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.

  • 2
    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, 2014 at 11:36
  • 1
    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, 2014 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, 2014 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, 2014 at 14:34

4 Answers 4


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.

  • 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, 2014 at 14:37
  • Great answer, excellent points. Love the electrician analogy -- I'll have to steal that one. :) May 13, 2014 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... :)


I realize this question was posted a while ago, but it resonated with me and I wanted to respond with some insight.

I am also a self-taught graphic designer, and I remember how confusing all of this was for me. It was difficult for me to decide which skills I should be honing, and which ones should fall to the wayside.

Several years of professional experience later, I will say it's always a bit of an open question. My short answer would be that you do not need illustration skills to be considered even one of the top graphic designers in the world.

Longer answer: It totally depends on where you want to work and what kind of designer you want to be. Think about the fact that you do not need to be a professional photographer to be a graphic designer, even though photography is often the most prominent part of a commercial design.

However, it is really good to know how to use Illustrator fairly intricately. It's good to know how to work with lines and vectors and curves and geometry. Likewise, it's good to know about photography and lighting. Both of these things will allow you to step it up, especially in smaller-budget companies who can appreciate you stepping in to do run and direct small photo shoots.

Most designers eventually want to become art directors, and art directors are good at sourcing talent. So, you should be able to understand the basics of what makes an illustrator right for a project, or what makes a photographer a good match. What kind of lighting and setting should the photos be captured in? What style illustrations would work well with the client's brand?

I know that in my current job, I am not expected to be able to create great illustrations, and I could probably convince my company to purchase icons as opposed to making them myself. But I like that I can make the icons myself. It saves my company time and it's a fun relief from designing grid layouts.

I would say to just keep working on your layout, color, and type skills. Those are the things that will ALWAYS be expected of a professional designer. And in your spare time (even while at work) you should work on illustrating and understanding photography. For your next endeavor, why not try finding a photograph of say, a typewriter or a flower on Google images, pasting it into illustrator, and then tracing it? Try out the pen tool, the pencil tool, the brush. Edit your lines to be what you want them to be. I am not a born illustrator, but I can trace photos and then play around enough for it to become my own professional work.


I believe the other answers covered the licensing issue quite nicely, so I won't repeat their advice. What I will advise you to do is to draw every day, whether with paper & pencil/pen or using your design tools (i.e. photoshop/illustrator). If you are going to use your computer, I strongly recommend getting a tablet and stylus.

Even if you aren't happy with your hand-work now, daily practice will improve it enormously. And you will find a drawing style that you like and suits you, and hopefully others will find it appealing as well and your drawings/designs will sell.

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