How to get better at incorporating diversity and inclusivity in your visual storytelling

By Maddy Mueller (alum)

For many organizations, diversity and inclusion is finally a major priority. This manifests across the spectrum of business—in hiring practices, company culture, and more; and across the spectrum of race, gender, age, sexuality, body type, ability, and every other characteristic that makes us each unique.

The realm of visual storytelling should not be an exception. Even if your organization is already putting diversity principles into practice, it’s easy to unwittingly run into common pitfalls—no matter how well-intentioned—in the name of visual inclusivity. To be truly, respectfully inclusive, it’s worth taking a closer look at how you bring people to life in your visuals.

Inclusivity and diversity in visual storytelling is always on our minds at Tremendousness, and it’s on our clients minds too. This can take a number of forms depending on the context and purpose that a given visual is servicing. We’ve found that visual inclusivity is best accomplished through these best practices:

  • Discuss inclusion with your client and/or team early in the process.
  • Use real-life reference images to add humanizing detail where relevant. This makes illustrations more specific and lifelike, thereby avoiding reliance on existing mental libraries or visual shorthand (and/or damaging stereotypes).
  • Be thoughtful and cautious when using generic stand-ins and symbols such as non-realistic skin tones. In their generality, these can be less inclusive than depicting real-life features simply because they avoid the diversity question altogether by creating an invented species of people with rainbow-hued skin tones. Of course, there are cases where this kind of generality is appropriate, often when the illustrated people are extremely simplified or abstracted. But we always ask ourselves this: “Can I choose specificity over ambiguity in this image?” Are the people central to the story or more secondary? Is diversity or realism, in fact, part of the message?
  • Be sure to make your designs legible, readable, and accessible to all by testing and tweaking for concerns such as color blindness, contrast, language, type size and capitalization, and even cultural references.

Why is it important to intentionally prioritize inclusivity in your visuals? Well, broadly, inclusivity in visual storytelling affirms the existence of all sorts of people out there in the real world. It’s not about checking some surface-level diversity box, rather, it’s because representing real people better portrays the diversity of the real world and affords all human beings the respect, recognition, and dignity they deserve.

Visually representing the diversity of your audience helps demonstrate that you’ve consciously and respectfully considered various groups of people and their thoughts and needs in context—and that you value their contributions. Put simply, by prioritizing inclusion in your visuals you’re showing historically underrepresented people that your story includes them. Audiences can then engage more naturally with your story if they feel this sense of belonging and respect.

So the next time you use visuals to help tell a story, make sure those representations are meaningful and accessible to all the real people out there that make up your audience!

Exercise: Artists, here’s a quick drawing exercise to improve your approach to visual inclusivity. Try to do this in a group and exchange thoughts and feedback when you’re done.

  1. Gather up a diverse array of reference photos of real people from sites like Google Images, Unsplash, Pexels, and especially Nappy to use as inspirational references.
  2. Draw some of the real people you find in your own style or styles, using real features from the photos. Don’t worry too much about exact likeness (in fact, don’t trace or copy things exactly, especially in your actual work). Instead, the goal is to develop and expand your mental visual library of real-life human features and therefore expand the audience’s awareness and appreciation of diversity.
  3. Try to illustrate folks with varying levels of detail—from naturalistic to abstract—and review and discuss the results along with past illustrations and visuals. By comparing representation vs reality, you will get a better feel for how to improve diversity and inclusion in your visual storytelling.