The pros and cons of stock icons

Tim

Tim
Written on 13th June 2019

Businesses often turn to stock images for their marketing, especially their website because: “it’ll do the job just fine” and “it’s (often) a lot cheaper than a photographer”. We’ve come to accept seeing photos of characterless well-dressed people in modern yet unremarkable offices using generic technology on corporate website.

The pros and cons of stock icons

Library photos and even vector graphics have been part of our world for … well, longer than I’ve been a graphic designer and I go back to way before websites. 

But website icons often stay under the radar.

They’re there for a purpose, and quite an important purpose at that - to notify the user of key areas of your website, often to highlight required actions. To break up text and identify sections or areas of content at a glance.

From a simple forward arrow on a ‘go’ button or a person icon for a ‘my account’ login or to something more specific; like an icon of a pilot for an executive private jet hire. 

Just like stock photography there are various resources on the web to get ‘free’ or paid for stock icons sets. Whether graphical files; JPG, GIF or more likely today PNG or SVG which offer better scalability or online toolkits such as the delivery system Font Awesome provides.

Pros

Stock icons can be used for speed, and for common icons such as social media channels or credit card logos it makes sense to use one of the many set of icons readily available from the likes of image libraries such as Shutterstock

And let’s not forget cost, the time taken to create a unique set of icons from scratch is very rarely factored in when thinking about the time and cost required to design a website. 

You’ve also got to think about the skill set involved, illustrating icons is a bit of an artform in its own right. Ok so I personally come from a background of technical illustration but not many web development agencies would have that ability onsite so might have to contract an external supplier.

Flexibility of use, especially when using code-based icons like Font Awesome, that take on the characteristics of font lettering, so it’s easy to apply colour changes on hover, and display crisp and clean at any size.

Cons

Individuality is often lost with stock icons, especially if you have a strong brand. Generic icons might lose the unique look and feel you’re aiming for so using the same icons everyone else has will blur your identity.

The suitability of stock icons for a specific purpose might not be there if using a predetermined set. Whilst the available options are often vast, you might still find you want an icon for a specific need and you can’t find one that’s just right. So you will chose one that ‘kind of fits’. If you have to explain what an icon is then you’ve lost the point of the icon in the first place. 

Website speed and delivery can sometimes be compromised with stock icons. Your website might only need to use 10 different icons, yet installing a library set on your website might give you 100’s of icons that all load on every page of your website, requiring supporting JavaScript files which can often trigger an additional server call to get the required files from an external content delivery network (CDN). All of a sudden, your 10 unique icon SVGs, even at 1kb each, hosted with your website and only called on the page they are required now doesn’t seem so bad.

Stock Icons from the likes of ShutterStock 

Summary

To summarise, I’m not saying that you should or in fact you shouldn’t use stock icons but I would advise you to think about icons when planning your website and choose a suitable solution wisely. 

Do you have a unique branding that might be enhanced by a set of icons designed just for you?

Do you need hundreds of icons across your website, or just a handful, which might benefit from being hand picked to suit your need?

Do you have an uncommon offering that means the kind of icons you want are unlikely to be found in a generic set?

Don't overlook the important role that icons play in your website, and consider having a unique set of icons designed that meet your brand requirements and help enhance your online communication.

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