Technology has its good moments and it has its bad moments. Pardon my anthropomorphism and generalization. Some of Technology’s highlights: Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin, the telegraph, the telephone and its evolution into telecommuting. The personal computer, internal combustion engine, digital versatile disc (DVD), iPhone. Some of technology’s low points: early automobile airbags, ENIAC (early computer), Laser Disc, the BluRay & HDDVD debate, the victory of VHS over Beta, Microsoft and the latest addition, Stock Logos. Yes, that’s right, the democratization of information has reached into the creative business sector.
Some would say the problem started with the digitization and consequent low-price proliferation of stock photography, followed soon thereafter by stock illustration. When online stock photos first came out, photographers were initially in uproar about the sudden drop in worth of their product as stock photography companies began to offer royalty-free subscription services, and eventually pay-as-you-go royalty-free stock photography for ridiculously cheap prices. Some would still argue that the design industry has suffered at the hands of low-cost stock photography, while others (me included) make the argument that in a capitalist society, the marketplace determines not just supply and demand but also product variation within a given business sector. What you see now in the stock photography marketplace is a clear quality-to-price ratio when comparing low-cost royalty free stock imagery to higher-cost rights managed stock imagery. By and large, professional photographers and illustrators can still get top dollar for their work by only submitting their pieces to higher-end stock imagery suppliers.
There is some type of logical boundary between producing, purchasing and using stock photography and doing the same with logos. Here’s what I’m ranting about: using a stock photo or even a stock illustration is comparable to a carpenter buying a new tool. Sure, it might be a tool that’s so specialized that it can only ever be used on one job, but still—it’s just a tool. However, when someone buys a stock logo, it’s comparable to calling up a random doctor from the Yellow Pages, and saying to the doctor, “Hey, I gotta fever. And the only prescription—is more cowbell.” I couldn’t resist. Actually, it’s like saying to the doctor, “I have a disease which requires a doctor to cure. Please give me a prescription for some medication. You’ll have to guess what my symptoms are, and you won’t see me. I’ll send you five bucks, and I expect to be fully cured upon the medicine’s delivery.” You see, a logo is meant to effectively communicate who you are using the visual language. A designer has no way of knowing who you are—your likes, dislikes, your vision, mission, objectives, your corporate culture, your history and plans for the future, your competitors—unless the designer asks you about these things, or talks to you long enough to get a sense of these things. When you purchase a stock logo, all of these issues are left to you—someone with presumably no training in the visual language. Another way to illustrate this is using another medical analogy. Imagine you have one or two very strange symptoms, say persistent dull headaches that won’t go away, and a tingling sensation in your right ribcage. You do some research online and find out that it could be one of two life-threatening diseases, or up to 5 non-risky short-term illnesses that don’t need treatment. The problem is, you’re not a doctor. You don’t know if the cramp you felt yesterday was another symptom or just bad pizza. Maybe the pain in your big toe just now is another symptom. But, instead of going to a doctor to find out what’s going on, you just go to the local Walgreens, stroll through the pharmacists’ medicine supply and pick something that you think will fix you. You think to yourself, “I googled this extensively, and read the Wikipedia article thoroughly. I know what’s going on, and this is the right medicine for me.” But you’ve never had any real medical training, so in the end you have no authority to judge what is good or bad for you. So it is with stock logos. The untrained consumer only has non-objective insular opinions about what works for them. Without an expert (a.k.a. Designer), the consumer is lost—whether they know it or not.
My fear with stock logos hitting the market in force is that the world will become inundated with bad design. Ugly will be everywhere, but like Hershey’s milk chocolate, this new ugly will be so ubiquitous and so universally lauded, that consumers will be fooled into thinking that it’s the best thing ever! What was that about Hershey’s milk chocolate? If you look at the source beans and production methods of chocolate on the market today, Hershey’s milk chocolate is an abomination. But the vast majority of Americans will prefer Hershey’s milk chocolate over something truly great like Green & Blacks or Scharffen Berger because they grew up eating Hershey’s. Our culture has suffered as a result, and now anything that contains chocolate also contains lots of sugar, flavorings and milk. I fear that a comparable change will happen in the visual identities of the world’s businesses if stock logos proliferate as much as their purveyors hope they will. I am not concerned about the design industry itself—the strong will survive and raise their prices to take a higher position in the marketplace. Weak designers will change professions and great design will become something indicative of a truly great business. There has never been a better time to be a good designer than in a market nearly overcome by cheap imitations. If I can educate my readers and my customers to become connoisseurs of good design, I’ll be a happy designer.