Top 5 tips on how to make a successful stock illustration

Top 5 tips on how to make a successful stock illustration

Ikon Images

Although every stock illustration in Ikon’s hand-picked library passes our test for visual and conceptual appeal, when it comes to sales, not all images are created equal.

The most successful stock illustration in Ikon’s extensive collection has been licensed more than 200 times, in 7 different countries, and has been used in book publishing, editorial and corporate websites, broadcast, magazines, newspapers, and advertising. To put this into context, this is 10 times as many sales as the image ranked at 500.

Women's hands reaching to the sun

Stock illustration credit Donna Grethen

So what gives stock illustrations the X-factor? We look at some of the characteristics of successful images below.

1.Subject focused illustrations

In terms of sales, probably the most important factor to consider is the subject.. While you may have the most interesting and well-executed illustration for underwater basket weaving in existence, its use will be somewhat limited! That’s not to say that niche images don’t have their place - they absolutely do - but they’ll never have the commercial success of illustrations covering the most popular subjects.

Business illustrations

The need for business-related imagery is constant and universal. Themes such as success, risk, leadership, teamwork and communication are popular. And, while the supply of such images is correspondingly high, the majority of these stock images are photographic, making illustrations a compelling alternative. IIllustrations are also particularly well-suited to adding colour and interest to support complex financial messages, which can be otherwise hard to visualise.

Health illustrations

Images on the subject of Health are also in demand, covering everything from fitness and diet, to hospitals and medical research. Illustrations can bring subtlety and sensitivity to subjects like mental health and illness. By escaping the reality of the photographic, illustrations are able to present the subject in a way which is more accessible.

Science illustrations

Whether you’re looking at the tiniest of blood cells or exploring the vastness of space, science topics are a popular topic for stock illustrations. The right image can simplify complex subjects, opening them up to a wider audience. Longevity matters here, too: because science by its very nature is always changing, the conceptual nature of illustrations helps them stay relevant for longer.

Businessman planning business strategy

Stock illustration credit James Boast

Patient having online consultation with doctor

Stock illustration credit Patrick George

2. Composition

It will come as no surprise that successful stock images are successful simply because they look good! While beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, there are several elements that make for attention-grabbing images.


Successful stock images need to be flexible to use. Allowing space for cropping or adding text means they can be used more easily and more often.


Illustration allows artists a huge amount of freedom in their use of colour, creating eye-catching visual impact. The same subject can relatively easily be produced in various colour versions, increasing its chances of being ‘just right’ for a particular use. There is also an option of editing stock illustrations, to allow for brand palettes and other design led principles to dictate the colours.


Vector illustrations are very popular with designers, and for good reason. Easy to scale, with bright, clear colours and sharp, crisp edges, vectors offer a great deal of flexibility with no loss of quality and look equally stunning as a thumbnail or a billboard.


Illustration can create dramatic images by showing an extreme perspective or an unusual angle of view. Such viewpoints would not be possible from a photograph, which is limited by physical constraints of both the subjects and the photographers themselves.

Street scene with people obsessed with smartphones

Stock illustration credit Otto Steininger

Woman opening shutters on date in calendar

Stock illustration credit Alice Mollon

3. Humour in illustrations

We all need a laugh (or even just a chortle or a smile) sometimes, which is why humorous illustrations are perennially popular. Comedy is a great way to engage and keep an audience’s attention, enlivening a perhaps otherwise dry article or giving the viewer a sense of discovery. And, because visual humour is a near universal language, this broadens the appeal of an image across subjects and languages, making lighthearted witty stock images particularly versatile.

Businessmen putting their heads in holes in the ground

Stock illustration credit Oivind Hovland

Vacationers floating on water reading books

Stock illustration credit Harry Haysom

4. Originality and illustrative style

One of the (many!) reasons we think stock illustrations are great is that they can be highly original due to the nature of the medium. And the more original an image, the more it helps your content to stand out. But what helps make an illustration original?

Conceptual ideas

Ideas such as ‘freedom’, ‘individuality’ and ‘connection’ are important in many contexts and can apply to a wide variety of messages. Illustration is the perfect medium for these kinds of conceptual ideas as it’s not limited by reality. Stock Images that communicate such ideas with flair and give audiences a new take or something to think about can be hugely successful.


Some kinds of illustrations can be used in a multitude of different contexts, and this versatility translates into success. While the exact meaning of these images may be hard to pin down, they remain visually interesting, even intriguing. Such ambiguity can be very effective and desirable in capturing an audience’s imagination.


Illustration also lends itself to collage, allowing the artist to use a wide variety of related visual elements in an interesting composition. This makes the image extremely effective in communicating broad or complex subject matter. Illustration can also amalgamate elements that would never be found together for dramatic, conceptual or even humorous effect: need a penguin shaking hands with a crocodile in the desert? Probably not, but you could with stock illustration!

Woman and girls cooperating to make large speech bubble

Stock illustration credit Alice Mollon

Human eye looking out from behind mask

Stock illustration credit Darren Hopes

5. Relevance

There’s a good reason we’ve used some of our past blogs to explore trending topics: Stock illustrations that cover world events and universal concerns are relevant and successful. Topics such as migration, sustainability, democracy, conflict and war, and the economy, are of worldwide importance and concern. And, although there is a lot of work happening to address these kinds of issues, these are all problems that are unlikely to disappear anytime soon, which means that stock illustrations on such topics will remain relevant for some time to come.

Hands forming boat saving migrants crossing the sea

Stock illustration credit Eva Bee

Scientists pushing globe gear stick into reverse

Stock illustration credit John Holcroft

It’s clear that the most successful stock illustrations are versatile, engaging, relevant and original. At Ikon, our library is full of such images, one of which is bound to be perfect for your next project, so have a look at our handpicked collection today.

Artists, think your images have what it takes? Become a contributor.

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