Microstock is a pretty new development in the design and stock photography world. It started a few years ago with iStockphoto, but has really taken off in the last year or two with iStock copycats popping up all over the place. I'll admit, I was one of the first to jump on the microstock bandwagon. It seemed the perfect solution for low-budget pro bono or agency work—or even client work that had 'no budget for photography'. Still, in the world of royalty free, you need to be careful, especially if that RF image is as cheap as microstock.
The perfect example recently came to my attention. The social networking site, Twitter, has a distinctive bird illustration on their homepage. It's come to feel like part of the Twitter identity. Unfortunately, it's also straight from iStockphoto and has been downloaded a few hundred times already. The illustration comes from an illustrator on iStockphoto who has a dozen or so of this same bird with varying backgrounds etc. Plus it's available as vector and editable, so the possibilities of variations on this bird are endless. The trouble is, anyone with $5 can buy one of these illustrations and use it however and wherever they please. And that's exactly what's already happening to Twitter's little bird.
I was alerted to this by a tweet suggesting a local orchestra needed some new creatives since the tweeter spotted a poster (on the right) advertising the orchestra's free summer concert series using the exact same bird and branch as Twitter's homepage. I doubt tweeter is familiar with microstock and I doubt the creatives who designed the poster are familiar with Twitter, but it's a great example of the dangers of using microstock too much or in the wrong situations. A short term poster is exactly the sort of thing most designers would use microstock for. Branding, or where it's used prominently enough to be confused with branding, definitely not. I can see why Twitter probably used the bird in the beginning, and as a designer, I have recommended iStock to some startups just getting their sites off the ground, but at this point Twitter needs to look a little further into the future. Sorry Twitter, but it's time to work directly with an illustrator, get exclusive rights and swap out that bird!