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Design Basics: Clip Art and Photographs

Graphic designer, digital artist and paper crafter. See 1000s of unique designs on her web sites (see Profile page) or Zazzle (imagefactory)


There are millions of graphic resources on the great big interweb, so how do you know which are okay to copy and use without payment?

This article features tips and guidelines for sourcing and using free visual media content (illustrations and photographs) you find online, in books, or in collections on CD-ROM.

Much of the art you can find using today's search engines is probably not okay to copy and use for publishing or design except for personal use. Most online images aren't available for commercial use without a license. Moreover, there are numerous sites that copy and republish content without permission without listing a legal source.

While it's not impossible to find unique fair-use images and public domain photos PLUS (rarer and highly valued) vector graphics for your own personal, noncommercial work. the rules for publication need to be followed when you decide to use someone else's content in any manner whatsoever that's not private and personal.

Hunting for Treasure: Finding Great Resources

Cutting through the junk-le is not so hard

Thousands of GIFs and JPGs are available online - many offered free for personal use. But there are lots of duplicates, unlicensed copies and poor quality images that show up in the results of any online search.

Today's search technology is friendlier than it was even 5 or 10 years ago; many search engines now display results along with text links to the publishing source page(s). However the site or blog where you find a graphic may not own the copyright, so be cautious if you're planning to use online content for a commercial project. Google, Bing and numerous display sites don't check copyrights, they only locate visual assets and provide a link to the source.

If you search for illustrations by keyword, you'll discover links that lead to tiny pictures, or to lists that ultimately connect you to endless directories - arrrgggh. This process can be time-consuming and tiresome when you're tracking down a single good picture or graphic image. You get the picture (no pun intended).

If you're using search engine results or common sharing site collections to find a creative element you want to use, be sure to check the creative owner's terms of use to insure you don't violate the rules of copyright law.

Sometimes all you need to do is ask for permission from the owner/artist to use the resource. Permission contingencies may require attribution and/or a link to the copyright owner's web site or Creative Common license. In all cases you must clearly show the source and the site's terms of use.

It's your responsibility to determine whether you can reuse a piece of art or written material you didn't create, and if so, to review and understand the terms of how you're allowed to use it.

File Formats and Sizes

What type should I use - bitmap or vector?

Bitmaps are the file types most people see and use if they're browsing or searching with a computer. Photographs, JPGs, GIFs and PNGs use this format.

Vectors are line art illustration source files or CAD resources from which you can create bitmaps of any size, from very small to billboard size, without pixelation or loss of detail.

Designers work with both file types depending on how the project will be published (online, in print or both). Many professional illustrators and digital artists work with a combination of editors to produce their final work. When I create digital art I almost always begin my project in Illustrator.

Bitmap Images (raster images) and Photographs

GIF, JPG (low resolution) Bitmaps

For online viewing you only need a low resolution (72 dpi - dots per inch) bitmap (raster image) graphic. You can't make bitmaps larger without them getting jaggy or blurred, but you can make them smaller without losing quality.

GIFs and JPGs display well on web sites, blogs, in word-processing documents and on handheld devices. Most newer browsers and devices display PNG and SVG images.

TIFF, PNG, JPG (high resolution) Bitmaps

Bitmaps in large sizes or higher resolutions work best for printed projects. Try to use a file with at least 100 dpi for office or home printer projects. For commercial print jobs, you'll need a 300 dpi graphic or photograph. At that resolution the image can be processed using special software to make it very large without blurring.