Add Inspiration
with Illustrations

By Daniel Will-Harris

Which comes first, the concept or the artwork? The assumption has always been that you first figure out the concept, then find the art to fit. But even if we leave many things in our life unquestioned—desig n shouldn't be one of them.

So I often consciously think about the process I'm using to design, and lately I've realized a simple and useful way to use clip art for inspiration as well as illustrations.

Here's how it works—when you start a project, the first thing you do (or should do) is decide what you want to achieve. For example, you may want to make people aware of your new company or products or services. You could want to inform people of a problem in your community and the solution you have envisioned. You might want your new catalog to give people a better knowledge of the people who create your products. Or you may just want a new menu that is more casual or more elegant to reflect your restaurant.

Whatever you do, it should start with a clear statement of what you want to achieve. But it's at this point that people get stuck. "OK, so I want to let people know we're new in town, but how do we do that?" One way is to "ideate" by throwing around as many ideas as possible, focusing on the words of importance such as "new" or "town."

A visual approach

But I've found another way to approach this basic problem that every designer must solve. This method is simpler because it's visual—and therefore stimulates your creativity. The solution—clip art. Rather than making art the third step (after the statement of purpose, then the "concept" or approach), you can use clip art as your second step, to lead you to a concept or approach.

Let's take the same problem again—"I want to let people know we're new in town." Instead of trying to come up with clever ideas and finding clever graphics to match, we're going to let the graphics give us ideas.

With your idea firmly in mind, get out all the clip art you can find—and if you don't have that much, go to a store that does and look at the packages, or go onto the Internet and look for sites that have a lot of art.

Don't look for any specific object or style, just look. Focus on your purpose and relax. Listen to what comes into your head. For this example, as well as being "new in town," we're going to think of a specific business (as you would with your own), in this case, a real estate agent.

What pops into your head?

As I often do, I start at the back and flip forwards, and as I look at the images I wait to see what pops into my head.


Graphics: Design Elements. This graphic gave me another idea: Realtors are people. Each one is a unique individual. So it's important to find one that's honest, reliable, and hard-working. Here's what some happy clients say about so and so... or maybe it should be written in the first person so it's "here's what my clients say about me..." Typefaces: ITC Highlander

A note about Design Elements: There are times when you want completed art, and there are times when you need design elements, common shapes and icons you can use to build other designs, pages, or use as navigation buttons on web sites. Without a doubt the most useful and beautifully presented collection of these elements comes from Ultimate Symbol in a CD-ROM called Design Elements.

Design Elements contains over 3,000 symbols, carefully and cleanly digitized in Adobe Illustrator EPS (or illustration and page layout programs) or Windows Metafile WMF formats (for word processors, presentation graphics or other non-PostScript uses). The CD contains eight volumes: 1) Stars, Suns, Moons and Zodiac; 2) Flourishes, Accents, and Typographic Devices; 3) Pictoral Symbols; 4) Motifs, Shapes, Designs and Devices; 5) Printers’ Ornaments, Dingbats and Designs; 6) Arrows and Pointers; 7) Circular Designs; and 8) Shapes, Designs, Geometrics. While this may not sound exceptional, the individual elements often end up being “just what you need,” to start a logo, illustrate a sign, devise a border, or illustrate a point. The CD comes with a well-designed catalog (no tiny, little, hard-to-see pictures here), plus the catalog in Acrobat format (in case you misplace the book). The package is as professional and thoughtful as it could be, and will become a well-used part of your graphics arsenal.


Graphics: Mark van Bronkhorst. Scared of what you might find after you buy your next house? We'll help you avoid nightmares and will be there each step of the way, from inspection through escrow or even exorcism (if necessary). Typefaces: Flood from Adobe

Graphics: Margaret Tarleton. Need we say more? Typeface: Stamped.


Graphics: Tim Grajek "My Realtor is so-and-so. She found us the house of our dreams and saved us $10,000. Do you think it would be too much to ask her to be my maid of honor?" Typeface: Berhard Gothic

Graphics: Dynamic Graphics. This image was in Dynamic Graphics' ArtWorks "Textures and Backgrounds," but it was such a strong and complex illustration it seemed more powerful in the foreground. The image also made it possible to make two statements, one about selling and one about buying, in the same graphic. The typeface is Longhand.

puppet show

Graphics: Chuck Black. Typeface, Serifa

Graphics: ArtParts. The seasons said it all. typeface: ITC Highlander

ArtParts clip art has become so popular you've probably already seen some of it used in anything from a national magazine to a PTA flyer. And yet, as popular as they are, they're so cute, funny, and original that they always look fresh. They have a sense of style as well as a sense of humor. And, like the best clip art, they make you look good. ArtParts adds a new package (or three) each month, and so many professional designers have become “collectors” of Ron and Joe’s work that there’s even a subscription service so you can get a regular dose, like clockwork. If all that weren’t enough, they’re truly useful, and their whimsical designs work quite well, even in serious circumstances.

Tip: You don’t have always to put your graphics in boxes (they are in boxes on this page to show you the graphic by itself)—try to integrate your graphics with the text to make them seem like one unit, not like two separate elements.

Tip: Be stylistically consistent. Using art of a similar style (or even from the same clip art package or illustrator) will ensure your document has a cohesive style that makes it appear more professional—and makes the art look more like it was commissioned and less like it’s “off the rack.”


Copyright © 2005 Daniel Will-Harris,

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