Design Tip of the Day: Stock Photos Are Corny

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Unless you’re living in a parallel universe forever stuck in 1991, you’re aware that clip art sucks.  Clip art certainly should never be used in a slideshow presentation.  Nancy Duarte said it best in “Cliche of the Week: Clip Art” when she wrote, “Remember how stores used to sell CDs full of ‘15,000 pieces of clip art’? Well, there was a reason it only cost you twenty bucks.” (Source).  So since we can all agree that clip art should never be used for any reason whatsoever, can we please talk about stock photos?

Shutterstock is an example of a stock photography website.  Try searching through the “Animals & Wildlife” category.  Do you notice anything?  Most of the pictures are staged.  A large percentage of them have a plain white background.  How many dogs have you seen in your life clumped together and posing photoshoot style?  Even the animals in their natural habitat look too staged and phony.  Shutterstock and similar stock photography websites just don’t look authentic.  Since one of our presentation goals is authenticity and naturalness, our visual presentation should look real.

First, consider this image of an elephant.  When I look at this image, I don’t feel anything.  I feel no emotional connection, and I definitely don’t connect in any way.

Now, consider the image below:

Image Credit

This image makes me feel feelings.  There’s a story here.  Not only is it realistic, but it’s raw.  When I see the image above, I think about it.  I’m drawn in.  I connect.

Fuel Your Photography‘s insightful article “What Makes a Good Photograph?” lists 10 elements of a photograph that works.  Those elements include depth, lines (to lead the viewer’s eye), movement and motion, perspective, composition, lighting, capturing the unexpected, emotions, and location (Source).  How many elements of a good photograph are included in the stock image of the elephant?  How many elements of a good photograph can be seen in the chained elephant image above?

Since I teach a class on public speaking and presentation, I see a lot of presentations.  I’ve counted that during the last 2 and a half years, I’ve watched between 3,000 and 5,000 presentations.  If a presenter is using Google images, clip art, and stock photography, I make assumptions about that presenter: he’s unoriginal, tired, and stale.  He put in about 10 minutes of effort into his visual presentation.  He doesn’t care about me as an audience member.  He’s making a presentation just like everyone else.  He’s stereotypical; he doesn’t stand out.  Why do I make these judgments?  First, stock photography by its very definition is stereotypical (Source).  It’s unoriginal and just as corny as clip art.  Second, it takes little to no effort to create a visual presentation comprised of stock photography.  There isn’t much consideration of the elements of a good photograph, and most of the images used don’t include the elements of a good photograph.

Let’s say you’re delivering a presentation on bullying.  If you search “bullying” in Google images, the first 10 pages include cliched clip art and corny stock photos.  You’ll also find a lot of repeated design (some kind of image or word in a red circle with a red line across the middle) as well as repeated themes (large, scary clip art boy menacing a smaller, scared clip art boy).  Since I’ve seen at least two dozen presentations on bullying, I have seen most of these Google image search results many times before.  When I see yet another slideshow like this, I shut down, and I make negative assumptions about the presenter.

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Again, consider Shutterstock.  Let’s look at a sample of “bullying” photos here.  Do you notice the similarities between the stock photographs?  Images of people appear artificial, posed, and unnatural.  Most photos are staged against a white background like the corny photograph above.  I don’t feel anything when I see a stock photo.  I don’t feel anything when I see the photo above.  Again, since the goal of visual presentation is to support the presenter’s message/content, leaving an audience apathetic, uncaring, and emotionless certainly is never a good thing…

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Image selection is the most important part of visual presentation.  Since your visuals should be truly visual (think movie scene instead of PowerPoint document), selecting an image that is meaningful is the essential first step.  My suggestion is to use Compfight.  Compfight is a Flickr search engine.  What, exactly, is Flickr?  Flickr is a community comprised of 70 million photographers sharing their life stories.  And since the images found on Flickr are taken and posted by photographers, they clearly know what they’re doing, and their images embody the elements of a good photograph.

Learn how to use Compfight here.  Don’t forget to respect all licenses!

Imagine a world where visual presentation is actually visual, where images are meaningful.  Visual presentation could actually connect and move audiences instead of boring them into a comatose state.  Consider Duarte’s 5 rules for creating an effective visual presentation:

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Remember when developing your visual presentation that you have a choice.  Choosing to use Google images or stock photography websites such as Shutterstock makes you corny and lame.  Remember Duarte’s 5 theses and the elements of a strong photograph so that you can spread your ideas in a way that moves people.

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One thought on “Design Tip of the Day: Stock Photos Are Corny

  1. Well, i wouldn’t say that they are outright corny. but i would agree that a lot of the ones that you see online are not really that good. they idea here is that you need to find one that really looks nice.

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