Visuals have long since overtaken textual information when it comes to digital content.

Spurred on by huge, rapid mobile adoption, excellent visual web content is a must if you’re to get any sort of exposure for your products, site, or blog. No matter what type of image is used, articles with images receive 94% more views than purely text-based posts. The importance of images online is undeniable.

Unfortunately, many web designers opt for generic, free stock photography as a solution to the visual ‘problem’. While stock photography – if well made – can offer a number of distinct advantages to novice web designers (as we will see), nothing is as effective or as visually stunning as bespoke visual content. Using custom web illustrations and free stock images as an example, let’s explore the pros and cons of these different visual solutions.

Free fotos dot net!

Free stock image databases are weird and wonderful places. They allow anyone to upload license-free images for public distribution. Sometimes you have to contact the uploader if you are using their work on a commercial basis, but other than that, free stock sites contain tens of thousands of images covering any topic from plumbing to crime. Free images! My site needs images! And these ones are free! So what’s the catch?

Well, the fact that many stock sites are free to upload to and download to means that there is a lot of terrible, cheesy, poorly composed ‘work’ out there. In fact, the vast majority of them are terrible, cheesy, and poorly composed – not to mention outdated. Just look at this stock image, entitled “Business woman talking on a headset”:

Stock photo

It’s not all this bad, but this sort of thing means you have to do a lot of digging to find anything remotely useable in a professional design. Quality free stock imagery is seriously hard to come by – and you can guarantee that the stuff that is vaguely good is already in use by hundreds of other sites.

There’s a real problem with stock images as a whole. They might provide a cheap / free, convenient source of visual content that web designers can just slap onto a site and call it a day. But if you’re paying a professional to design your website, they are actually ripping you off if they’re resorting to free stock. Visuals and functionality are the most important elements of a website, and a really well-coded and optimised site is nothing without appropriate and unique visuals.

People can tell images are stock from a mile off, thanks to years and years of exposure to this drab, cold, and generic content. Good for a first site, but if you want to really engage people, it’s time to look at the alternatives.

Custom illustrations
“Insight from Intelligence” custom icons for Group Promotions’ website

Bespoke custom web illustrations

Hiring a professional artist or graphic designer to create bespoke visual content specifically for your website will go a long way in boosting your site’s identity and profile. Immediately, you’re injecting your site with personality – and because the artwork is bespoke, this can be anything you want. A commission might be more expensive than the alternative, but the long-term benefits are incomparable. Furthermore, a custom illustration can allow you to convey a very specific message about your product or site – something that is more or less impossible with stock.

Custom illustrations don’t just have to be large banner-type images. You can work them into every visual element available – from your logo to the site’s background wallpaper. Professional artists are able to work in a wide variety of styles too. Illustrations don’t just have to be clean, digital artworks; they can also be hand-drawn or painted to inject extra character into your design. Best of all, you don’t have to spend hours trawling through databases looking for something vaguely good enough to use – you are paying for a professional service and can ensure your requirements are met in every way. This is particularly important if you are developing for mobile.

Stock images, or bespoke illustrations? Are we really still asking this question?

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