Take the 2-minute tour ×
Graphic Design Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for Graphic Design professionals, students, and enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I'm looking for a little advice, hopefully somebody can offer me some.

I currently work in Marketing/Graphic Design.I do not have a degree in Graphic Design, but a degree in Advertising (which was very design heavy) so I came out of university with good design skills. In my current job, I do very basic things such as mail shots, website graphics, leaflets, brochures etc. where the use of stock photography and imagery is fine a) because of time-constraints and b) because we obviously do not sell anything.

I would love to start designing things like invites, announcements and wedding stationery. As many of my friends and colleagues compliment me on my eye for design, good use of space and images etc when I design for them. Of course, when I design for myself or friends, I use whatever comes to hand. Sometimes I incorporate free vector packs (of things like intricate swirls/flowers or silhouettes of birthday cakes or some baby vectors to enhance a baby shower card) and sometimes I even buy some off places like shutterstock. A friend wanted a birthday card for his girlfriend which had a typewriter on (as she is a writer) and i made a lovely card using a drawing of a vintage typewriter as the focus with good use of typography.

Without using these resources, I am afraid that my skills are very limited. I am very good with colour, layout and typography. And very good with coming up with wording and beautiful unique ideas. But I cannot draw to save my life, and I definitely cannot make vectors of my own (at least not brilliant ones - i do have some limited knowledge of using illustrator)

My question is, am I unsuited to selling my designs online as I rely too much on stock images to help pull designs together? I absolutely love doing it, but if I took out graphics that I didn't design myself, I fear I would only be able to take advantage of typography and colour. Do I absolutely need to learn to draw? Would I be better off learning these skills before even trying to design invitations to sell? Or is some use of stock graphics okay? I am not entirely sure what is acceptable in the industry. Sometimes I see shops on Etsy selling cards with what looks like stock graphics/vectors and wonder if they are the original artists or not.

Thanks for any help/advice you might have. Very curious to hear your answers.

share|improve this question
Most stock sites have specific restrictions on image usage where the image is the primary selling factor. Do not judge what you can legally do or not do upon what you see others doing (such as Etsy). Read the license agreements for the images you are using. Some may permit the use, some may not. –  Scott May 12 '14 at 11:36
Thanks for your response. I have read the license agreements and understand that if I was to use bought graphics from these sites that I would need the extended license, or the sites equivalent that allows me to use it commercially for profit within design. I think my question was more whats acceptable win the design world - i.e do many designers use them (legally with the correct license) or is it seen as incredibly amateurish and should I wait to take some drawing classes and hone my skills that way. –  peaches May 12 '14 at 11:52
"b) because we obviously do not sell anything." Everyone sells something. If you don't have a way to generate revenue then you're not a business. –  Ryan May 12 '14 at 13:22
That comment was in reference to my day job, where using stock images with just a standard license (i.e not in any work to be resold but purely in promotional material) is absolutely okay. That wasn't particularly my point... –  peaches May 12 '14 at 14:34

2 Answers 2

Is it acceptable to use stock materials in design?

Yes it is perfectly acceptable. Make sure you follow the licensing agreement but otherwise have at it.

Think of it this way, Helvetica, one of the most used fonts in the world wasn't designed by any of the current designers that use it. Max Miedinger, the designer, passed away in 1980. Most fonts in fact are designed by someone else, but still we use them. Good designers will use them under their approved licensing agreements. Additional: Why would a designer want to purchase a typeface instead of using free ones?. So why should you think any different about someone else's photography or illustration work? Does a producer of a film not hire actors, source soundtracks, and all sorts of other things?

Some specialize in one or even two things. Few in more then that. If anything I would say it is great that you acknowledge what your strength is (composition) and what your weakness is (illustration).

Am I unsuited to selling my designs online?

Now this gets a little tricky. I'm not sure if its word choice or what you're actually wanting to do. Selling a design is different from selling your design services. If someone hires you to design a wedding card, you use licensed content to complete it, then its much easier. If you're intention is designing say a calendar to sell at bulk on a website then thats a different type of license. Both are worth investigating just be aware of it. It usually comes down to use and quantity of run.

If this is your intent (selling the design) then:
Nobody can tell you if you should do this or not. In some ways its a business decision. Start with one or two SKUs (products), keep track of what the entire cost was when you factor in licensed goods, add on your hourly fee, your equipment costs, and some amount of profit. Then see if it sells. Adjust pricing and go from there.

In general the more you can do on your own the more profitable you can be. Just like an electrician. If you're a low level electrician that has to pay someone to do the AC (high voltage) stuff then you're going to lose out part of the profit. If you get certified to do the AC yourself then its one less subcontractor you need to hire. Design is no different. The more of the production line you can do the more cost control you have.

share|improve this answer
Very helpful comment, you addressed many of my concerns and questions - thank you. Appreciate that it seems like a very dumb question, but you have given me some food for thought. I suppose you're right, the question is less about whether it's "okay" to invest legally in bought graphics, and more about whether the return is financially viable doing it that way. Thanks. –  peaches May 12 '14 at 14:37
Great answer, excellent points. Love the electrician analogy -- I'll have to steal that one. :) –  Alan Gilbertson May 13 '14 at 22:25

A couple of points that I would add to Ryan's excellent summary:

There's nothing to prevent you from designing and selling items that consist entirely of typography, layout and color in a kick-ass composition. Not only does this immediately play to your strengths, you'll find that this kind of self-imposed "limitation" can kick your creative juices to an entirely new level. We thrive, oddly, on restrictions. A blank canvas, blank check and "do anything you want" design brief is the stuff of nightmares. (Well, okay, not the blank check part.)

Embrace your limitations and use them as a springboard. One of the doyens of modern graphic design, Paula Scher, is famous for her imaginative use of typography-as-illustration, typography as art. She tells the story that she got started down that path because she was hopeless with Letraset rub-down letters. They kept breaking on her, and she'd get the spacing wrong or they would warp out of shape to her intense frustration. Her design teacher suggested she just draw letter shapes instead (she can draw!).

Given the licensing, there's also nothing to prevent you from using stock pieces in your designs. My recommendations would be:

  • Avoid obviously popular items, particularly photographs. You don't want to have the hero image on your card-for-sale also appear on 30-odd random websites for your potential customers to come upon by accident. That's way more likely to happen if you choose something marked "Smokin' Hot" on the stock website.

  • Use parts, not the whole, and/or manipulate the heck out of them. Make small things huge and huge things small. Crop violently -- rather than a whole elephant, use just one foot or an eye. By the time you've finished recoloring, cropping, resizing, distressing and otherwise massaging a stock item into your unique design, you've created something new and original that the casual buying public (and even other designers) won't recognize contains stock art. Sites like iStockPhoto have pages of examples of otherwise-ordinary stock photos being turned into high-impact design elements.

You're going to develop your own style as a matter of course. It's an inevitable consequence of doing what you love and doing it again and again and again. You might as well take off in a unique direction right from the start.

Come back and let us know where we can buy your stuff... :)

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.