Choosing Clip Art: Look Like a Pro!

Feb 20, 2001

The Bottom Line Choosing clip art that is well-designed, not too busy, and has a pleasant color palette helps make web pages or publications you design look professional.

One of my clients in another state periodically calls me and tells me she can't find clip art that will work for a project she's attempting to create.

This puzzles me, because I never have any difficulty finding an endless variety of good quality clip art, both in graphics programs I buy or free on the Internet.

Regardless of where I find my clip art, I choose which pieces I will use carefully, using only those that have been created by skilled artists. I like simple images that are clear and colorful, and plain black images that I can re-color myself.

A Few Good Programs

You can buy inexpensive clip art software at any office supply store these days. Lots of people are satisfied with this kind of clip art -- the kind that advertises "10,000 Images" on the box.

But think of how many of those images may be too ugly to use, and how many more of those images are simply variations on a theme. When the final count is tallied, you might actually have 500 to 1,000 unique, attractive pictures.

I have always found plenty of variety and style in various Microsoft programs, such as Publisher. These programs have some beautiful illustrations that look like fine art, "retro" designs in sepia-tones from the 1940s and 1950s, funny cartoons, loads of symbols and dingbats that you can color or enhance, and still thousands of more images that can be accessed and downloaded on the Microsoft site.

Images to Avoid At All Costs

Being very sensitive to colors, I'll avoid lime green combined with red, bright blue and stark yellow, and illustrations that have a pixelized "coloring book" appearance. Any of those elements spell "cheap" to me.

Any clip art that I choose for flyers, publications or web pages must come from the same family, or look as though they were created by the same artist. A hodge-podge of clip art always pinpoints a hack from a pro.

Even if you decide to use 50 images of bad clip art, it will look a hundred times better if it's consistently bad and seems to be drawn by the same person. And good clip art looks much better when consistent. Don't mix different styles -- even if you can't find exactly what you want in one family, and exactly what you want in another family. Keep in mind that not every point you want to make with a graphic needs to be associated with a graphic -- less is more!

Try to See The Program and It's Art Gallery Before Buying

Before you invest lots of money in clip art, ask friends what they have and if you can take a look at it. Browsing through the categories of images offered is fun, and you should be able to tell at a glance if you're going to like the looks of the entire library.

Choose clip art packages that contain images, symbols, and stock photographs. Be sure the hairstyles and clothing of human characters is classic and up to date, but will continue to look good in a few years.

It's The Jetsons, Baby!

Some clip art packages are woefully outdated. If you're looking for images of a modern spaceship, you might find 50 or 60 Sputnik-like drawings, circa 1960, and a few dozen little Martians peeking out of a glass-domed flying saucer. Unless that's exactly what you're looking for, you won't be happy.

And there's nothing worse than looking for a drawing of a woman to illustrate today's working mother, only to find June Cleaver, complete with pearls, or Carol Brady with her darling little shag cut and a mock-neck sweater.

Be Sure Your Images Match Your Web Page Colors

One of the fastest ways, in my opinion, to spot a solid web business is by the graphics they use on their websites. If I see garish colored animated GIF images of e-mail envelopes, globes, hands holding pens, mailboxes and little houses (to take you to the "home" page), I think "here today, gone tomorrow." Especially if the images are overlaid on a hideous woodgrain or tile background that clashes.

Keep experimenting with the images and the background until you have an overall, eye pleasing color combination. Don't cause your web page visitors to have vertigo.

And even if your clip art is free, keep in mind that this doesn't mean you have to use lots of it! Use your clip art sparingly, and make sure it has a purpose.

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