In my opinion, it might just be a little bit of both.
For busy designers and marketers, the appeal of stock art is obvious. It's fast and inexpensive, and allows us to add something visual to a work that might otherwise feel one-dimensional, or at least less engaging. It's a quick and accessible answer to a pervasive problem – in this case, how to add visual appeal that helps bring attention, perspective, and focus to a piece of content.
Viewed through that lens, it's hard to see stock art as anything other than beneficial, and maybe even necessary. But, consider the same type of issue in another light: We all have the challenge of eating every day, and fast food is quick, convenient, and accessible. Does that make fast food good for us?
The answer, quite obviously, is "no." That's because in both cases a bit of perspective is necessary; it's not necessarily about whether the product in mind fills an absolute need, but whether there are better options available.
Why Stock Art Can Diminish Culture
The biggest problem with stock art is that it takes attention away from the creative process and places it on the tools that are used to create. Think back to those early days of graphics software and you’ll understand what I mean immediately. Once upon a time, adding things like shadows, text within a circle, or transparency to an image was considered a minor miracle. And so, you quickly saw artists (both amateur and professional) using these techniques on everything from brochures to bake sale announcements.
The same thing happens today with Photoshop, Illustrator, Canva and the arsenal of other technological tools we have at our fingertips. By beginning with stock art, we can eliminate the long, time-consuming creation process that used to be involved in creating art and simply customize what's readily available right in front of us.
That's certainly convenient, but it's not necessarily better. And with each new click, share, or forward, we allow readers and consumers to tacitly accept something that's sometimes slightly below the standard. What used to be sloppy becomes average and our collective expectations take a dip until no one is creating anything – we are all too busy showing off our latest tools.
For most of history, creating great works of art was about finding inspiration first and then using the right tools second. It was only after someone had the vision and passion needed to see a hunk of rock as something more beautiful, for example, that they would turn to their sculpting tools and look for the right piece for the job.
There's a reason that craftsmen roll their eyes at slightly inferior manufactured products, artists devalue works created by drawing software, and authors look down on sensationalist journalism. In each case, the creators are going for something that's a little bit simpler or maybe more profitable than the genuine article. They're taking the path of least resistance.
So You Want Me to Stop Using Stock Art?
Stock art definitely has a place in our society, and especially the web design and social community. It just wouldn't be feasible for most people to generate the art they need from scratch, and even if they did, there isn't any guarantee that the standard of quality would rise.
So, while I'm not advocating a position that we should all abandon stock art, I am saying that as artists and designers we need to think carefully about what we are putting out into the world. It's up to us to use the tools available to us to enhance our artistic instincts, rather than replace them. In other words, we can be quick and efficient, but we can't afford to be lazy.
Even if we sometimes don't care about the quality of our art on a philosophical level, the fact of the matter is that the real thing will always stand out. And, rare is it might be, there are still artists, photographers, writers, and other creative people putting out the genuine article each and every day. The more we allow ourselves to accept lower standards of quality, the easier we make it for the public to decide we aren't trying hard enough.
Stock art is convenient and useful. But like fast food, it's not always a good substitute for something that's truly nourishing and made from scratch.
Image credit: Gettyhttp://www.gettyimages.ca/