Redesigning cliches: How to choose stock imagery for the 21st century


This article was sponsored by our friends at FreshStock—a purpose-driven stock asset library focused on quality and diversity.

Stock images are made to be design workhorses, but they can get tired and cliched. Some are so yesterday, others are old but gold. One can argue that there’s nothing wrong with repetitive stock image use. After all, they’re a quick way to make a point in posters, presentations, etc.

“The reason that cliches become cliches is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.” — Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

So, when and why do stock image cliches become problematic?

Let’s take a look at five of the most exhausted (and exhausting) stock images on the internet:

  1. The Masked Hacker
  2. The Suit and Tie Male Boss
  3. The Happy Four-Person Family
  4. The Super Happy Senior Citizen
  5. The Laughing Woman Eating Salad

As we know, some of these have evolved into meme territory. Hide the Pain Harold and Women Laughing Alone With Salad are viral sensations that make us question the use of stock images in the first place.

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Using stock imagery to keep up with 21st century standards

For the longest time, a very particular set of people have been used to portray normality and success. In the stock image world, this means mostly white, mostly male, 20- or 30-something, English-speaking, and non-disabled.

Overuse can turn stock images into laughing stock images. But a more pressing issue is that these hackneyed depictions don’t leave much room for what’s happening in the real world because they fail to account for diversity. As more time passes, the more unfair this becomes for those who are underrepresented.

These hackneyed depictions don’t leave much room for what’s happening in the real world because they fail to account for diversity.

If you’re someone who regularly uses stock images for marketing, it’s your time to shine. Now more than ever, the world needs brands who are unafraid of change. More than that, you could also argue that consumers now actively require their favorite companies to be more “woke.”

In the last decade, the internet has taken cultural awareness to unprecedented levels. We’re more globalized than ever, but we’ve still got a ways to go. By pushing for diversity in content, we can hopefully become a global society that recognizes even its smallest subcultures as natural parts of our collective whole and appreciates differences without promoting divisiveness.

To that end, creators all over the world have been busy building highly inclusive stock asset collections. Just take a look at FreshStock’s growing library of diverse stock images, Vice’s Gender Spectrum Collection
, Blush’s illustration customization tool
, and Amrit Pal Singh’s diverse 3D avatars


Why choose and use stock images responsibly?

Stock images are indispensable in mass media. By making art, advertising, and pop culture more diverse, creators contribute to the human experience.

By seeing themselves in mass media, individuals are empowered. The world’s dreamers look for role models. They look for themselves. When people are represented, imaginary restrictions are broken, and they’re given permission to dream bigger. In an inclusive society, people are allowed to own their identities and aspirations, and we all benefit from one another’s passions.

Because people subconsciously rely on mass media to formulate their worldviews, designers are responsible for the tropes they perpetuate.

By seeing others that they may not encounter in their everyday surroundings, individuals are globalized. Because people subconsciously rely on mass media to formulate their worldviews, designers are responsible for the tropes they perpetuate. This is why creatives and artists have a huge opportunity to nurture equality.

Stock images are design “shortcuts,” but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go the extra mile when selecting them. Being too cliched may not actually be the safest choice—the wrong stock image can hurt your brand’s credibility, making you look lazy and unprofessional at best and callously insensitive at worst.

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Why do we talk about redesigning cliches instead of abolishing them?

Stock images are inherently cliched because they are naturally formulaic. You want an image that gives you a quick, at-a-glance idea of its subject, and that always involves some generalization. What we say today may be cliche tomorrow, but we don’t stop pushing for inclusivity so that no one is left behind.

As cultures endure, grow, or even mix, mass media adapts. It’s a process that never ends. You might find yourself struggling to keep up—and that’s alright. Somewhere out there, someone is always waiting to be represented, to be depicted, to be heard. And as creatives, we keep our eyes open and our hands at the ready, so that their day will come.

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From offline change to online revolution

But wait, why the reinforcement? It’s already the 21st century. There are already strong movements for the LGBTQ+ community, Black Lives Matter, people with disabilities, and more. People are already marching on the streets—what more do we want? The answer is: normalization.

It’s the difference between planting the seeds and caring for the garden. It’s something to have started, but as long as there are gaps in visual representation, artists still have a job to do.

Which brings us to one more little cliche: you snooze, you lose. The world now calls on brands to not only adapt, but lead the way. Stock images can make a real statement about your brand’s values: your global perspective and social priorities.

There’s a growing pool of resources out there that make it easier to find diverse stock images, but ultimately, the choice is left up to the marketer or designer. For you, a diverse stock image may just be one more ready-made element. But for many people out there, it’s the difference between being legitimized and being invalidated.

The intent behind the stock images of yore (to be useful) may have done us more harm than good. They’ve caused people in minority groups to question their place in the world or their respective industries. When marketers don’t keep up with offline change, designers can push them to do so. Why not use stock images that reflect and serve humanity? It’s an honorable mission for the creative community, one we’re proud to support. Go forth, fellow creatives! May you make design choices that matter

FreshStock FreshStock is a purpose-driven stock asset library focused on quality & diversity. With over 25,000 (and growing) socially inclusive, premium stock vectors & templates, we celebrate inclusivity through visual empowerment. Stock imagery is our love language, & our daily message is that everyone deserves representation.

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