Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 148 / JANUARY 1993 / PAGE S9

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


Desktop publishers, executives, small business people--we're all looking for ways to increase the impact and visibility of our documents and presentations. A well-crafted image or two can help. Often the right graphic determines whether a newsletter gets read, or whether an important point in a presentation comes across. But who has the time or skill to draw them? Instead, many people rely on clip art to spruce up their work.

Clip art goes back many years, to when producing camera-ready art boards for a print shop or slide camera was done by hand. Then clip art came on hard copy sheets that designers clipped out with scissors and pasted into their layouts. Today's electronic clip art is much easier to use. Most of it can be cropped, sized, colored, or shaded with easy-to-use graphics software. Including a professional-quality image in your work is now as simple as clicking your mouse.

Types of Clip Art

In perhaps no other software category is there such a wide selection of products. There are virtually thousands of clip art packages available. Collections of themed art (Business, Symbols, people, Borders, and so on) are available from vendors such as 3-G Graphics and T-Maker for less than $100 (street price). These packages include hundreds of quality images--everything from computers and peripherals to cartoons, horses, and shaggy dogs. Then there's the clip art extravaganzas, such as New Vision Technologies' Presentation Task Force, which contains 3,500 images. Presentation Task Force provides graphics in categories ranging from agriculture to transportation, and everything in between.

If that isn't enough, there are subscription services such as Dynamic Graphics' Clipper or Metro NewspaperService's LaserArt Electronic Art (both cater to graphics professionals), where you receive new collections of clip art each month. You can subscribe to an online service, such as Adonis' Clip Art Window Shopper, where you can download the images you need and pay as you go. And you can join the different forums on CompuServe or GEnie and check out some of the many shareware clip art packages available.

Yet another option is to buy word processor, desktop publishing, paint, draw, and presentation packages that come bundled with their own clip art libraries. CorelDRAW and Arts & Letters, for example, both come with over 5,000 images (CorelDRAW has 14,000 in the CD-ROM version), most of which are quite good. (This strategy doesn't always work; the graphics that comes with WordPerfect is hardly usable.)

The clip art you buy should depend primarily on your application. If, for example, all your output is on a laser printer, color images will do you little good, and they won't print as graphics designed for black and white output. Conversely, onscreen monitor and slide presentations call for color graphics. Another important consideration is the file format in which the clip art is saved. Make sure the applications you use support the clip art file format before you buy.

Vector vs. Bitmapped Clip Art

Although computer graphics comes in many different formats, there are only two basic types: bitmapped and vector. Another way to think of them is by the type of graphics programs that produce them. Bitmapped graphics are created in paint programs, such as PC Paintbrush, Windows Paint, PhotoFinish, and so on. Vector graphics are draw-type images created in programs such as Adobe Illustrator, Aldus FreeHand, and CoreIDRAW. Some people might argue that one format is superior to another, but the truth is that both formats serve important purposes.

Bitmapped graphics files (PCX, TIFF, BMP, Targa, WMF, and other file formats) are produced as fixed dot patterns, much like a rubber stamp. They work well for images consisting of patterns and different shades, rather than a lot of straight and curved lines. Gray scale and color photographs are usually TIFF or PCX format. And scanners save images to one bitmapped format or another-also usually TIFF or PCX. Since bitmaps are drawn in fixed dot patterns, in much the same way monitors use pixels, they also work well for onscreen slide shows and multimedia presentations.

Bitmaps do have some limitations. They're device dependent, meaning that they have fixed resolutions. If, for example, you save a TIFF file at 150 dots per inch (dpi), it will always print at that resolution, no matter what dpi the printer uses. Because the number of dots per image is fixed, it's difficult to resize bitmapped images. Enlarging them causes edges to get a jagged, stair-stepped appearance, and reducing them can cause colors and gray areas to distort.

Another disadvantage is that bitmapped graphics files, especially images containing gray scale or color, can become very large. It's not unusual for them to grow up to and beyond one or two megabytes. Not only are large files hard to manage, they also can slow down display redraws and take a long time to print.

Vector graphics files (EPS, AI, DRW, CDR, CGM, PIC, and other file formats) are produced mathematically. Instead of drawing the image as a series of dots, objects are computed on X and Y axis. The advantage to this approach is that lines are straighter, curves and arcs aren't jagged, and graduated fills (a graduation of one color or shade into another) are even. Vector formats work well for images containing smooth edges. They're also the best choice when using text in graphics.

A distinct advantage to vector graphics is that they're device independent, meaning that they adapt to the resolution of the target output device. If you print them on a 300-dpi laser printer, they print at 300 dpi. When you printing them on a 2400-dpi imagesetter, you'll get 2400-dpi graphics, and so on. This advantage shouldn't be underestimated, especially if you plan to use your computer output to create high-quality brochures or other documents at a print shop. High resolution is critical when images contain elements such as small text and hair-lines. It's also essential to creating camera-ready art for four-color printing.

A disadvantage of vector clip art is that most of it is in EPS (Encapsulated PostScript) format. PostScript graphics require PostScript printers. You can convert EPS files with a draw program or conversion utility, but the results aren't always satisfactory, especially if you try to go from EPS to a bitmapped format, such as PCX. Whether this works usually depends on the complexity of the image. And you lose the ability to print the image at high resolutions.

Decisions, Decisions

As any desktop publisher will confirm, there's an inherent danger in using clip art. It's tempting to use images just because you have them. Often, however, it's better to use nothing at all than to include a graphic only remotely related to the topic of your document.

The two main reasons to use graphics are to attract attention and to convey important points. But keep in mind that readers and audiences don't like to be tricked. Also be careful to use images that suit the tone of your work. Use silly and light-hearted clip art only when that's the tone of the document.

Another danger of clip art is that it's addicting. If you're not careful, before you know it you'll find yourself with thousands of images. I have so many packages that they take up two full shelves and spill onto the floor. But then clip art is a lot like money--you can't have too much of it.