Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 148 / JANUARY 1993 / PAGE S11

How to choose the right clip art package. (Compute's Getting Started with Fonts & Clip Art)
by William Harrel

The best-looking clip art in the world will do you little good if it isn't compatible with your software. The first consideration in buying clip art is determining how you'll use it. You shouldn't, for example, buy vector images if the only graphics editor you own is Windows Paintbrush. If you don't have a PostScript printer, EPS graphics are inconvenient because they'll need to be converted before you can print them.

Before going clip art shopping, check the documentation of your word processor, desktop publishing, and presentation packages and jot down the graphics file formats they support. Because clip art is easy to copy and doesn't require a technical manual, software vendors are hesitant to accept returns.

Since most popular software programs import a variety of graphics images, finding clip art that your applications can use should be easy. However, looking for images that fit the tone and subject of your work isn't quite so simple. The problem with buying themed art--such as Business & Industry or Holidays, for example--is that they're usually inappropriate for other uses. You'll need to buy most or all the themes in a collection to get images for every occasion. If you decide to go this route, be sure to look at T-Maker's EPS collections--you can't beat the quality.

You could opt for packages that cover a variety of subjects, such as Presentation Task Force. Most don't cost much more than one of the themed collections, and you get a lot more images. However, you probably won't use many of them. The vendors of these products tend to throw every image they have in the box, so that the number of images--3,500, 5,000, 10,000, and so on--is impressive. The question is, how many are of good enough quality to include in your work. Alas, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Clipart Packages on CD-ROM

Many clip art vendors have or are about to release CD-ROM packages containing thousands of images, at reasonable prices. By the time you read this, Totem Graphics will have released several multi-themed collections with thousands of images per package. I've seen a sample, and they're quite good.

Without a doubt, the clip art subscription services sell the best-quality graphics. Two companies that put out fine clip art are Dynamic Graphics and Metro Newspaper Service. Both have been producing clip art for professional designers and advertising agencies for years--long before there was computer clip art, or even personal computers. Both have adapted their products to electronic media quite successfully.

However, buying images from either company requires a year's subscription commitment, to the tune of about $1,000 per year. Dynamic Graphics allows you to pay as you go, on a monthly basis. Metro requires a year's subscription fee up front. One thousand dollars may seem like a lot, but after the first year you'll have hundreds of the best clip art images available--in almost every subject you can think of. And Dynamic Graphics even allows subscribers to order images from back issues, for a very reasonable fee.

If you're thinking about buying a draw or presentation program soon, you may want to hold off on buying clip art. Many come with extensive collections--for free. The issue is, how good are they? It depends on the application you buy. Corel-DRAW has more than 5,000 images (or 14,000 images, when you consider the CD-ROM disc that's included in the box). They're gathered from a variety of clip art vendors, including T-Maker, Totem Graphics, and many others. Much of it is excellent. The 2,000-plus clip art library bundled with Micrografx Designer and Charisma were created by Micrografx and also are very good, and much more extensive and practical than some all-purpose clip art packages. You can find some of the best clip art available in the 5,000 images that come with Arts & Letters Graphics Editor. The collection is so extensive, you'll probably never need anything else.

Granted, these draw programs run between $400 and $700--but you'll probably need something to edit and create graphics in anyway. If this is too steep, you can pick up Arts & Letters Apprentice for less than $200, and it comes with over 2,000 of the images included in Graphics Editor. You'll be hard pressed to find a clip art package with 2,000 quality images for $200.

Be careful, though. Not all popular applications contain good clip art. Microsoft PowerPoint, which is an excellent presentation package, bundles some very corny-looking images, as does Microsoft Publisher.

Artistic Quality

When I started desktop publishing several years ago, the availability of quality clip art was sparse. We took what we could get. Much of today's electronic clip art is high in quality--at least as good as hand-drawn graphics. You don't have to settle for images that look amateurish, jagged, or unfinished. Only you can be the judge of what you like, of course. But there are some things to watch out for.

Quality clip art should have smooth lines (except where unsmooth lines are obviously an intended part of the image's artistic appeal). Gray and color gradations should be smooth, not banded and distorted. Colors should be true-to-life, not gaudy and overdone. (For example, in one of the images from Corel-DRAW's collection, Saddam Hussein has a purple face.) Often these problems aren't discernible until you open the box and load the images into a program. Fortunately, many clip art producers will provide samples or hard copy printouts upon request. Some clip art collections, such as T-Maker's products, are packaged with several of the collection's images clearly printed on the box. Sure, vendors use only the best images on their packaging, but if you look them over closely, you can get a good idea of the quality of the product.

Collector's Items

Choosing one clip art package over another isn't easy. The problem is that so many of the packages contain a few great graphics, which someday you'll surely have a use for. At least that's the way my mind works. In reality, I haven't used one percent of the thousands of images I've collected. But it's nice to know they're there. Just in case....


Graphic file formats abound. Almost every graphics program (and there are many) has its own native format, which it assigns a unique file extension. CorelDRAW, for example, uses the CDR extension and PC Paint-brush assigns a PCX extension to its files. There are, however, a few formats that have become graphics standards and are easily imported into desktop publishing, word processor, and presentation programs. Clip art vendors tend to stick to these few. The following is a description of the most common formats.

EPS: Encapsulated PostScript graphics are images saved in Adobe's PostScript language. EPS is the native format of Adobe Illustrator (which also saves files with an Al extension). PostScript is the format of choice for printing at high resolutions. It can also contain CMYK process-color information for printing prepress color separations. In addition, EPS graphics support Type 1 fonts, which means high-quality artistic text can be included in the images. PostScript graphics require PostScript printers to print.

TIF: Also called TIFF. This is a bitmapped format created by Aldus. It works best for images, such as photographs and drawings, that contain 16, 64, and 256 shades of gray. And it works well for 8-, 16-, and 24-bit color images. There are several TIF-file standards, including compressed and uncompressed. Make sure your applications support the kind you buy.

PCX: The PCX format is a bitmapped standard developed by Z-Soft for use with PC Paintbrush. Like the TIF format, it works best with images that contain 16, 64, and 256 shades of gray and for 8-, 16-, and 24-bit color images. Unlike TIF, PCX doesn't have many variations. You may, however, run into files with a PCC extension, which is the same format.

BMP: This one actually stands for bitmapped. It's the native file format of Windows Paintbrush. Generally, it meets the standards of TIF and PCX files. It isn't, however, as widely supported. Yet.

WMF: Windows Metafile is the standard used by the Windows Clipboard. When you cut or copy a graphic from one application and paste it into another, it becomes a metafile. Since these files display quickly and print fast, the best use of WMF clip art is for on-screen presentations and slides. They don't really print on laser printers as well as some other formats.

CGM: Computer Graphics Metafile is a widely supported vector format. Unlike EPS, it prints on any printer. However, CGM images don't import and export in and out of applications as well as EPS files. Font formatting, colors, and fills are sometimes altered. Clip art vendors who use this format get around these limitations by keeping the images relatively simple.

DRW: This is the vector format native to Micrografx Designer. It supports most features of EPS, but doesn't require a PostScript printer. DRW files are widely supported by word processing, desktop publishing, and presentation packages.