Simon Oxley was drinking beer and watching TV on his couch (like any good freelancer) when he noticed that a hot new startup called Twitter was using his art as a logo. At first, he thought he was drunk. "I checked the label on the beer I was drinking and called my wife to come see," he says. "It was a total, surreal surprise."
Oxley, who is British-born and Tokyo-based, was (and is) a freelance contributor to iStockphoto, one of the web’s most popular resources for stock photos and illustrations. He originally joined the service because Adobe Creative Suite came with a free membership. But since then, he’s become a power user, uploading almost 10,000 images and selling 100,000. He was even asked to design iStockphoto’s own logo, in 2009.
His biggest sales, though, have been from startups like Twitter, who paid "a relatively small amount of money" for a library of images including the bird and the robot, which still appears when you visit a broken link. The tweeting bird has since been replaced by a succession of avian variations, but thanks to the long memory of the Internet, it resurfaces every now and then. "It always makes me laugh when I still see organizations using my bird to link to their Twitter feed," Oxley says. "Thank you!"
Shortly after his name emerged as the designer of Twitter’s original mark, Oxley was approached by GitHub, the open source code community. They purchased a package of graphics from Oxley’s stock library as well, including their Octocat logo, for a flat fee. As you might imagine, the GitHub community remakes the logo on a regular basis: there are hundreds of iterations, including a Homer Simpson version, a Shepard Fairey version, and—predictably—a Nyan Cat version.
That kind of adaptability is a direct symptom of the iStockphoto model, which lets buyers do what they want with purchased images. "Once I submit images to stock collections, I lose control over how folks use them," he explains. Which requires a completely different mindset than the average graphic designer—but Oxley enjoys watching his work develop a life of its own on the Internet. "It can grate, but it’s allowed me to broadcast to a far larger audience than I could have single handedly appealed to, so I am grateful for people downloading my stuff and enjoy continuing to produce more."
His success as a stock graphic artist has led to a number of unusual projects. For example, this year he travelled to Russia to work on Gitune.com, a video-based social networking site that will launch in the next few weeks. He’s also frequently retained to draw characters and mascots for Japanese sites—so often, in fact, that he’s currently represented by Sony in Japan. In some ways, Oxley is the most famous designer you’ve never heard of—and his anonymity is increasingly common. As companies get leaner, flat-rate fees and work on spec are becoming the norm. "I suppose when anyone uses the Internet to broadcast there’s a sense of ‘be careful what you wish for,’" Oxley adds. "[I] just hope to never lose the fundamental enjoyment of drawing while appreciating any positive recognition from the wider world."