Affordable Idealism

Maintain your ideals without obsoleting yourself


Fresh out of school I was young, dumb, and idealistic. The war I wanted to fight was against stock photography. It was 1999 and stock photography was still distributed in printed catalogs. Photo CDs were just catching on. Crazy how foreign that sounds today.

These guys know what I am talking about.

Anyway, I had vowed to never use stock photos. Ever. In my mind this was corrupting the integrity of my profession. I was ready to die for my convictions.

In those days there was such a limited supply of stock that it wasn’t uncommon to see photos in ads, brochures, and signs that you had used in your own designs. Designers seemed to think this was acceptable. I wasn’t going to stand for it.

When I finally got my first real design job my idealism faced its first test. On day one I was handed a spiral bound book of corporate guidelines and a pile of cds with “approved photography.” It was go time. I explained to my manager my ambitions for cleansing the world of stock photography.

Silly, child.

My boss listened to my rant. She acknowledged my ambition and then reiterated the job that I was hired to do. I may have been idealistic, but I also needed that paycheck.

As this chart clearly demonstrates.

I kept my job while unwillingly using stock. I was always looking for opportunities to present alternative designs that used my own photographs or illustrations. I never missed an opportunity to expose innocent bystanders to sermons about my holy quest.

Evangelism aside, I also did my job. It was uncomfortable, but I learned how to use stock photos. As a result, my vocabulary grew and I learned to communicate the reasons why some photos work in a design and others don’t–stock or not. My idealism was actually strengthened because I learned the intricacies of the technique I opposed. I still cringe when I go stock photo hunting but I have learned how to prevent these photos from ruining my designs.

Idealism is expensive. It is easier to go with the flow than to wage war. That is why idealism tends to be a trait of the young. Their ideas haven’t been worn down by the brutal grind of years of resistance. Most people give in. Idealism doesn’t have to be a young person’s game, though.

woman laughing alone with salad?

Looking back I am amazed my managers and co-workers put up with my stock photo obstinance as much as they did. I guess nobody else really cared, and I am sure they wondered, “Who does this kid think he is?” But surprisingly some people listened to me. I might have even persuaded a person or two to join my cause.

Can I tell you the reason I believe people put up with my madness?

Here’s why. Idealism is rare. People are drawn to passion. Even when they don’t agree with you, they admire conviction. When they see someone battling for a cause that they themselves wouldn’t risk fighting, they take note. To stretch the analogy, everyone can smell the difference between stock photos of empty suits and an image that demands you acknowledge its authenticity. Which do you want to be?

How do you afford your idealism? Balance your eccentric point of view with the practicality of getting your work done. You can’t fight these battles with nuclear weapons. Your colleagues may not share your perspective, but if you carefully pick your battles, if you make your case with respect and passion, you may discover idealism is more affordable than you think.


Thanks for reading. If you made it this far, you should check out my other crazy ideas. And don’t get me started about my book. Stay creative.


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