GDUSA’s 31st Annual Stock Visual Reader Survey

An Essential Designer Resource Responds to Social and Tech Change

By Gordon Kaye, Editor, GDUSA

If forced to summarize the findings of our 31st annual stock visual survey, I could do so in one sentence.

“Creative professionals need stock visuals to feed a visually hungry media landscape from print to web to social media, they appreciate the accessibility and abundance of stock offerings, but they wish providers would hurry up with imagery that better reflects how America lives, loves, looks, labors, and links.”

I admit it is a long sentence but, in my defense, it does have some nice alliteration.

For those of you with a bit more time and patience, here are ten takeaways based on the results of the 2017 survey of GDUSA subscribers who were kind enough to respond to short answer questions and provide comments when applicable.

1. A Rare Convergence

Stock visuals remain 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.

2. Better, Faster, Smarter

Implicit in the statement above, creatives say that stock imagery has become 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 wide range of price points delivered by an increasingly dynamic and responsive infrastructure. Indeed, there is near unanimity on this point: the right image is easier to find, access, license, use and repurpose.

3. Attitude Adjustment

Conceptually related, stock has achieved legitimacy and acceptance. This may not be news to a new generation of designers, but it is stunning in the broad historical sweep given the miasma of skepticism that hung over the industry in its early years. Today stock providers are perceived as a necessary ‒ often desireable ‒ 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. It All Adds Up

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; four-in-ten use more than 100 images a year; and the vast majority use over 50 images a year. Directionally speaking, nearly four times more respondents say they are turning to stock imagery “more often” than those who say “less often.”

5. Creatives In Control

The 2017 survey reaffirms that creative professionals control are the decisionmakers with regard to source, imagery and method of license. After all, they are creating the content and trying to stay within budget. Thus, virtually everyone is deeply involved in the decision; a mere two percent disclaim any role. What are the primary reasons for selecting a particular stock provider? Price, quality, quantity and searchability top of 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. More on how this relates to the growing role of mobile phones and mobile photography later.

6. Multiple Media and Channels

In the beginning, stock visuals were licensed for print. The 2017 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. People Who Need People

The perennially popular subjects for licensing remain stolidly consistent. For example, “People” and “Business/Industry” are two top licensed categories for the 31st straight year. At the same time, the general trend continues toward breadth: in all, more than two dozen identifiable categories register significant activity. There are often interesting shifts to note from year-to-year which arguably mirror changing tastes and circumstances. For instance, “Health/Wellness” and “Multicultural/Ethnic” imagery have recently risen into the list of top ten most licensed categories, and are such this year as well. Is this because these topics are at the epicenter of our national conversation? Similarly, this year’s survey reveals downtick in stock imagery related to “Retail”. Maybe a sign of a growing “Amazon affect” on brick and mortars stores?

8. Diversity and Inclusiveness

For years, greater diversity in stock content has topped the wish list of creative professionals. According to survey respondents, that wish is gradually 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 rise of social media is transforming – or should I say disrupting? – the way we communicate. In this year’s survey, more than half ‒ 53% to be exact ‒ of designers report using stock imagery in social media. However, it is all so need respondents are still grappling with what this means regarding imagery. An early 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. Finding the right formats also matter, especially since so much of social media is consumed on small and often vertical screens. Traditionalists among our readers are worried that these developments are diminishing the quality, craftsmanship and professionalism of photography and design.

10. Impact of Smartphones

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 are willing to judge quality and appropriateness on a project-by-project basis. The other narrow question is whether smartphones will become a popular device for searching and licensing stock imagery. Today’s survey suggests this practice is on the rise but that creatives are still more comfortable searching on the larger screens of their desktop or laptop.

Select Comments

Stock imagery, for the most part, has increased in quality and availability.

There are more choices now than before and more availability. The content is also becoming more relatable to current user needs and trends with certain sites dedicating their offerings to what is considered contemporary.

Above all, the issue is time. When I need an image I need it now. I don’t usually have the luxury to schedule a photo shoot.

The demand is always there. Nine times out of ten client requests lifestyle imagery over graphics.

Art departments do not have the budgets they used to in order to commission original photography. We have come to rely on stock, which has gotten better in terms of quality and variety.

Images translate a message faster than words. In today’s world, media messages need to be condensed into bite sized chunks.

Stock companies have made it very easy to search and to reuse or repurpose images.

Stock is distinctly improved in every way. Quality, choice, price, how it is accessed.

Stock agencies have become more affordable and there is better choice selection.

Stock video and clips have become much more important to me in the past year.

Customer budgets drive the usage. Lower budget means fewer photo shoots and an never-ending quest for more affordable photos. I hate it.

Social media apps like Instagram are giving more people confidence in their photography and based on feedback are learning what makes a strong composition. Digital photography equipment has become more accessible, and more artists are uploading their work for sale.

Stock photography has gotten better for the most part, with more options and choices.

Choices galore! Especially with the opportunity for anyone to upload their pictures for sale or distribution on stock sites.

The choices have improved overall. I liken stock photos to AP stories if you’re a journalist. They are an easy solution to empty space as long as they are not sterile or generic.

There are now too many providers and too many images. It takes a long time to sort through all the choices and has become more cumbersome to search for what I want.

The growing need for imagery on all web and social media platforms, combined with the accessibility and lowered prices of good cameras, means to supply and demand has increased.

Electronic devices and social media have created more demand for imagery. You need to capture your audiences attention.

Prices are much more affordable now which is good timing since clients seem to have smaller budgets.

Yes and no. I see more seniors, use more seniors in my print ads, but it’s hard to find them doing the things I need them to do.

Boomers are getting older and the society is accommodating them, as it always has. A few stock agencies have really responded, though I am sure most eventually will.

Aging is the single biggest challenge to individuals, families, communities, society. Only a couple of stock agencies are really stepping up in this area.

I think they are getting better at portraying older people but there is a lot of room for improvement here. The majority of people are usually younger in the photos.

There are many more images that depict older individuals in engaging imagery

Because of the overall growth of choice, all the collections seem to be getting better at showing both older people and younger people.

There is still huge room for improvement in showing a broader range of ages in stock photos. In general, it still looks as if we are idealizing the younger age ranges by simply excluding images of older people.

This is getting better, but we need more activities showing intergenerational groupings

Yes. A few years ago when I would do a search for business professionals I would get a grid of white guys in suits. Now I find an equal number of men and women from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.

We are seeing a very positive transformation especially mirroring how work life and family life are changing.

Yes, better. But still some way to go. For example, images that show ethnic minorities in positions of authority are still relatively scarce in comparison.

This is improving but slowly. If I guessed, I’d say 98% of the stock is White/Caucasian. I’m happy there are sites that offer diversity, but overall the stock companies really need to evolve.

Yes, I see more Latinos and African Americans in shots, and even mixed race groups.

No. We struggle to find a good mix of ages and cultures in photos. We need better, diverse images!

Yes, the expansion is really impressive. For the most part, things have gotten better. It is an industry-by-industry thing. There are still certain industries where the lack of diversity is very obvious.

One of the hardest struggles we have is finding non-cheesy diverse small business images or images of industrial/manufacturing workers.

Yes, stock collections are getting better with diversity, but are still not good. As a designer, white-washing is a pattern you notice visually all the time. Even if you Google search images for business man, you’re gonna get mostly white people in your results. You still have to specify if you want someone of color because white is the default.

Many have improved, some have not. Often the quest for diversity results in images or situations or compositions that feel forced or contrived.

Ethnic and racial diversity is increasing, though the offerings sometimes feel a bit self-conscious, as though the agencies are trying hard to meet an arbitrary goal or standard.

Absolutely! Images have to be strong and to the point for social media. If you can’t grab there attention in 0.3 seconds, you can kiss that opportunity goodbye!

In order to stay current and relevant in today’s world, springboarding off of social media influences is necessary and crucial.

Most times, I need really professional stock imagery for my projects. Once in a while, an iPhone image will meet my need for a casual or spontaneous or even a rough-edged look.

Stock image collections are already rich in choice. By adding iPhone images, it has only gotten richer.

Smartphones and social media are changing things for the worse. Expectations are lowered by photographers who don’t know the basics AND by decisionmakers who don’t respect quality or copyrights.

The quality of the cameras on our phones have gotten more and more advanced, so I think it’s made good photos more accessible ‒ at least for digital uses such as social media.

Since an images will crop differently of different platforms and devices, I need to find images that will work in a number of formats.

Now I look for images that can be repurposed easily. I analyze a smartphone stock image the same way I do any photographic image. Is it right for what I need for a particular project or campaign or client. Sometimes the answer is affirmative, sometimes it is no.

Because of how kids get their social media on smartphones, I feel as though there is now an emphasis on visuals that show best in vertical mode

I look for images that will pop on social media or adjust them as needed to stand out in RGB.

No change. A good image is a good image, and will work powerfully, no matter the platform.

I would never order a cell phone image. Even though cell phones brag higher pixels on their camera, that does not actually transfer through to a print ready image. A lot of work still needs to be done to ready the image, which is why we will always use regular SLR cameras. Up until last year, we were still photographing and developing in actual film.

Because of how widespread social media is, I am more likely to question my selection from a popular stock photo site because I’m considering how many people may have already seen the image elsewhere online.

The Numbers