Why Clip Art is Evil

Author’s note: One of the first pieces I ever wrote for NAI was a commentary in the July/August 2003 Legacy magazine called “Why Clip Art is Evil.” For a long time, much as I am the guy who hates Comic Sans now, I was known as the guy who hates clip art. Not long ago, I received an email from Friend of IBD William Bevil, who said, “In much the same way that you tackle Comic Sans, I think it’s time to talk about the perils of clip art. I don’t think you guys have posted on this before?”

I can’t believe that I haven’t posted anything about clip art on this blog yet, so I thought I should. Then I thought, rather than try to recreate all those same arguments from 2003, I’d just share that article with you. You’ll see antiquated references to things like “Who Let the Dogs Out?,” CDs, and New Jersey, but the points remain. So with that, I give you this article from 2003:

Why Clip Art is Evil
I long for the days when an image was worth a thousand words. Now, with the advent of what is generously referred to as clip art, many pictures are barely worth the words it takes to name the digital files that describe them on the free CDs that show up every time you try to order an inkjet printer. In a world where there are synthetic, mass-produced solutions to nearly every question—from “What’s for dinner?” to “Who let the dogs out?”—it seems only natural that our options for visual expression are limited to a pre-established set of generic, soulless pseudo-cartoons.

Now, it’s important that I differentiate between clip art and illustration. Illustrators are talented, purposeful people who create artwork intended to speak to a specific audience. Frequently, illustrators specialize in a specific area of interest, a comforting notion to interpreters who rely on the accuracy of the information they put forward. Many of NAI’s members are illustrators, and not only is their artwork expertly produced, but its focus on specific subject areas (animals, plants, etc.) makes it meaningful.

Clip art, on the other hand, magically appears in the middle of a stack of CDs that you thought contained only software for the computer you threw away last year and, possibly, your missing “Best of Van Halen.” Your clip art CD proclaims—usually with several exclamation points—that it contains “over 3,000 images,” each evoking exactly the same emotive response: This image is free! It doesn’t have to be meaningful! This is how interpreters—people who devote their lives to conveying unique, relevant messages—end up creating newsletters and brochures peppered with cartoons created by robots in a New Jersey warehouse. (To be fair, no one actually knows where clip art comes from.)

Most interpretive sites do not enjoy the luxury of a budget that allows for paying illustrators or photographers. However, alternatives to clip art are not as elusive as one might think. First, many people do not consider themselves to be illustrators. But even a person with no artistic skill at all (if such a person truly exists) stands a better chance of effectively conveying the sense of a message or the attitude of an organization than does clip art.

Clip art appears everywhere. It was designed to be ambiguous and personality-free so that it might accidentally suit a wide range of unforeseen purposes. Those individuals who venture to create their own illustrations will find that not only do they have access to any image they want (after a couple minutes with a pen and paper), but that their illustrations take on a certain style, giving their publications a personality that is unique.

Take, for example, the case of the disgruntled elf. In my search for artwork to accompany this article, I stumbled across “Elf–Disgruntled.EPS,” and placed him in my document. I then placed “Balloon07.EPS” right next to him and sat back to enjoy my creation. Then—perhaps after one too many Dr. Peppers—I wondered what NAI’s staff members might come up with if I asked each to draw a disgruntled elf. Several had actual work to do and declined, but to those who agreed, I stipulated that each artist should spend five minutes on his or her drawing. Five minutes later, I found myself in the possession of images that had personality, and more importantly, would never coincidentally show up in some other interpretive association’s magazine.

Note from 2011: Of the four NAIers who drew elves for this study, I am the only one still employed by NAI. That's likely not a coincidence.

In addition to having unique illustrations at my disposal, I discovered other possible resources. One staff member told me that both of her sons are terrific artists and would love to have work published. Another staff member once drew a weekly cartoon for a college newspaper, and assorted staff family members include two college art majors, an interior designer, and a high school art teacher. A simple decision to find an alternative to clip art turned up a variety of sources for free, high-quality artwork with a relative minimum of effort—all of this in an office of six full-time employees.

Because clip art appears everywhere—and because anyone who has ever been in a room that had a computer in it knows that it’s not that hard to place a clip-art file in a word processing document—it has the opposite effect of sprucing up a document. The only story it tells is that of someone who needs to get a newsletter to the printer sitting at a computer and scrolling through a list of 3,000(!) images, looking for the one that comes the closest to saying what he or she wants it to say.

Non-personal interpretive media frequently serve as the first contact a member of the public has with a site. If brochures, web sites, or magazine advertisements don’t effectively convey the mission of a site—or do so in a unique, creative manner—then the personal interpreters at the same site may never get the chance to tell their story. A good interpreter makes the most of the resources available to him or her, be it in person or through non-personal media. A good interpreter would not settle for a generic message created by someone who knew nothing about his or her site.

There is interesting, expressive artwork out there, and it’s not hard to find. Even if you don’t consider yourself an artist, you might surprise yourself when you sit down with a pen and paper. And if you don’t, someone else at your site surely will. So put the clip art CD back in the stack of old printer drivers and “Hits of the ’80s” and break out a pen. You’ll be glad you did.

The Perils of Social Media

Note: Since my relationship with Paul has been strained after a week where his Philadelphia Phillies blatantly stole free-agent pitcher Cliff Lee from my New York Yankees, I’m unsure that I can continue working on this blog with him. With that, along with the fact that we received a lengthy rebuttal to Paul’s post on social media earlier this week, it was decided that my post would be replaced with this one from our first guest blogger. Right now, I’m happy to give up my space to anyone who disagrees with Paul.

In the meantime I’m going to take the rest of the week off in order to reflect on the good times and place careful thought about the future of Paul and Shea. I’m glad to introduce Phil Broder, director of education at the Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor, New Jersey, as our first-ever guest blogger on IBD. —Shea

Here’s what I’m not:

  • Antisocial
  • Antitechnology
  • A Luddite
  • Incommunicado
  • A curmudgeon.

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Well, to be fair, I’m a bit of a curmudgeon. I find a measure of joy in needling Paul and Shea, in rooting for the underdog, in taking the uphill side of an argument. I’m not in the social media resister camp (and I heartily dislike Paul’s division of social media into two camps—adopters and resisters; for an example of the idiocy of splitting any issue into just two camps, I need only point to Congress), but neither am I the first to jump with both feet into something new (case in point: today news outlets are reporting that stylish UGG footwear can cause knee, hip, and back problems. My lack of personal style saved me again). “How like fish we are,” said Aldo Leopold, “ready, nay eager, to seize upon whatever new thing some wind of circumstance shakes down upon the river of time. And how we rue our haste, finding the gilded morsel to contain a hook.”

I’m not prepared yet to bite into that hook. Social media is a tool, and like most tools, if properly used, it can build great things. But put a hammer into the hands of a toddler, and you’ll be dealing with smashed fingers, broken glass, holes in walls, and bedlam. Too many social media users are hammer-swinging toddlers (and I just had the most disturbing image of Shea in an argyle diaper). So let me start with what I find wrong with social media.

First, I strongly believe that we need to be present where we are. Most electronic devices tend to pull our attention from our surroundings. Who hasn’t been leading a program when someone’s phone rang? Ever watched someone miss a sunset because they were looking at a 4” screen? Does checking-in on Foursquare really enhance a visit to the Grand Canyon? Edward Abbey proposed banning even maps from wilderness areas. Wonder what Cactus Ed would say about an iPhone with built-in GPS, a Peterson’s field guide app, ratings of campgrounds, Google Earth, and a Groupon for a discount at the nearest Campmor shop? If we truly want to end nature deficit disorder, we need to stop contributing to it with all the social media distractions.

Too many people use social media as a substitute for real conversation. Posting something on your Facebook page isn’t the same as telling me about it. Maybe it’s easier for you, but what message should I get when family members relay important news via Facebook? My takeaway is that I’m not important enough for my sister to pick up a phone. In interpretation we talk about starting a dialogue with visitors, but Facebook users mostly seem to be monologue-ists. If you expect me to converse with you, don’t begin the conversation with a Facebook post.

Likewise, if you want to start an intelligent conversation, don’t use Twitter. At a mere 271 words, the Gettysburg Address is a classic example of brevity. Still, it’s too long to be Tweeted. Here’s how the writers of “The Daily Show” rewrote it for our modern era:

(And if you haven’t discovered http://historicaltweets.com, you’re missing some of the best revisionist history out there.) I’m concerned that any idea that can’t be boiled down to 140 characters will be ignored. Sociologists will tell you that the telephone effectively ended the age of letter writing, and now texting is ending the age of the phone call. Is Tweeting going to end the well-thought-out and supported argument? My greatest objection to Sarah Palin isn’t her politics, it’s that she seems to be trying to appeal mainly to people who can’t digest anything longer than 140 characters. Twitter is the lowest common denominator of communication.

Does anyone else find something appalling about the use of “friend” as a verb? I have many close friends, relationships that I’ve spent years cultivating, and they’re precious to me beyond value. Calling someone a “friend” just because you’ve clicked on them demeans and devalues the word. If you’ve got a Friends group at your park, zoo, or museum, would you rather have one friend who does volunteer work and makes an annual donation, or 100 “friends” who appear as tiny pictures on your Facebook page? And as far as getting in touch with old high school classmates, look, two decades ago they didn’t like me and I didn’t like them, and catching up with them through social media is just an exercise in phoniness.

Let’s consider the message you’re sending out through social media. Is it important? Does it have value? In what way does it improve the world? Let’s face it, just because some people can talk doesn’t mean they should. Social media is a huge outlet for a lot of people who just don’t have much to say, but haven’t learned to keep their mouth closed. Nobody wants to know the intimate details of your daily life, what you’re wearing, what you ate, or that you’re sitting down to watch “Jersey Shore.” Really, how much carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere generating electricity to run the computers of vapid fools who want the whole world to know that they think we should all stop picking on Britney Spears? (As an aside, the backlash to mindless tweeting has begun. Recently, an AIDS charity enlisted stars like Ryan Seacrest, Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian, who promised to go “dead” on Twitter and Facebook until people donated $1million to the charity. A group of sensible people saw an opportunity, and encouraged people to donate to other AIDS charities. Their strategy worked. The charity couldn’t raise the million dollars, and world went without Gaga and Kardashian for a few days, until finally they gave up and reneged on the deal.)

Several social media sites seem bent on turning everything into a popularity contest. I like making my own decisions, not running with the herd. It matters to me that the news I read is accurate, and it scares me that it can be so easily manipulated on Digg and Reddit by the opinions of the masses. If your main concern is how many Facebook friends you have, or getting Pinged everywhere you go, then I’d just rather not know you.

Now, having said all that, let’s look at the positive uses of social media. MySpace has been a boon to small-time musicians for reaching out to their fans. I’ll never again have to pay $15 for a CD only to find that there’s one good song and 11 pieces of crap. Facebook is useful for people with a shared interest who may not actually know each other; I use it to communicate with other dog park users so that I’ll know when my Lab’s posse will be there, instead of just crossing my fingers and driving nine miles to find out.

Can social media work for interpretation? In some cases, yes. I know a musician who spent a summer in New York City on her “Where In The Truck Is Chloe?” tour. Every day she’d pile her guitar and amp into a pickup truck, tweet to all her fans where she’d be and when, then show up there, play a few songs, and leave when the cops showed up. What a great way to generate buzz! I’m stealing the idea; our turtle mascot will tweet the location of his next appearance, show up at some local beach or boardwalk or restaurant, slap hands with a bunch of kids while another naturalist shows off some real turtles, and then off we go. Social media presents a means for getting the word out about a program without having to wait for the next quarterly newsletter. Wonder what would happen if I tweeted “going kayaking at 5pm. Anybody wanna come with?” Or how about “dolphin stranded @ the point. Need helpers 4 rescue ASAP!”

Even Mark Zuckerberg will admit that Facebook was created as a means to help people connect. Instead, it’s become millions of billboards, with most of us no more than commuters trying to figure out what to pay attention to without having an accident. If you’re using social media to just blindly throw information into the cybersphere, hoping that it will hit someone who finds it useful, you’re mostly just contributing to the white noise that disconnects too many people from the natural world. Remember Tilden’s second principle: “Information is not interpretation.” But If you’ve given it thought, and come up with a plan for using social media to create dialogue, if you’re tweeting to provoke (there’s that Tilden guy again!), social media has plenty of potential.

Am I a curmudgeon? Quite probably. But he who knows enough is enough will always have enough. And when I’m confronted by someone blathering on about the tweet that they copied to their Facebook page to share with their 1,156 “friends,” when I hear people whose main goal is to attract fans to their blog, when I’m forced to endure perversions of language brought on by someone who only knows how to communicate using two thumbs on a tiny keyboard, well, I’ve had enough.