Ah yes. Clip Art. Under the right circumstances, a great time saver. If you’re looking for budget logo design, pretty darn cheap too. Usually free. And when is it the right circumstances to use a piece of clip art as your logo? That would be never. Clip art is such an incredibly bad idea for your brand, it almost defies description. Not that you can’t find a piece of clip art that would be suitable for your logo – you probably can. Truth be told, there are some amazing libraries of pre-fab art lying around. One misconception that people have is that this kind of material denotes some form of visual style (as in “eewww, looks like clip art”). That’s not entirely true. Whether something is, or isn’t clip art, has very little to do with how it looks. It has everything to do with how it’s distributed. Clip art is material that’s designed to be used by a whole lot of people, each of them having limited ownership rights to do so. Sometimes there are even usage restrictions, often to do with commercial and non-commercial reproduction.
No-one owns the image outright, so that any clip art image is unencumbered with copyright issues when a lot of people use it. Does that sound like a good idea for a logo? (also sounds very similar to so-called logo templates). You can’t own it, you can’t claim exclusivity, and an untold number of other companies are utilizing the very same image. Yes, maybe even your direct competition. Using a piece of clip art as your logo is probably infringing on a copyright (that’s bad) as it’s very rare that the licensing arrangements with the original designer allow for it (Microsoft clip art is a prime example of this. It’s given away with a ton of software, but the licensing is so restrictive it’s pretty well unusable for any commercial use whatsoever. Probably okay to use the artwork to advertise your church picnic. Not so okay to slap the artwork on a flyer advertising your latest ‘blow-out’ sale). Bottom line? Don’t do it.
To designers, the term clip art refers to an image or design that can be found in clip art libraries and is available for use over-and-over again, for a multitude of people. The term ‘clip art’ doesn’t refer to the quality of the work – it’s not a matter of’ ‘how good it looks’ but rather ‘what it is’. There is some exceptionally good clip art available and just because we don’t technically use scissors (that’s the ‘clip’ part) designers understand that downloading a prefabricated icon, template logo or illustration from a website doesn’t change the fact that such material is still defined as clip art. As long as we understand what it is, and the limitations thereof, there’s nothing particularly wrong with clip art. Clip art – even of the digital variety – has been the savior of many a designer in times of deadline crunch.
Clients, on the other hand tend to refer to something being ‘clip art’ as how the artwork appears visually to them. But what does clip art ‘look like’? If I was to try and define ‘clip art’, I’d probably point out to the ubiquitous line-drawings of people performing various tasks around offices that have been featured in flyers for eons. As these images have been for eons, they’re dated and tired, both in fashion sense of the characters, and office hardware depicted. Stylistically, the line weights are uniform (as opposed to varied line thicknesses which give any illustration a nifty look) and that’s probably as close as I can get. But even then, I’m probably pointing out this clip art because I’ve seen it thousands of times, I’ve been in the field long enough to remember the huge books of clip art that these images were snipped from. It wouldn’t be because I’m a master at recognizing clip art-at-glance. So what do clients mean when they say “meh – that looks like clip art”? No small question. Without a very clear answer.
To a client, the term ‘clip art’ does refer to ‘how it looks’ and is usually a phrase that they will use when – in their mind – the design presented does not appear to have taken the amount of time that they believe they have paid for. Nor the amount of attention they feel their new corporate identity is due. Often, this criticism is due to a misunderstanding of what a logo design is, or rather, should be – the personality of the company pared down to a (relatively) simple graphic. It’s also due to a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘clip art’ is. I’ve often said that if we lived in an alternate universe, and the Apple and Nike logos were yet to be invented, and we were to present either of these now-celebrated designs to a client, they’d quickly dismiss them out-of-hand, no doubt with a ‘looks like clip art’ critique. A complex, illustrative logo ‘looks’ like it took time and effort. Simple logos often don’t. An eloquent logo makes the logo design process look easy. I might even appear that it took a few minutes to put together. Never mind the concept, the roughs, the sketches and doodles that went into it (see a case for simple logos for an example of this). Thus the dreaded ‘clip art’ comment. You see, it’s all about perception and the perception of ‘value’. While complex logos appear to have taken an awfully long time to develop, simple logos ‘look’ like they could have been rendered quickly using desktop design software (and the supposed miraculous ‘design this’ key).
Rather than what clip art is, some clients view ‘clip art’ as what they believe is the amount of time a designer spent on their funky new logo. It should go without saying that the amount of time spent on a logo shouldn’t be a factor in how effective it is. I’ve seen great logos that took a few hours to conceptualize and render. Neither can be described as clip art which remains, a term used to describe pre-fab artwork that is created with the sole purpose of being used by multiples of people, either as a standalone piece, or incorporated into another piece with text and/or graphics.
Understanding what clip art is, we can now turn our attention to its use as, or part of, a logo design and whether or not you should consider it. Don’t. Using clip art in a logo defeats the entire purpose of having a logo in the first place. Using clip art in your logo is, for all intents and purposes, the same as copying someone else, without the legal hassles that might come with a more blatant copy. Also, many clip art collections have stringent terms of service and most pre-emptively nix the idea of using it as part of any logo or image that is to be trademarked. In fact, most clip art collections, while ‘royalty free’ continue to hold the rights to their work and legally let you ‘borrow’ it for a fairly limited range of uses – usually excluding as your new logo.
There’s a lot of stock art websites to be found on the internet. Most of them offer astonishingly high-quality artwork for a surprisingly low amount. The idea behind stock art is that the volume of buyers all added up, ends up equaling the amount that would have been paid for a custom illustration, design, graphic or icon set. Fair enough. While a lot of the design community frowns upon this as being ‘spec work‘ (ie: design work committed in the ‘hope’ of getting paid sometime down the road), I’ve been somewhat non-plussed by the whole thing. True, a paying gig is better, but despite the sheer volume of choices, I’ve always had a hard time finding exactly what I’m looking for. I often find myself reverse engineering my concept into whatever stock art (usually photos) that I’ve found, rather than the other way around. Stock photography can go wrong too. In any case, the quality level of some stock art website is extremely high. So, what about using some of this great stock art as a logo? Uh-uh. Unless expressly licensed FOR use in a logo (istock recently announced that they were launching a stock logo service this year, as did contest site 99designs) almost ALL stock art sites expressly forbid the use of their material as a logo, trademark or service mark. In order for their stock art business model to work, they need to maintain ownership rights to their artwork, and letting companies use their material as part of a logo would lead to a lot of licensing and ownership confusion (stock art is an ongoing issue with crowdsourcing sites). Long and short of it – it’s never a good idea to use stock art (unless the owner tells you specifically that you can) for your new company logo. Or the material is specifically designed with branding in mind and offers exclusive rights buyout. See our Logos in a Box section on stock ready-made logos for more information.