Snap judgement

Designers often prefer to source visuals from unconventional places, eschewing the mainstream image libraries. Anna Richardson talks to three creatives about some of their favourite finds – from Ebay slides for a penny to historical engravings

We have images coming out of our ears these days. Amateur photographers clutter the Web with their portfolios, Shutterstock has just announced the addition of its ten millionth picture to its image library, and the wide adoption of digital photography means far more images are taken, tagged and stored, making them easily searchable and accessible for future use.

Arguably, this situation makes the job of designers easier – what a wonderful pool of creativity to draw on. In fact, it has made the perennial headache of sorting the imagery wheat from the chaff all the more daunting. As freelance designer Nathan Burton puts it, ’You get bombarded by images, and [sourcing images] can be like finding a needle in a haystack.’

As to the most inspiring image sources, Burton – who specialises in book covers – rates Mary Evans Picture Library, a historical archive with more than 200 000 images online, and London’s Dover Bookshop, which publishes historical graphic and commercial art, and is a great source of out-of-copyright images.

In his redesign of Boris Akunin’s novels for publisher Orion, Burton used Dover images. The books feature 19th-century Russian detective characters, and he tweaked some historical engravings to create new illustrations with a period feel.

Why Not Associates’ Andy Altmann used a different type of found image in the poster design for the forthcoming Tokyo Type Directors Club awards – where his consultancy has won the Grand Prix.

The image of three knowingly smiling retro ’judges’ was among a bag of old slides Altmann had bought on Ebay a few years ago. ’It was a completely random image, but it made me laugh so much,’ says Altmann.

Traditionally, posters for the awards are beautifully illustrated with Japanese calligraphy, but Altmann ’wanted to do something completely different’. He says, ’The image just popped into my head.’ As well as buying random bags of slides to discover the odd gem, Altmann uses Ebay as a source of inspiration. ’Sometimes you type in a subject, and it brings up these strange images. It can be a really interesting starting point,’ he explains.

User-generated photography website Flickr is also popular. ’Self-generated content is increasingly becoming a first port of call for searches, due to its broad nature and cost-effectiveness,’ says Andy Mosley, design director of creative consultancy Further.

Archive images of 1920s jazz-era girls on Flickr caught the eye of Burton, who used them for a redesign of Margaret Atwood’s novels.

When it comes to stock-image libraries, the quirkier, smaller outfits seem to trump the big guns. Burton admits he sometimes goes down ’the lazy route’ to Getty Images. ’It’s a necessary evil,’ says Burton, who prefers the small London-based photographic agency Millennium Images, as well as Magnum. He does concede that Getty and Corbis have ’a massive amount of images’, some great archival photographs and are convenient when time is tight.

Altmann mentions Plainpicture.de as a pioneer of more obscure stock images, while Mosley increasingly goes directly to photographers. ’Over the past 18 months, the quality of image libraries such as Getty has become very poor and contrived,’ he says. ’They used to be so much better. We’re increasingly using photographers’ websites and portfolios to source images.’ Photographers are starting to categorise their online portfolios to aid searches, and a lot of their websites are geared up for their images to be used for mood boards.

The process does take longer, but Mosley says, ’As you start using that way of image-sourcing, you store images in your own memory bank and start to remember which photographers have shot what, and you can tap into that. It does take longer, but it’s an easier process.’

Wherever designers find their images, as Altmann points out, at the end of the day a striking design is about what they do to them.

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