Becoming a Player in the Stock Image Major Leagues

Featured in Creativity
Becoming a Player in the Stock Image Major Leagues

A Jersey boy through and through, Mike McDonald, 39, grew up in Clifton, New Jersey, a New York City suburb, and now lives and works in nearby Caldwell, where he heads up Ember, a successful small branding design studio. He’s also a major player in the world of stock images.

While the time Mike spends creating images for Adobe Stock is relatively small compared to his work for his firm, he’s found that he can generate some substantial income from the work — as well as creative satisfaction. He now has around 300 images in his Adobe Stock portfolio — vector shields, patches, seals, and graphic elements that can be used for logo art, packaging, and signage — many of which reflect his own passions and interests, like camping, and many of which have sold hundreds, even thousands, of times.

Image source: Mike McDonald / Adobe Stock.

“Besides the steady income, what I love about the stock business is the freedom to create without limitations,” he says. “If you can generate ideas and work independently, it’s a lot of fun. And Adobe has made the submission process really easy.”

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Mike about his choice to do this, and about why he’d recommend Adobe Stock as a side gig to other designers and illustrators.

Please tell our readers about your art and design education and work history.

I studied graphic design at The College of New Jersey, graduating in 2002, and am also self taught. My college education just touched on the fundamentals of vector work, so I had to supplement it with research and tutorials. I actually started out in web design — another self-taught discipline — and after a few years shifted back into traditional branding, marketing, advertising, and logo design.

Right now, I’m doing a lot of client work for apparel companies, including T-shirt graphics and designs for hats and other wearables, in particular branded designs in a badge or enclosure shape, my signature style. But when client work slows down, I fill my time productively by creating stock vectors to license on sites including Adobe Stock.

How much time do you spend creating stock images vs client-based work?

That balance shifts a lot, but currently I’m spending about 90 percent of my time on client work and 10 percent on creating stock. Interestingly, though, about 40 percent of my income comes from stock.

Nice! Is that because the same image can sell many times over a period of years?

Yes. My images can sell anywhere from a few hundred times to the one below, which has been sold 1,800 times on Adobe Stock, with nine special offer and sale labels. It’s a set — sets usually sell well — with a lot of variety, which makes it useful to a wide range of customers. Across all stock sites over my 10-plus years in the business, some of my images have been downloaded more than 10,000 times.

Image source: Mike McDonald / Adobe Stock.
How did you learn what kinds of images would be most salable?

Through a lot of trial and error. Being successful in this business won’t happen if you imitate what other artists have done or try to duplicate someone else’s style. Searching for popular images and basing your work on them is a waste of time. I’ve done really well with images that are more unique, creative, and inspired by good design principles. To make stuff that’s interesting to customers requires experimentation, trying things out that may or may not succeed, and then modifying your strategy based on what’s worked for you.

Image source: Mike McDonald / Adobe Stock.
For artists just starting out, how many images need to be in their collections to generate an appreciable income?

It depends on the style and content, but for vector artists with a collection of 300 to 400 images, you can start to look for sales trends and see reasonable earnings. With 800 images, sales can really add up to a viable income. Some new artists submit 10 to 20 images and get frustrated by low sales numbers. It takes time to build a portfolio with work that’s in high demand. Those early submissions aren’t going to generate much, but they will lead you to discover what will sell. And don’t let a portfolio sit idle. New images need to be uploaded regularly to maintain sales.

You specialize in images related to camping and sports. Can you identify other subjects buyers might be looking for?

There are so many images in stock libraries now it’s hard to imagine anything that isn’t represented. It’s more a matter of finding ways to put unique spins on subjects that are already well-covered. For example, if you can do a camping vector in an interesting shape set up in layers ideal for one- or two-color screen printing on T-shirts, that design will have great potential value to customers.

Images source: Mike McDonald / Adobe Stock.
Can you describe the benefits of creating art for Adobe Stock to illustrators who’ve never considered becoming contributors?

Freedom. There is no design brief, no client instruction to follow. It’s just you and whatever idea you have for something that you think other designers might be able to use. For some artists, that can be terrifying. Not having a brief to work against makes it difficult for some people to create. But I thrive in that kind of environment. Everyone working in stock needs to be able to generate an idea and bring it to life without input from anyone else.

An unexpected perk of working that way is that clients respond to the stock you’ve done and ask you to do something like it exclusively for them. When you’re making work you love to create — doing things your own way in a style you enjoy — that becomes what people ask for. There’s no better position to be in as a creative professional than to have built a portfolio that reflects your style and creative sensibilities, and then to have that portfolio serve as the means by which you get new work. My stock has led me to some incredible client work for companies I never imagined I’d be working for.

See more of Mike’s work on Adobe Stock.

This article was originally published on Printmag.

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