Blog: Web Design

Avoiding Stock Photography Cliches

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John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

Imagery is a huge part of effective storytelling.

In traditional stories, pictures and words are intrinsically linked.

In the original versions of Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh, the illustrations were just as much a part of the storytelling experience as the words. The drawings Hugh McLeod provided for Seth Godin’s early books helped reinforce Godin’s words and send an overarching message.

Magazines like Time, Life, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated have relied on combining great words and photography to tell compelling stories for decades. Movie posters and album covers have also relied on images and a few carefully chosen words to piqué people’s interest and convince them to buy admission to those worlds.

Today, websites and blog posts are competing for attention with the largest amount of media and information that has ever existed in the history of our planet. Yet, many websites treat their imagery as nothing more than an afterthought.

Well articulated words need appropriate images to complement them. In a perfect world, every website would use original imagery, illustrations, and photos. Ideally, these visual materials would be guided by the people doing the writing. For various reasons, this is not always possible. Stock photography is a necessary source of images for many websites. I’d like to help you avoid some common stock photography clichés that are overused, ineffective, and just plain dull. Here are the major offenders to stay away from.

The Word Cloud

Stock Photography Cliché: Word Cloud

Literally, a jumble of random words.

The word cloud image became popular in the mid 2000s when debuted, allowing people to create computer generated word art. This was clever when it first appeared, and is still a great tool for analyzing what words appear most on a web page. As an impactful stock photography generator, its time has passed.

Digital image creators have uploaded hordes of word clouds to stock photo sites, prompting blog writers and web designers to use them for imagery. But, putting aside the fact that websites are already over-saturated with word clouds, let’s look at the usage of word clouds from a goal-oriented standpoint.

The main reason people build web pages is to prepare the reader for some other action, by educating them about a problem, and potential solutions. To keep visitors reading, we add images — to break up text, keep readers interested, help support the theme of each page. But word clouds are not storytelling, they’re simply a jumble of words. They are chaos where there should be order. People do not read word clouds. At best, they scan them for two or three prominent words, acknowledge them and move on. The rest of the word cloud is confusion to them. Words without context are devoid of meaning, and to be avoided.

Stock Photo Cliche #1: 3D Man

“Forget Mr. No-Face guy over here.”

The digital images featuring the white 3D person are ill-advised for a number of reasons. Visually, it is uninteresting. Statistically, it is overused. Artistically, it is unimaginative. But perhaps the most compelling reason to avoid the 3D person is the inability for the reader to identify with him.

In chapter 2 of his book, Understanding Comics, author Scott McCloud discusses the icon, why simplistic renditions of people resonate with us, and how we absorb a character’s identity into our mask of self-perception. The gist of it: Messages from simple faces have a broader range of identity, as we can wear the mask of those characters more easily than those of a photo real character. However, in order to identify with a character, the character must have a face. The 3D person does not have a face, or any other distinguishing characteristics, making it difficult to identify deeply with them.

McCloud also explains that simple words and complex pictures are processed easily by the mind. Their meanings are instantly clear. More elaborate writing and simpler pictures require a higher perception level to process. What makes us absorb certain cartoon stories is when the characters are rendered in the abstract, but their surroundings and backdrops are more realistic. This is the sweet spot where we fall into the that character’s world. We process that character as an extension of our own identity, and become absorbed in their story.

The alabaster 3D person fails on two counts (besides being boring): 1) Their backdrop is also abstract, so we cannot place ourselves in that reality easily. 2) Their identity is too far abstracted. They lack a face, and therefore an identity that we can relate to.

Words On A Keyboard

Stock Photography Cliche: Words on Keyboard


This visual metaphor is supposed to represent the web (the keyboard) and whatever word happens to be on the highlighted key. Since these images are easy to produce en masse, there are about a gazillion different stock photos with this concept. As a result, there are twenty gazillion blog posts that use this type of photo. If you wish your blog posts to look the same as every other one on the internet, then absolutely, use more of these photos.

Road Signs With Words

Stock Photography Cliche: Words on Road Signs

“Not bloody likely, mate.”

This stock photo idea is similar to the words on keyboard meme. I know why digital artists produce these — they’re easy to replicate. What I don’t understand is why bloggers use them so much. I understand that business/life/whatever is a journey, just like a metaphorical highway, but repetition destroyed this photo cliché quickly. The road sign metaphor missed its off-ramp exit about 200 miles back.

Absurd Facial Expressions

Stock Photo Cliches: Contrived Facial Expressions

“Appears to be high on life.”

I believe the photo above was supposed to show exuberance, but the result reminds me of the creepily grinning people in the Black Hole Sun video.

Most of the time, I see these type of photos on blogs where the author is looking for a way to demonstrate a particular emotion. While these can be slightly humorous in small doses, they usually feel contrived and staged. Don’t believe me? Try searching for “people frustrated at their computer” or “money coming out your ears”. The same cheesy photos exist for thousands of different search phrases. Stock photos that are over the top can turn your messages into caricatures.

Reinforcing an emotion that you are writing about in a blog post with an image is a great idea. Just be selective about the imagery you use.

Fake Business Team Photos

Stock Photography Cliche: Who Are You Trying To Fool? This Isn’t Your Business Team!

“We’ll all stare at each other and pretend we’re having a meeting.”

Of all the stock photography cliches, the fake businessperson trope is the most unforgivable. When you use these type of photos, you miss a golden opportunity to tell the unique story of your business. Worse than that, you are telling visitors that these people are your team members. What does a customer think when they realize that you’re creating illusions about who does the work at your company? They may begin to question other parts of your company’s integrity. It doesn’t help matters when the people in the photo are ruminating intently over blank pieces of paper. Now you look lame on three different levels.

Your customers want to hear your story. People have a sixth sense for when you’re being honest and when you’re being disingenuous. Photos may not seem like a big deal, but they are. Investing in a professional photographer to take photos of your actual staff for your website will make you stand out from the pretenders.

This particular photo cliché is mostly perpetrated by larger corporations, where customers are unlikely to ever meet the people inside the company face to face. Thankfully, most medium-sized businesses realize that showing real employees is the best way to go.

Person Drawing on Transparent Whiteboard

Stock Photography Cliche: Person Drawing on Transparent Whiteboard

This type of photo can also materialize as a person pointing at a transparent screen. This stock photo cliché was cool at first, but became quickly overused, and lost its effect as people saw this over and over. I don’t advocate the use of this particular trope, but if I were forced to use one type of image from this list, it would be this one. While the things written on the invisible whiteboard are usually generic, occasionally you can find ones that match the basic premise of a page. If you can create your own graphic that explains what you do specifically, that is multiple times better.

Photo Ideas That May Become Cliches In The Future

There’s a photo idea that I’ve seen a lot of lately. It was cool when I saw it the first time. And the next couple hundred times as well. But the Things Organized Neatly trope is getting dangerously close to the edge of becoming a cliché, and I’d hate to see that happen. There are a lot of innovative spins on this idea that I’ve seen — let’s keep pushing creative ways to make this idea fresh.

It’s tough to come up with good ideas, articulate them in writing, and then also pick an enhancement image that hasn’t been ridden into the ground. It takes a bit longer to dig for those stock images that haven’t been overexposed, but it helps make your readers feel like you have something original to say. Make that extra effort to stand out, and you will surpass most of your competitors.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

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