Friday, February 16, 2007

Using Clip Art, Sin-Free

Clip art is typically thought of by many, particularly in the Design community, as something to be avoided like the plague. “Designers who use clip art are not designers.”

While I have seen many really ugly designs that use clip art, I think the problem still comes back to poor design, not bad clip art. In fact, a lot of the clip art illustrations out there are quite good. Yes, there’s bad clip art, and it should be avoided, but there is also clip art that can be carefully used to your advantage with effective results.

Often clip art is a good solution when you have little or no budget for proper imagery, but there are ways to prevent it from looking cheap. Especially if you’re willing to put a little elbow grease into it.

Here are some tips to keep your design looking good when you are forced to use clip art.

Size and Proportion Still Matters

This is probably the biggest flaw I see with most clip art use. Because it’s being designed by someone with little design knowledge (knowing MS Publisher does not count as design knowledge!), basic rules of size, proportion and alignment are broken.

The most common thing I would change? Make it bigger! But, you ask, why would you want to make ugly clip art bigger? Because most of the time the design has used insufficient white space, and there is generally not enough room on the page, so the clip art gets reduced to minute icon-like sizes to enable everything else to fit. Then there are a few different clips, all too small, sprinkled throughout the page.

Better to pick one or two of the best clips and make them bigger, which will add some visual tension to the design. The clip then becomes an anchor or focal point of the design, rather than another extra element on the page. (While you’re at it, shorten the copy and add some negative space!)

Control the Color

Usually the user of the clip art takes it as it is and uses it. But sometimes the color palette in the clip is simply atrocious. Sometimes the color is close but not a perfect match for other color on the page. Sometimes the clip just doesn’t match at all. Red flag!

It requires some extra work, but if you edit the clip (usually in Illustrator) so that the color scheme is better, or so that the reds in the clip match the rest of the red on the page, or so the clip coordinates better with the style of the design, it will look nicely integrated into your design rather than popping out and saying “my designer is a loser.”

Get thee a color wheel (or visit Kuler), and come up with a new scheme for the clip. Learn to use the Illustrator commands like Select > Same > Fill Color/Stroke to replace colors in a few easy steps.

Don’t Mix Themes

Clip art often comes in convenient stylistic collections or themes. You’ll see series’ of clips revolving around say, Sports or Plants or Food that share similar design characteristics, color scheme and look. They’re great used together. They look terrible when they’re mixed. If you’re really good, you can modify one to match the style of another theme, but in general, avoid using clips from different themes together. And make sure that the theme matches the overall look of your document.

Don’t Use Clichés

Design clichés are bad no matter the form, whether it’s stock photography or clip art or typography. Run from Screen Beans. In general, make sure what you are showing with Clip art is a well thought out use of the image. Beware, clip art collections are chock full of clichés, because most people who use clip art want exactly that (although they may not realize it). Try to think of an out-of-the-box use for the image, and don’t use the just-plain-terrible clichés, like Screen Beans.

Use it as a Starting Point

Perhaps you’re not a skilled enough illustrator to draw a printer from scratch (I'm not...), but you can surely find a bazillion clips of printers. Pick a few that are close to what you like, and trace them, cut up, stretch, and recombine them, or just use them as a reference to create your own, original illustration. Remember, you don’t have to use clip art as-is!

Trace a Photo or Drawing

If you need a clip-art like image but can’t find one that isn’t fugly, try tracing a photo. Illustrator’s Live Trace feature can produce some really nice results in just a few minutes. Trace the photo, tweak the color to your liking, remove backgrounds and stray points, maybe add some brushes to the strokes; and you’ve got your own, original clip art.

Easy Icons

You have to design a set of icons for something completely random, and you can’t find (or afford) what you need from IconBuffet. You can use clip art as a starting point to help you design your own. It will usually require some simplification, but at least you won’t be starting from scratch. Take similar, simple illustrations which provide an outline structure. Then use that base, and simplify, shrink, restyle, and rework until you have your desired icon. A lot of what makes an icon set work well is consistency in style and treatment - color, stroke, fill, shape - apply the same features consistently to several clips and you've got icons.

And lastly...

Here are some Clip Art sources that you probably already have available to you:

  • Microsoft Office Clip art and Clip art Online
  • Illustrator’s packaged clip art (look on your hard drive for Adobe\Resources and Extras\Goodies\Illustrator CS2\Clip Art and Stock Photos)
  • Illustrator’s packaged symbols and brushes (Window > {various} Libraries)

Happy clipping!

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