5 tips for more inclusive illustration

Dare to challenge the default

If you’re a designer, you’re shaping and suggesting how the world should be. We should not underestimate the power we have in doing so. This power carries with it a big responsibility that all visualisers out there should be aware of. With the help of our imagination, we can depict a new reality, creating an image of what can be achieved. For social change will not happen until we are able to imagine it.

Have you ever been in a situation where you need an image, for example, for a presentation you’re going to hold or an app that your team is developing? The deadline is approaching fast, and you need an image of a CEO in an office environment together with employees. You google it and find the perfect stock image - a male CEO dressed in a suit. Now you just have to include some diversity. As everyone knows, that means adding a black person, someone with a hijab, and a person in a wheelchair. Check! The political correctness is complete. What can possibly be missing?

In this article, I want to highlight why diversity is not just about adding a person of colour, someone in a hijab, and another in a wheelchair, but how you do it matters. Whether you are using ready images, photography, or actually making illustrations yourself, I will give you five concrete tips for how you can take inclusive illustration to the next level.

1. Challenge the default – don’t limit your imagination

When showcasing the same representation of a CEO over and over again, a mental default is developed over time. Images create cultural narratives; they provide a reference frame that helps us understand the world around us. These representations shape people’s preconceptions and form our expectations of what a CEO should look like. This is why it’s so important that we’re critical when we tell stories with illustrations and are conscious of the biases that we might have, and actively search for those we don't know we have.

Ok, so you get it - steer away from using stereotypes like the white male CEO and replace it with a minority of some kind. But should you still do this in cases where it really doesn't reflect reality? Let's say I need an illustration of a top European football referee. In reality, there has been only one woman through all times that has refereed in the Champions League. For the one picture I'm going to use, should I pick a woman? Tryce Bird, art Director at Facebook, thinks yes:

"If we don't actively challenge these defaults, we are giving them strength. Illustrations that consciously challenge stereotypes might not reflect our society today, but it asserts that the future can be better".
Tryce Bird, Art Director, Facebook

If you want to see more women as football referees and CEOs, then draw them!

2. Normalise real people, not one ideal type

Another good way to avoid stereotypical diversity representation is to get inspiration from real people you see around you. Observe people on the bus, at the airport, etc., and look for characters. Express personality and individuality by adding hairstyles and clothing styles, accessories, and glasses. Add some awkwardness and quirkiness - no one is perfect! My personal goal is to always make the audience smile when they see the illustration. You can add recognisable traits without portraying someone as a stereotype. These kinds of images not only challenge stereotypes by telling different types of stories but also generate empathy.

Also, make sure different body types are represented. And gender; men, women, trans and non-binary. As well as different families; for example, two moms with their child or divorced parents with several kids.

”You can add recognisable traits without portraying someone as a stereotype. These kinds of images not only challenge stereotypes by telling different types of stories but also generate empathy. ”
Ingrid Johanna Claringbould Fløgstad, Senior Designer, EGGS Design

People don't need to look 'perfect' - not even in illustrations. Add some quirkiness to give them life and personality.

3. Normalise that anyone can hold a position of power

It is not enough that the black guy, hijab woman, and person in the wheelchair are present together with the male CEO in an image. (They should be the freakin’ CEO!) Just being represented is not sufficient; we also need to think about how people are being represented. For example - who is leading other people and who is being led. When making illustrations, you have the power to chose who you lift up! You can make small changes by putting an underrepresented person in a leading role and normalise that anyone can hold a position of power.

Make conscious choices of whom you illustrate in a position of power. Lift those who need to be lifted and don't fall in the pitfall of always placing a white man as the leader.

4. Don’t make minority traits the only traits

The black guy, the woman in a hijab, and the person in the wheelchair should not be present in an image of work environment only to represent minorities. They are there to represent their skills and abilities! Relying heavily on one element can easily make them a passive stereotype. So, instead of putting their minority traits in focus, use subtle elements to indicate them and showcase their personality the skills more. Is the girl in a hijab a football supporter, is she a lawyer, and does she have a cool style? Maybe the person in the wheelchair loves heavy metal or hip hop?

Show more sides of people's identity by adding details; earrings, patterned clothing, or holding a law book or football, for example. Maybe a pair of smart glasses? A hijab or a wheelchair might be an important part of someone's identity, but never the only one.

5. Normalise that people with disabilities live active lives

Last but not least, I want to challenge the stereotypical way disability is often displayed. Why is it that the person in the wheelchair is always portrayed as very passive and backward-leaning? Never assume that people with disabilities cannot be interested in sports or be physically active. And what’s up with people in a wheelchair not being talked to directly, as if people assume they have a mental impairment? This tells us that people are influenced by dominant one-sided narratives in society, and it highlights the importance of telling different and more diverse stories of disability.

There are also other aspects of disability that need to come to light. We rarely see a visualisation of someone with ADHD, depression, or mental disability portrayed in an image of a workplace environment. At the same time, the wheelchair is often the symbol of all types of disability. Invisible disability might be more challenging to illustrate, but maybe you creatives out there can find a way? Telling different stories of disability creates less thinking about people with disability as a distinct group and can lead to less stigmatisation.

You can change the narrative around a person in a wheelchair from passive to active in a very simple way: change the wheelchair man from passive to active and forward-leaning. These small changes may seem insignificant but can have a big impact on how the image is perceived.

You have the power to make a difference!

In short, inclusive illustration is about challenging the default by imagining a more inclusive future and telling different stories about real people. For those of you who might think, how much can we really change with a few illustrations? You’re right - we can't save the world through pictures.However, we should not underestimate the power of images. In fact, 90% of all information transmitted to the brain is visual, and our brains can process visual information 60000x faster than text. Hence, it can make a huge difference in making the stigmatised, the invisible, or minorities represented and included in society’s cultural productions and imagery. Look around you to discover who these people are and take the time to get to know them well enough to depict them.

…but perhaps I got it all wrong?

As a white, European, heterosexual, cis woman without any physical disability – who am I to suggest these things?I can't understand a black person, a religious person, or a disabled person’s world. However, as a designer, it's my job to do my best to try and to make others reflect on how design impacts.If you have comments, ideas, or thoughts on this topic – I'd be thrilled to hear them. Help me improve!

Sounds interesting?

Ingrid Johanna Claringbould Fløgstad

Let's talk to Senior Designer
Ingrid Johanna Claringbould Fløgstad
+47 482 29 686
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