GDUSA 32nd Annual Stock Visual Reader Survey

Everyone Is Using Stock and More of It

By Gordon Kaye

Whenever it is time to summarize and capture the essence of our reader survey results, my fervent hope is that I can find — or even fabricate — something new, something edgy, something trendy, something surprising, something controversial.

No such luck with our 32nd annual Stock Visual Reader Survey, which reaffirms that pretty much everyone uses stock imagery, that creatives are actually using more of it, and that we are mostly satisfied with the quality and quantity and direction of the content. To be specific, 93% of respondents say they use stock imagery in their work. And 64% say they are using more stock now than in the recent years as opposed to only 15% saying they use less.

Not everything is static, of course. For example, business and industry-related images topped “people” as the most frequently licensed category for the first time in decades. Search capability is more valued than ever when choosing a stock provider. And no one seems to care about having exclusive rights to an image; exclusivity was once a hot-button issue for stock users.

In short, the 2018 survey reaffirms that, in the three-plus decades that GDUSA has intently observed this market segment, stock usage has fully evolved from marginal and sketchy to mainstream and trusted. Polarizing disputes of the past about stock’s impact on artistic integrity, creativity and originality appear to have evaporated, leaving a sense of positive calm acceptance. Ommmmm.

Here are a few takeaways:

1. Essential Resource

Stock visuals are a vital creative resource for graphic designers, transitioning over decades from a last resort to an essential tool. 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. Ease of Use

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 Achieve

Conceptually related, stock has achieved legitimacy. This may not be news to a new generation of designers, but it is stunning in the broad historical sweep given the stigma that hung over the industry in its early years. Today stock providers are perceived as necessary – indeed desireable – professional partners, collaborators, even trendsetters.

4. More Imagery More Often

While it is no longer a surprise that stock visuals are popular, what continues to amaze are the soaring levels of use. This year, more than nine-in-ten designers report licensing or buying stock visuals; one-third say they turn to it more than 100 times a year; and, trendwise, nearly two-third of respondents say the trend is to using stock “more often” as time goes on.

5. Designers Are Decisionmakers

The 2018 survey demonstrates, once again, that creative professionals 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 invested in the decision. What are the primary reasons for selecting a particular stock provider? Price, quality, searchability, freshness and brand reputation top the rankings. A small surprise: quantity is less highly prized than in the past, perhaps because there is simply so much supply to chose from.

6. Big Screen Search

On what devices do designers search and license? Desktops and laptops still largely hold sway as the preferred choice for image search. There is a slight uptick in smartphone use for this purpose but, generally speaking, creatives remain more comfortable looking for and evaluating imagery on larger screens.

7. Filling The Void

In the beginning, stock visuals were licensed solely for print. Today, it goes without saying that creatives work in and across multiple channels, that stock images are frequently licensed for use across media, and that every time a new channel emerges — like social media platforms today — stock licensing fills the visual void. At the same time, licensing for print has not disappeared: fully 100% of respondents said they license stock for print work.

8. Business Friendly

For 32 straight years, two categories — “People” and “Business/Industry” — have topped the survey. For the first time in forever, business-related imagery rose to number one. Feel free to speculate: is it a growing economy or a business-friendly administration or a fear of tariffs and trade wars? Less speculative is the continuing trend toward breadth: in all, more than two dozen identifiable subject categories registered significant activity. Check out the list and note that “Health/Wellness” and “Sports/Fitness” continue to climb. Again, feel free to speculate.

9. Fluidity Flourishes

For years, greater diversity and inclusiveness has been on the designer wishlist. 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, GDUSA readers believe the stock agencies are doing a better job of reflecting real life and embracing this value in their collections. Perfect no, progress yes.

10. Let’s Get Social

The dominance of social media is transforming – disrupting – the way all communicate. In this year’s survey, nearly two-thirds of designers – 63% to be exact – report using stock imagery for social media. This tends to place a priority on images that are simple, clear, user-friendly, and capture attention fast. Needless to say, it is driven by short attention spans and small screens. Traditionalists have long worried that these developments are diminishing the quality, craftsmanship and professionalism of photography and design. Frankly, we see ever-fewer traditionalists left and even they are resigned to the inevitable, if not inspiring, change.

The Numbers