10 Tips for Ensuring Image Neutrality in Elearning Courseware

Anyone who’s ever designed an elearning course, corporate brochure or any form of graphic design, has at one time or another been asked to replace one or more images that could be perceived to be offensive or biased.

In corporate elearning, this can be particularly challenging since so much of our courseware calls for images of people engaged in interpersonal scenarios. Sometimes courses include disproportionate examples of a group (group = gender, ethnicity, class, etc) in one role or another.

Common examples of image bias in courseware can include:

  • Images where one group is disproportionately portrayed as the “offender” in case studies or examples;
  • Images where one group is disproportionately a manager or authority figure and another group is consistently depicted in subordinate roles;
  • Images where a group is depicted as part of a particular social class while other groups are mostly depicted in another class.

Of course elearning scripts never direct media designers towards such bias. Media designers, in pursuit of the “perfect image” may not always keep track of which groups have been used in which ways. They simply look for what they feel is the best image available to depict a particular piece of content.

Instructional and media designers need to take into account the “who” and the, “who’s doing what” as well as the “who’s doing what to whom” in their course designs and image selections to ensure objective and non-biased representation in their courseware.

Here are 10 suggestions for ways to manage image neutrality in your elearning course designs.

1. iPod – Silhouette Effect

This popular photo technique can be used for neutralizing your people photos and drawing focus into the on-screen text and content rather than on the people.

For variety, you can mask out any objects they’re holding for a combined illustration-photo effect.

Solid colors as well as gradients work well.

Variation – Pixel People

This is another effect I’ve been playing with lately and it involves incorporating gaming design elements such as pixel-drawn people, objects and sounds into designs.

A unique contrast emerges when pixel art is juxtaposed with realistic objects and backgrounds. It gives the course design a modern and clean look while removing some emphasis on the people.

What do you think? Does it work?

2. Cartoons or Illustrated Characters

Before you say, “He’s crazy, we can’t use cartoons in our corporate elearning” consider for a moment how professionally illustrated animals or non-human characters could be used as recurring “actors” in your courseware.

Think Schoolhouse Rock meets Pixar.

Somewhat on-topic example: My wife doesn’t enjoy going to Pixar-type movies. “I don’t like cartoons” she always says. But every time I’ve brought (read: dragged) her with me, she was totally engaged, laughed, cried and empathized with the main characters. She was drawn into the story because the characters and story were believable and compelling.

The same can be true for corporate cartoon characters/animals.

3. Hire or contract a 3D designer

Expand your image/concept library by contracting a professional 3D artist to design object metaphors for your particular industry or business. This can be especially beneficial for industries such as healthcare or financial services where specific products and processes aren’t often found in royalty-free libraries.

When I started with my current company, I asked my team to provide a list of common terms and concepts frequently used in their courseware. We then worked with a 3D designer to create objects for each of the concepts. The library proved invaluable in developing our courses and we often relied on the custom objects more than our extensive image library for business-specific instances.

Great solution if you have the budget for it.

4. Review existing elearning courseware prior to designing

If you’re new to an organization or doing consulting work, ask to review their elearning courseware before you start your project.

This is a great way to understand established image use and standards in the organization. Also, ask if they have internally and vendor/externally developed courses and make note of any differences in styles and images used.

5. Define your cast early in your storyboard design

Consider including a cast sheet in your eleanring storyboard that includes all roles, characters and scenarios where you want people represented.

Try pulling all people images at the beginning of the project for review rather than having media designers pull images as they go along.

6. Hold a script read-through before sending to development

Time may not always permit for this but there’s nothing like bringing 4-5 people together for a couple hours and going through the script, slide by slide, to brainstorm concepts and visual metaphors for each slide.

Ask 5 people to describe how they’d visually communicate an idea and you’ll be amazed at the options you’ll have to work with.

7. Don’t use people

Because so much of our corporate elearning courseware is designed to change or improve human behavior, it only seems logical that courseware designs include photos of real people. “You can’t design a compliance course without people, can you?” Of course you can.

As my colleague Adam frequently reminds me, “Nobody’s been offended by lines, boxes and arrows.”

Challenge yourself and your team to consider how shapes, symbols, icons and other graphical metaphors could be used for representing data and instruction.

You could hold a team-building game of Pictionary for starters:-)

8. Allow your learners to select their own avatar or pedagogical agent

OK, this option requires a greater level of programming but it’s a powerful way to allow your learners to customize their own elearning experience.

9. Randomize your people images

Using JavaScript or Flash, you can randomly load images in your slides.

Sure there’s a little more upfront design and development work but this is definitely an option when you’re having challenges with photo agreement.

10. Know your audience

And of course our golden rule of design: Know your audience. By audience, I mean both your learner population as well as your course owners and stakeholders.

The challenge is these two groups are not always the same so it’s essential to understand both groups.


  1. says

    Yes this was useful. I am looking for some blogs where I can also view a few latest graphic styles that are being used in elearning industry these days.

  2. says

    Hi Nidhi,

    A few of my favorite inspiration sites include:

    You could also check portfolio pages for elearning vendors.

    Another great source of inspiration can be DVD menus. Next time you order/rent a movie, check out the interface design.


  3. says

    Very well written post! And certainly an issue that we often overlook (yes, a gross generalization on my part).

    I like the use of isometric pixel people. It’s a style that has served Habbo Hotel very well for years and the “crudeness” of them helps more people identify with them in my opinion.

    As to cartoon people, well here comes my sales pitch. :)

    I use Second Life as a virtual film studio and am able to create sets that need no maintenance, actors that never age, wardrobe that never gets lost, absolute control of the sun and lighting, and so much more. And the great thing is that it is incredibly inexpensive and the results seem to be well accepted.

    And to your point, if the story is compelling (and elearning can certainly incorporate a stories), then the “actors” are almost secondary.

    If you are not familiar with Second Life, here is a video sample: http://blip.tv/file/628228

    And (shameless plug) if you happen to be attending the eLearning Guild’s DevLearn08 in November, I will be presenting how to do this easily and inexpensively.

    Thank you for the well detailed post with concrete samples (and excellent graphics).

  4. says

    Hi there,
    I’m a big fan of identifying your cast of characters at the beginning of a project. We do elearning for a number of enterprise software applications. In doing so we need to show how the customer, the user, associate users, and maybe even other customers would work with one interaction. For example if a customer fills out a RFP online, it gets sent to a sales manager, who reviews it and creates a proposal. This proposal is reviewed by the director of sales and sent back to the customer. We have many people interacting with the system. This is a simple example and they get way more complicated, especially when there is staff then executing the order… Anyhow, we have found success in having a cast of characters. We find stock images of a person in many different poses/expressions before the start of the development. The data that displays in the application screen shots and interactions needs to support the people we use in the stock images. We need to tie in both stock people and the staged data in the application to bring the scenario full circle. We need to even use real names (customer = Linda Jackson, sales manager = Stan Smith…). It does get complicated but if you map it all out first in the storyboards, and make sure there are appropriate stock images available, and then it is a richer experience. I think that when the learner can see a “real person” you don’t need to re-educate them in the scenarios. They just remember that the woman with blond hair is the customer in the scenario.

    I love the idea of using second life. Then you can create your talent from scratch – and they are always available, and they didn’t get a haircut or get a new tattoo.

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