Content marketing best practices: Custom imagery (part 2 of 2)

In my previous post, I offered suggestions on stock imagery best practices from the perspective of a veteran designer. In this follow-up post, I offer tips and artist recommendations for companies and individuals considering commissioning a custom illustration, as well as a few thoughts on original photography.

When should I commission a custom illustration?

If you have a budget, a few weeks of time, and a higher-value report, project, or web page, you might want to invest in a custom illustration. You can commission an illustrator to create a custom work tailored specifically to your content. The illustrator will usually read your article (or summary) and any direction that you give him or her, then come up with a few sketches. They are trained to create visual metaphors and think of clever and unique ideas for your content. Then you choose one of the sketch options, give the artist any feedback you might have, and they make a final artwork.

A custom illustration will definitely cost more than stock imagery. In my experience, it’s been anywhere from $500 to $4,000. The price varies depending on complexity, scheduling, usage, size, and distribution. And it’s also a good idea to have an art director or a designer help you work with the artist. The designer or art director is a good bridge between understanding the company’s brand and content while also understanding the creative process and visual language.

Here is one of my favorite illustrations by a great illustrator, Bill Butcher:

Illustration by Bill Butcher.
Illustration by Bill Butcher.

This illustration was made a few years ago for an article about attaining peace of mind about health-care purchases. I think it’s beautifully crafted and you can feel the turmoil or the calmness inside each of the figures.

Examples of successes

The Illinois Innovation Index: The Illinois Science and Technology Coalition commissioned a custom illustration for its regular publication, the Illinois Innovation Index, with the organization’s ideas, vision, and mission in mind. Image this website with a trite stock photo of people working in a stark conference room. It wouldn’t portray the same brand message. This illustration is bold, colorful, and thoughtful—you see what the organization represents. And in turn, it helps make the look of their website and their brand distinctive. As a viewer, you are drawn into the unique illustration more than you would be seeing a photo that you have already seen a hundred times before.

Iron Maiden: A lot of bands have drawn new fans thanks to unique and thoughtful imagery, including British heavy metal band Iron Maiden. More than 30 years ago, someone suggested to the band that they come up with a mascot, so they found an artist named Derek Riggs who helped create Eddie. The band gave this artist a chance and throughout the years, he has come up with some truly unique album art that became an integral part of the band’s brand.

Sidenote: Custom illustrations can fill your award chest, too

There are different types of illustration awards to which artists regularly submit their work. If an illustrator wins, he or she get recognized along with the client and art director who commissioned the illustration.

Who should I call?

If you are interested in commissioning a custom illustration, you can go directly to the artist or, in some cases, contact his or her representative. There are dozens of artists that I’ve worked with and whose art I absolutely love. Below is a small sample of illustrators and illustrator representatives that we have worked with and recommend.

Artists: Scott BakalBill Butcher, Harry Campbell, Katie EdwardsAngus Greig, Daniel Hertzberg, Celia Johnson, Jon KrauseSophia MartineckLloyd Miller, Keith Negley, Thom Sevalrud, Neil WebbLeigh Wells, Kotryna Zukauskaite

Artist representatives: Début ArtFrank Sturges Reps.Gerald & Cullen RappJoanie BernsteinKate LarkworthyMarlena AgencyPurple Rain IllustratorsRichard Solomon, Wanda Nowak

What about original photography?

In my career as a designer and art director for business clients, I haven’t dealt much with original photography. The one tip I can offer is that often it’s not necessary to actually commission an original photo shoot, as many photographers have a large library available for you to browse for a wide variety of photos. Once, for example, I needed a photo depicting luxury shopping in China. I contacted a photographer who lived and worked in China and asked if he had any photos that would fit what I needed and were available for licensing. It was a quick and simple process and had the added benefit of continuing a relationship with a photographer I already knew and whose work I liked.


I hope this two-post series has helped shed light on the best practices in using stock imagery or commissioning custom artwork for content marketing. There’s a time and a place for both—but remember that the primary purpose of any imagery is to enhance the content itself. Never insert an image for the sake of having an image.

If you have questions or would like some help finding or commissioning an image for your content, feel free to reach out to me at info [at]

Read part one—Content marketing best practices: Stock imagery.

Delilah Zak

The principal visualization artist at Leff, Delilah works collaboratively with the team to conceptualize and create all manner of graphic content, from public reports to management articles to standalone infographics and beyond.

Leave a Reply