Make Photos Great Again

Picking a photo to accompany learning can be a straightforward process. It basically involves searching for it, scrolling quickly past the clip art, finding the right fit, downloading the jpeg or png (just copying a photo takes up more space!), making edits, and inserting the photo just so.  

When I first began in the industry, I thought it was that simple. It was only after I started reading books by Nancy Duarte and Connie Malamed, and finding hidden gems like Echo Rivera’s blog, that I understood how images can convey powerful messages. And if we’re not careful, we can convey unintended messages that turn away existing and potential learners. In this post, I’ll share a helpful tool that helps expose cognitive biases and find photos that fit the context of the message.

The Chart

Sometimes, the best tools are the simplest tools. In this case, all you need is a word processor or a pen and paper to create a tool that will transform your practice, as it did when my manager first shared this strategy with me. First, create three columns. Label the left side “What does the visual communicate?,” the middle “Positive,” and the far right column “Negative.”

The following method works for any type of delivery method with visuals. Here’s what you want to do. Look at one photo at a time. As you look at the photo, consider what the visual communicates. Maybe it’s teamwork, strategy, dedication, or transformation. Then consider if the image is communicating a positive or negative message about the subject. Make a checkmark or note to yourself in the appropriate column.

For example, I surveyed an online course to practice using the chart. The first few images were of men on the construction site. This didn’t seem too peculiar, until I reached the end of the course and realized only two women were pictured in the entire course. In one instance, the narrator talks about an accident that happened on site. Pictured is an older, white man confronting a younger female. This probably seems harmless. But since this was only one of two photos with women pictured, and it’s one of the only times an accident is discussed, it communicates a negative message about women being on the job site. It also creates an unnecessary power dynamic between men and women.

So What?

As you are selecting photos and considering how they fit into your project, use the chart to consider what the visual conveys about the subject. (A good time to do this is during storyboarding!) Consider the audio and any other cues that may shape that message. In certain learning scenarios, you may need to share a negative situation. But it’s important to consider the visual representation of how that message is communicated (especially more than once.) Does it reinforce old stereotypes? Does it “other” certain people?

A good strategy is to use the chart as you collect photos, and then at the end when the project has come together. And remember, we all have cognitive biases. Most times, we’re not even aware they exist. Using tools like this simple chart helps make those biases become visible and consider what we are actually saying through the visual.

Final Thoughts

Sharing the chart with people who will be reviewing your product is a good idea. It can be an awkward thing when you realize you’ve unintentionally conveyed a negative message. But that’s why we iterate and test products before we launch! Be open to the process, and your visual design will be better for it.

Also, don’t over rely on stock photos (pictured above) because you’re scared to make a mistake. Challenge yourself to share visual metaphors and other ways that communicate an idea in interesting ways!


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