photography, some designers now praise stock photography as a defender of the faith. As one respondent noted, in part, “with the rise in quantity there as been a rise in quality and authenticity.” This attitude adjustment has also tamped down on the once-raging fear of oversaturation, duplication and loss of the creative soul. Concerns about exclusivity and originality still exist, but not so much. Not everyone loves stock, but everyone gets it.

3. Stock Is Abundant

Over time, stock imagery has become more easily accessible and just plain better in terms of quality, quantity, selection, subject matter, search, delivery, affordability. Throw in all the improvements as to how stock is developed, searched, licensed and distributed, the result is an abundance of choices at a broad spectrum of prices delivered by an increasingly dynamic and responsive infrastructure. Now contrast this with an earlier age. While stock images saved some time and money, the user experience could be dreadful: rows of file cabinets, slow and quirky physical searches, unwieldy film and four color separations, spotty messenger service, and, in the end, the likelihood of a predictable and bland image. No wonder stock archives were used selectively and reluctantly once upon a time. No wonder people are dependent upon stock imagery today. As one survey respondent wrote: “I can’t speak for other designers but the plenitude of stock sites each with an abundance of images make it a treasure trove for independents to find suitable, quality images.”

4. Stock Is More Inclusive

In an earlier period, stock imagery presented an exclusive world view: happy, smiley, white, presumably Protestant, suburbanites in pretty houses with green lawns and blue skies, working white collar jobs, and staying within defined gender roles. This has led to the lingering perception that stock imagery lags behind, and often glosses over, the complexity and edginess of real life. Now, a majority of designers acknowledge that stock collections are more inclusive, and that offerings increasingly reflect the way contemporary Americans look and live. Generally, the lodestar for judging “diversity” has been racial, ethnic, religious, gender and age inclusiveness within stock collections. Most readers say this is being achieved. But the progress in this area is more nuanced than delivering skin-deep diversity: stock agencies are making headway with regard to the related concept of “fluidity” which encompasses the sea changes buffeting our lifestyles, workplaces, institutions, behaviors, roles, and traditions as well as demography. There is more work to be done, most say, but stock provider are on the right track. One enthusiastic stock user notes: “Stock photography is doing a great job of keeping up with the times and lifestyles of the world.” But there is a contrary view, especially with regard to African-American presence in collections: “Stock is better than it was a few years ago but still has a long way to go to defeat the ‘normal group of white people in an office’ vibe.”

5. Creatives Still Assert Control

Given the importance of stock imagery to the creative and budgetary process, it is no surprise that designers want to control the decision as to source, image and method of license. More than nine-in-ten designers say they do so, while less than five percent disclaim any role. The primary reasons for selecting a particular stock provider? Price, quality and searchability remain at the top of the pyramid. Search is a special area of interest to our readers: designers feel good about improvements in this area and give a particularly loud shout out to stock providers. On what devices do designers search for imagery? Desktops and laptops largely hold sway versus hand-held devices, and while licensing stock for mobile designs is clearly on the rise, search for stock on the phone is not growing. Size, apparently, still matters, at least when it comes to screens.

6. Stock Is Used For Multiple Channels and Media

In the beginning, stock visuals were licensed for print. End of story. 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 while licensing an image for single channel use is diminishing. Interestingly, print remains the top medium for stock use at 95 percent. At the same time, stock licensing for online design – websites, digital, mobile, what-have-you – continues to soar, topping 90 percent for the first time in this year’s poll. Other types of projects, running the gamut from packaging and point-of-sale, to television and video are also in the mix. The perennial go-to subjects – people, business, concepts, lifestyles, technology – remain popular. But many other categories are now in demand, reflecting a constantly evolving economy and culture: for example, health/wellness and multicultural/ethnic images have joined the list of top ten most licensed categories. In the 2016 survey, more than two dozen identifiable categories register significant activity. And, finally, we often think of “stock” as photos or videos, but stock illustration use, which waxes and wanes, reached 80 percent for the first time in many years.

Select Comments

Stock photography is convenient and readily accessible for tight deadlines. It offers good value for my clients at a reasonable price.
– Mary Richinick, Mary Richinick Graphic Design

I can’t speak for other designers but the plenitude of stock sites each with an abundance of images make it a treasure trove for independents to find suitable, quality images. I imagine the number of designers depending on stock sites to help deliver professional, competitive designs is on the rise.

The world now seems to run more on visual shorthand than say 20 years ago. Also access to and the affordability of stock imagery seems to have exploded, and with the rise in quantity there as been a rise in quality and authenticity.

For those of us who have been in the design field for a long time, the difference is like night and day in terms of choice, content, pricing, speed of delivery. Slow versus fast, lots versus little, real versus fake, respect versus disdain.

Stock is getting better but still needs improvement. The trend is for more natural, candid looking shots, not the cheesy artificial smiles of the past.

New technology leads more people to experiment with photography, makes it more accessible (rather than needing, say, a darkroom to develop your film). The new generation of clients do not even know what film is anymore, and anyone can sign up to sell their images online.

It’s incredibly easy to access and obtain. It makes getting work done very effective and quick.

Easy to access, large quantity of choices available at fingertips.

The diversity and creativity of images has grown with competition and greater demand for great stock.

Easy, affordable and quality has significantly increased. Lots of incredible content now.

Stock is better than in the past. A lot fresher and less “stocky.”

Choices offered by stock imagery have improved dramatically than the past.

I rarely haven’t found an image to match whatever market I may be serving. Sure, there’s still the all-to-common recognizable stock image that has been used ad nauseam, the sterile smiling businessmen at the meeting table, but those aside the choices appear to be ever expanding.

Clients often do not have the budget for custom imagery. Also, they often don’t have the ability to visualize the outcome, and prefer seeing exactly what they are going to get. There’s also the element of speed – quick turnarounds are expected!

Price and time. With short turn-arounds and tight budgets sometimes setting up a photoshoot just isn’t doable. The quality and depth of stock has improved in that much of stock imagery no longer has that plastic “stock” look.

Choices of stock imagery has improved dramatically than the past.

Most of the time Stock is cheaper than hiring a photographer.

It has become better and there are more high quality options.

Images are the central point to most of my design work for advertising. Stock has become the cost efficient method to obtain images. Photo shoots for clients across the country are near impossible and even regional/local shoots are costly.

Time and Money. My clients are seeking the most cost effective avenues. The photos are not necessarily better, just more of it. Everyone is a photographer these days.

Stock imagery has become more available as the needs have increased. Not all stock image websites have the same level of quality but these sites do offer an annual membership rate, which can be more affordable for clients.

Project deadlines seem to be getting shorter. There isn’t enough time to hire a photographer or do the photography yourself. Usually, I can find something that’s close enough on a stock image site.

Sometimes, stock imagery is used as a starting point, as a foundation to build out and customize an illustration.

Budgets have decreased and hiring a top-line photographer/ videographer is expensive, takes time and coordination, sometimes weather is a concern. You can see what you will get quickly with stock.

There are more options in stock. Turn around times have shrunk significantly and designers, especially those working inhouse or freelancing, and they have to use stock to save time

Project timelines have become shorter and budgets have become smaller. You can’t justify the expense of custom photography or illustration on most projects.

When we don’t have time to hire a pro (which is a lot of the time), stock is the only way we can produce according to our demand.

Designers have less and less time to get things accomplished and the time to hire/shoot photography is a luxury that tight deadlines cannot afford.

Stock photography has for sure got better in quality and more affordable. Photography shoots are simply too expensive and time intensive.

There is better stock available today. We also have tighter deadlines to meet with little time to get the perfect image on our own.

Stock photography and video is more accessible and less expensive, royalty free allows more freedom to use more creative stock.

Subscriptions for royalty-free images make it far, far easier than in the past to get what we need for a reasonable price.

Stock is so much better than in the past, images deliver the message

It’s not that the content is great, but as a non-profit we don’t have the resources to do that work ourselves.

I appreciate the ease of finding specific images quickly and efficiently. Yes, today’s stock is better in content than in the past.

Clients are just not willing to spend money to have photos or illustrations commissioned. At the same time, todays stock is better.

There’s some good stock out there and some horrible stuff too. I use it mainly for price and speed.

The quick turnaround required for most of our projects has led to more frequent use of stock imagery

Stock offers low price and decent quality for most projects, coupled with instant downloading capability.

In my experience things are not getting better; most stock images are unusable. 

Stock photo content is definitely changing as time passes, but more growth is still needed in order for the imagery to match American culture. Specifically, when images pertain to diversity in gender, age and race, many end up trying to include too much. When choosing a photo of five people in the work force, each of a different age and race, the image starts becoming ridiculous and is not a true reflection of American society.
– Scottie Gardonio, Owner/Art Director, Daymark Designs, LLC

There has been some improvement in recent years regarding diversity. That said, there needs to be a better selection of images reflecting age, race and culture.

Stock photography is doing a great job of keeping up with the times and lifestyles of the world.

Stock is better than it was a few years ago but still has a long way to go defeat the “normal group of white people in an office” vibe.

Stock is showing some nuance, still needs to catch up to be less stereotypical. Just cause you are older doesn’t mean you act like you should be in a nursing home. Same with young people as well, not everyone is hanging out. Eyeglasses don’t mean you’re smart or a dork. And no we don’t need to see women dressed in nurses outfits as though they are ready to go to a Halloween party.

Stock is somewhat better at this. Still, I often struggle to find images of what people consider blended families, same-sex couples or somehow represent foster care.

Yes, there is more availability but it is strange that I have to search using terms like “diverse” or “Latino” to get those results.

Stock shows much more diversity. Like the overall society: there has been progress and there needs to be more. Stock needs more race and gender options. I find race lacking the most. Also some stock, mainly lifestyle, has a very European look to it. Although generic, you can still tell it wasn’t shot in the United States. Clear giveaways are clothing or props in the background.

Stock has gotten better – and needs to continue to improve – at showing diversity and breaking from outdated gender role portrayal.

It is starting to progress, but stock photography still has a long way to go in regard to diversity. I feel as though diversity is treated as a category, and not an integral part of the normal stock photo experience.

Its improved from the past, but there is still room for a LOT of growth – particularly in certain categories such as finance, career and technical education.

Everyone is still too happy. People can reflect contentment and still have issues but when they’re so joyful, they can’t reflect potential problems.

To an extent. It only shows the good parts of today’s American society and tends to be “politically correct.”

There is still room for improvement but the material being generated now is far beyond the old stuff.

No. In my opinion, it still reflects the work culture of the early 2000s. Caucasian males in suits with coffee.

The majority of the photos on the big stock sites I use seem to be of people living outside of America.

Diversity is not an issue for us per se. We need manufacturing, industrial and business (non-people-oriented) images more than anything else.

We have challenges in finding African Americans well-represented in most of the categories.

Much of our work requires multicultural images. Many stock group photographs do not reflect the diversity of North America.

It’s getting better. Most of our clients need multi-ethnic humans, along with a range of ages. Every year we see more diversity and the clients are happier.
– Christina Renshaw, President, Text Design Inc.

Better but we still need to get rid of the cheesy, cliched images that just junk up stock imagery and try to reflect more natural settings.

The situation has gotten much better over the last bunch of years.

Choices of stock imagery has improved dramatically than the past.

I think it’s getting there, but there is still work to be done to improve diversity in the stock images currently available.

No, in some categories I still see Western-influenced images and I have to search longer for what I want or shoot it on my own.

Depends on the company. Some do a better job than others, but those are generally more expensive agencies and, in my case, are cost prohibitive.

Stock has gotten better – and needs to continue – to show diversity and breaking from outdated gender role portrayal.

It’s growing, but too slowly. The overwhelming majority of family images are Caucasian.

Many times we need to alter photos to get the diverse image.

Yes. The situation has gotten much better over the last bunch of years.

Absolutely not. The opposite is true ; it’s getting worse. Most image sites still feed into stereotypes. 

I have not used images shot by a phone camera at this time except in instances when a client submits an image that is high enough resolution for printing.
– Mary Richinick, Mary Richinick Graphic Design

Absolutely. Ultimately, what makes the decision is the photos pixel size first and then the composition. If both needs are met I’ll definitely use it. I still occasionally receive a grainy unusable phone photo but more common these days is a photo that has bold colors and amazing depth.

Sometimes, depending on what the client wants. If they don’t care about the resolution or if I am going to edit the image further with filters, it doesn’t have to be super high res.

No. Image quality is good, but color handling is still really problematic. The money I used to pay a photographer now has to go to the retoucher for more Photoshop adjustment in terms of color.

Rarely use photos from the phone. If so, it is almost entirely for newsletters for e-news pieces where we might be sharing photos from our client’s advocacy event, conference sessions, or awards dinner…

Perhaps as a background image. Images taken with my iPhone camera usually don’t have quite the professional quality that we need for our promotional materials.

Only when forced to use phone images by a client. Typically, these are photos of staff and management and the only option is to use a cell phone image.

Not if our lives depended on it. Quality of the image, in both resolution and composition, are generally unacceptable for our needs.

We use photos from the phone only when absolutely necessary, and then replace them with stock photos as much as possible.

No. We want higher quality images than that. Also, we use a lot of vector-based art, which you can’t do with a mobile device.

Sometimes. Only if absolutely necessary such as it is a unique product or service that I am unable to portray using stock images.

I use a Canon 360 for most things. Some photos are shot by staff who send images for employee recognition.

No I do not, because the quality is not the greatest when using portable devices such as phones or tablets.
– Jim Heinlein, Owner, Heinlein Design

Yes. Many projects require quick readily available photos. If I don’t have my 35mm camera I use my phone. Sometimes both.

I will use them when we need to collect certain images from our clients. Sometimes a phone is all they have to use.

I have used them for conceptual work; have not used phone imagery for final deliverables yet

We try our best not to, but in some cases we are forced to use the phone camera photo by the client.

Not generally. For large scale projects, camera phones just don’t deliver the quality needed.

Rarely. I want and need to be sure all issues linked to image quality and integrity are fully resolved.

No. If I use them for a low-res purpose I am afraid of the possibility that my clients would use them for print or signage.

No. Images taken by phone are still limited in size especially for larger print projects.

No. Unless that is the only option, we avoid cellphone photography in professional work.

No. Generally the quality is just not there for the kinds of projects we work on.

Not very often; the ones shot on the fly often need too much Photoshopping.

I haven’t so far, but I can see that happening in the near future.