It's a powerful tool: Digital Clip Art

Jay Busselle

For more than 20 years, Jay Busselle has worked in the design, production, and sale of advertising, decorated apparel, and promotional products. He's the marketing director at Equipment Zone and possesses industry-specific experience, business ownership, and a graphic design background. 

Ask 10 people to define clip art and you will likely get 10 unique answers. We all know what it is when we see it but it’s tricky to put into words. After much discussion with a variety of associates and clicking around the Internet, I decided the term “clip art” can be misleading and vague. With that in mind here are some brief definitions:

  • Clip art is a collection of pictures or images that can be imported into a document or another program. The images may be either bitmap (raster) graphics or vector graphics.
  • Drawings or illustrations available, as in a book or on a CD-ROM, for easy insertion into other material or documents.
  • Ready-made pieces of printed or computerized graphic art, such as illustrations, borders, and backgrounds that can be electronically copied and used to decorate a document.

In my early days as an aspiring apprentice to become a graphic designer for a yellow-page publishing company, I would cut out or “clip” pieces of artwork from collections of graphic images and icons, to be used as a graphics source. I would then hot wax the “clip” and paste or place it into a physical layout for an ad prior to shooting it with a camera. (Yes, that’s also where the term camera ready art comes from.) We used the term clip art for all types of non-photographic graphic images. Today, clip art comes on CD or can be downloaded from the Internet. Some clip art is public domain, meaning there are no copyright limitations. However, most clip art, even when available free on the Internet, carries some type of copyright that will restrict the ways it can be used.

Clip art galleries or collections may contain anywhere from a few images to hundreds or thousands of images. Clip art is typically organized into categories or themes such as people, dogs, mascots, borders, cars, nature and so forth. Most clip-art images also have keywords associated with them. For example, a picture of a female tennis player may carry the keywords “tennis,” “tennis racquet,” “woman,” and “sports” associated with it, which can sometimes make searching for clip art a frustrating time-waster. Still, most clip art programs are designed for users to search for images based on such keywords.

When it comes to designing anything—an ad, a T-shirt, a banner, whatever—there are really only three approaches:

  • DIY, or do-it-yourself.
  • Outsource the designing, drawing or illustrating (because you don’t have the time or skills to DIY).
  • Uses clip art as-is or as part of a design template, or a starting point for creating custom illustrations and logos.

I apologize in advance if what I’m about to say hurts anyone’s feelings, but most business owners in this industry can’t draw and don’t have the skills to be an artist or graphic designer. That’s not always a bad thing. It allows them to focus on running the business. There are, of course, exceptions, but most people who enter this industry cannot draw or illustrate using professional graphic-design software. Let’s face it, stick figures and smiley faces are not considered cutting edge.

So, do you really want to dedicate six months to a year and several hours a day to becoming an average graphic designer? While you are mastering that graphics program, who is running your business, who is marketing, who is selling? Even if you have the graphic-design skills, is it the best use of your time to produce custom art?

It’s not an uncommon scenario that business owners in this industry are also their companies’ primary sales representatives and graphic designers. If this is your situation I don’t have to tell you how busy you are and how much therapy you need. Whether by choice or lack of planning, there are many of you who are time starved and, as a result, look to others by outsourcing your graphic-design needs.

Outsourcing can come in many shapes and sizes. It could be a freelance graphic designer in the same office or across town. It could be a service provider across the country or, in some cases, on the other side of the globe. I often ask people who outsource if they are happy to give up control and wait for somebody else who may or may not deliver on time. They usually admit that this is not their first choice, but they are not sure what other options they have. Those who successfully outsource will tell you that they have found somebody, usually after several attempts, who understand our industry, who “gets it.”

You might also consider an industry-specific art service. There are dedicated designers, artists, service providers and resources to help those of us who are graphically challenged. But make no mistake: Those services and that convenience have price tags too.

Watch out for trap doors

Clip art is a resource tool to help you get started and create basic artwork layouts. It is much quicker than actually drawing or designing it yourself. Clip art is used today by both non-graphic designers and graphic designers who want to save time. If you are a business owner with a graphic designer on staff, how much time do you want them to spend re-drawing what already exists? For example, designers like to be “creative” and could spend an hour drawing a basketball or a tennis racquet or any other common image. With clip art, that precious hour could be redirected to a more productive outlet.

Not all clip art is created equal. It is critical to the success of your project that you use clip art that is as production ready as is possible for the specific imprinting process you will engage. There are some trap doors to watch out for. Desktop-publishing clip art will often look “pretty” on screen but, upon closer inspection, you will find problems in the form of open paths, multiple vector objects that overlap or intersect, process colors rather than spot colors, too many colors, halftones, gradients and more. The last thing you want as a business owner, production artist or graphic designer is to invest in clip art only to realize later you’re spending more time “fixing” your image, preparing it to be fit for production, than had you started from scratch.

Typically, aspiring artists roll down the aisle of the local big-box store and toss a box with “millions” of clip-art images into their basket. They get back to the shop, load an image, add some text and it looks decent on the screen. Where’s the trap door? The image was never designed to look cool on a T-shirt or promotional product, nor was it prepared for our production processes, such as screen printing or vinyl cutting.

Another challenge is what to do when your client picks one of these images from the clip-art-by-the-pound booklet. You don’t know if you’re facing 10 minutes of clean-up time or two hours. This is why most industry professionals will eventually invest in production-ready clip art that was designed specifically for our industry and imprinting processes.

Everybody uses clip art

Who are the main users of clip art? Everybody I know uses some form of clip art, from a web designer to my mother-in-law who produces the church newsletter in MS Word. More important than who uses clip art is what they use it for and what they like or dislike.

Apparel screen printers want clip art that can be easily color separated and will be as easy as possible to register. They often want clip art that is colored using a limited number of spot colors rather than process colors. Screen printers also want images that look cool on garments by following fashion trends, not cheesy desktop-publishing images designed for a greeting card or newsletter. Unless you are designing a retro theme or design, clip art from 1976 looks, as my kids would say, “lame”—or, as I would say, dated.

Sign makers who use vinyl cutters or plotters want clip art that is black and white and is created without intersecting lines or objects. Sign makers who own digital printers want dynamic looking colored graphics that may include gradient blends, digital effects and photorealistic elements to make a visual statement. Ten years ago sign makers could get away with one- or two-color vinyl graphics but, with the advent of digital printing, two-color graphics will appear flat and boring in on a vehicle wrap or outdoor banner.

Like sign makers with digital printers, direct-to-garment digital printers can use both bitmap and vector clip art. DTG printers not only want complex digital effects, but they also want images that follow the latest trends such as weathered, grunge, tribal and urban, or graphics with a more edgy, contemporary look.

Photo templates are also important to providing print-on-demand solutions for event graphics. Imagine the value of a T-shirt with a photo of the team holding up the first-place trophy. Included in this design are vector elements such as the mascot and the name of the team, to stunning visual text effect.

Mr. Potato Head

And don’t forget embroidery. With advances in vector-conversion technology, embroiderers want images that are properly layered with colored objects sitting on top of each other without intersecting paths. This enables vector-conversion software to convert each colored object in the design into a specific stitch pattern. Also, small objects and fine-line detail are next to impossible to sew at small sizes. Clip-art images must be specially prepared with thicker lines and use larger objects that make sense for embroidery. Bad vector artwork makes for bad embroidery. This is an unforgiving process and you must spend the time to get the vectors right in order to produce results that will sell.

  • Here are your learner outcomes:
  • Most clip art carries some type of copyright.
  • Not all clip art is created equal; look for production-ready clip art.
  • Don’t spend an hour creating what already exists.
  • Use clip art that is timely and suited for current trends.
  • Use clip art that is easy to find.

I am not an accomplished illustrator or graphic designer. I am, however, a great assembler and editor of clip art and templates. In minutes I can add, delete, modify, resize and quickly create what will look like custom art. Learn to use the components of clip art and think in terms of templates to be efficient.

It’s like playing Mr. Potato Head with graphics! Instead of taking off the angry eyes and putting on the happy eyes, I use clip art, backgrounds, photos, flourishes, symbols, elements and design templates. The parts and pieces are all interchangeable!