If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, what’s not to love about stock images? A great image can bring your website to life by adding color, texture, depth and emotional tone. But using someone else’s images to represent your site or your brand can be a tricky business.

The cliche call center girl, she means well.

DON’T fall into cliche: The way to avoid cliched images – the happy call center girl or the earnest executive handshake – is to have a clear idea of your target audience. What kind of images will speak directly to them? What style and tone will best convey the kind of relationship you want to have with your clients? Being specific about your aims for the site at an early stage will help you to avoid generic shots.

Power people interact with the camera and create a connection.

DO use people power: Pictures of people can create an immediate connection between the viewer and the page. Use shots where the subject interacts directly with the camera. Eye contact needs to look genuine. Smiles should not be forced. Anything that looks like an old school portrait is not going to boost your client list.

DON’T age prematurely: Be aware of design trends in photography and try to steer clear of images that may give your design a dated feel. Equally, maintain an eye for what is likely to remain a classic image when building a new website. Timeless shots allow you to maintain some consistency even when your site needs updating or you feel like giving it an overhaul.

The much overused handshake image.

DO negotiate: There will be times when clients are asking you to use clichéd images in your designs. Don’t be afraid to enter into dialogue. Explain that cliches will do nothing to set their site apart from a host of poorly designed others. If they still won’t budge, then find a way to place the image in the site in a new and surprising way.

Stock group shot featuring the pointer and the intense thinker.

DO think outside the box: Looking for images that represent your business, website or blog post in the most literal sense will limit your site’s capacity for originality. A marketing company looking for an image to represent their creative solutions team might be tempted to go for a stock group shot illustrating the process of generating new ideas. But choosing a more abstract image, like this solar panel shot, implies a more powerful kind of resourcefulness and creativity as well as an eco-friendly, energetic vibe.

What different messages can this image convey?

DON’T overload: If using more than one stock image, then make sure you achieve consistency of tone, style and image quality, both in the images themselves and in relation to the rest of the site. Choose pictures sparingly and wisely. That old ‘less is more’ mantra is crucial when it comes to stock image use.

Illustrations like this can be very effective and easier to match to your project than photos.

DO use illustrations: If you’re struggling to find a stock photographic image to meet your needs, don’t be afraid to plunder the catalog of illustrations or vector art. Digital illustrations can be invaluable when it comes to conveying abstract concepts in business such as global reach and communication. Most people will agree that a simple vector diagram is a more effective way to show this than a generic image of a suited businessman taking a conference call.

Editorial shot of New York by Emin Kuliyev / Shutterstock.com

DON’T stick to editorial shots: When working on branding or within the creative industries, using high quality editorial shots in your site can be a great way to prove your commitment to cutting edge, contemporary design. However, it’s important to bear in mind that editorial photography can prioritize style over content and is not always appropriate. Take this editorial shot of New York. It’s a stylish image for a commercial travel site but would be cold and impersonal in a blog. When simple communication is what you’re after, editorial might not be the best tool for the job.

DO work it your way: For many web designers, the use of stock imagery is a compromise that their budget or time frame requires when a tailor-made photo shoot simply isn’t an option. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t be original in the way you use an image. Find interesting ways to place the image on the page. Let it interact with the text through innovative structures and templates. Consider letting part of the photo run over its frame, letting it reach out to your intended audience. Think of your design as an interactive collage where text and image work together to create new digital textures and landscapes.