How to add emotional impact with evocative images

The right image can turn a blah message into a memorable, meaningful experience. But how can you find stock images that aren’t, well, stock? Read more.

How to add emotional impact with evocative images

By Cathy Moore

The right image can turn a blah message into a memorable, meaningful experience. But how can you find stock images that aren’t, well, stock?

Here are some tips that might help you use stock photos to reach your learners’ hearts as well as their minds.

Aim for the evocative

In a previous life as a marketer, I learned the difference between functional and evocative company names. For example, compare the names of two computer companies:

  • Digital Equipment (functional–it simply describes the product)
  • Apple (evocative–involves our senses, suggests simplicity)

The same concepts apply to images.

bland business person imageFor example, more courses than I ever want to see use sterile images of bland business people because the courses are about business, and “everyone knows” that business involves people in suits talking at meetings or shaking hands. That’s the functional mindset, and it has spawned thousands of lifeless photos.

But our activities aren’t really about stiff, overdressed people whose souls have already departed. They’re about problems that need to be fixed or changes that will improve our lives. To communicate that, we need emotionally evocative images.

Quick guide to finding evocative images

Let’s say your material discusses the importance of building trust in others. How can you quickly find good images about such an abstract concept?

1. Choose your stock site carefully

If you Google “microstock” or “stock photos,” you’ll find plenty of sites. The trick is to find a site that actually delivers useful photos when you search for them.

I usually use iStock, because it seems to have the most useful search engine and accurate keywords. If you want to shop around, pick an abstract keyword like “trust” and see what you get at each site. Also check the collection for diversity.

Once you find a site you like, stick to it. Limiting your options will both save time and make you more creative.

As you use the site, you’ll see images you like but that don’t answer an immediate need. Put them in the site’s online lightbox and give them a useful tag so you can quickly find them later.

2. Search the site for the concept.

Here are a few results for “trust” at iStock. How do they affect you emotionally?

Flying girlClimbers using rope
Seedling cradled in hands

A functionally-minded person might argue, “But our course isn’t about children or mountain climbing or transplanting tomatoes! Our course is about business!” They’ll want to use an image like this:

But where’s the emotional appeal? And apparently those two guys agree a lot, because most of the bajillion handshaking photos show two male hands emerging from dark suits.

I’m not saying that if a suit appears, the photo is automatically literal and boring. Some photographers are getting creative with workplace images. But there’s still an unfortunately good chance that a “business” photo will seem sterile, staged, and stereotyped.

3. Think of opposing similes

If you don’t like any of the results you got from searching on the concept, brainstorm some similes. Start with “[the concept] is like…” and include some opposites in your ideas, because they’ll lead you to new ideas. You’ll end up with a lot more keywords to search for.

Trust is like…

  • being in a cozy house vs. being outside in a storm
  • walking on a wide path vs. walking a tightrope
  • having a big net under a tightrope
  • swimming with water wings
  • cooperating vs. competing
  • listening vs. yelling
  • walking together vs. walking away from each other
  • parallel lines vs. diverging lines

Here are a couple of results from “tightrope” that might be useful for “trust”:

Man climbing in net Rope tied to pier

4. Avoid culturally specific images

Another iStock result for “trust” was this:

Baton being handed off during relay

Will all our learners recognize this as a baton being handed off in a relay race (apparently the Relay Race of the Gods)? Will it have as much emotional meaning for them as other images might?

5. Manage your images locally

When you buy a stock image, give it a meaningful name and tag it with useful keywords, if your operating system allows that. I also put images in folders that make sense to me. For example, one of my image folders is “emotions.”

If you establish a naming and tagging system from the start, you’ll quickly build an on-site collection that’s easy to search.

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15 comments on “How to add emotional impact with evocative images

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  1. I haven’t done a lot of image-choosing recently, but in past projects I’ve sometimes found clients so focused on the subject matter that they seemed to shy away from anything that didn’t match their preconceptions.

    For a project related to aviation, the client worried whether the stock-art people looked enough like those in the organization (e.g., matched the dress code). It was an effort to get her to agree that seeing silhouettes of biplanes as bullets was perhaps not all that interesting to the learner.

    Another factor may be one of playing it safe — either on the part of the designer or of the organization. It’s like the typical business approach to PowerPoint: you need a title, you need a blue backdrop, you gotta have the company logo, you need bullets on every page. At GE, you also got extra points for a “four-blocker” — a hideous PPT handout that was really four separate pages, crammed onto one like quartering in heraldry.

    No title? No bullets? Turn the presentation off from time to time to redirect attention? Holy cow — let’s not go overboard.

  2. Perhaps it’s because we are asking IDs to do the job of a graphics designer? When I first started in this field, I worked for an off-the-shelf development company. We always had a graphic artist assigned for each project. This person had formal training/degree in graphics art. Because of this, they knew color, proportion, placement, and could come up with images that reflected what you were trying to get across to users. Now, that job has fallen, as with other jobs, to the ID. If you have a less than imaginative ID or someone who is not particularly creative or understanding of the content/concepts, they will generally go search out a “safe” image. It’s faster and doesn’t require as much thinking to get the job done. And usually, the clients don’t really care one way or another. Despite what events/expos/conventions would have you believe, there is still a large majority of client populations who equate having training and large amounts of it, to having GOOD training for their user population.

  3. I agree Todd – we have high expectations that the instructional designer will tie it all together well (write, design structure, design visuals, lead the team, make sure the coffee is fresh…) This is one fairly typical contributor to mediocre output in my opinion. And it’s an unfair expectation to boot. I’ve been urging my team not to hire in another ISD until we get an equal number of dedicated writers to take on that focused role. ISD’s first focus and priority should be on the design and execution of an effective instructional strategy. If 75% of the work in the project is writing and the designer isn’t a stellar writer – they are usually (in my experience) going to struggle to focus on that 75%.

    I think that there’s also a large portion of ‘what has come before’ influencing typical output. Sure, it’s safe to pick those images that most closely communicate without abstraction. But that’s what people are used to seeing in most of the courseware that’s been published.

    Cycles… How did we arrive at this point and how might we go about breaking these cycles?

  4. Thanks, everyone, for your comments and ideas.

    I agree that we’re asking for trouble when we expect one person to wear so many different hats. I wish it were easier for firms to make talent available outside their usual departments. For example, it could be helpful for training folks to be able to borrow some copywriting and visual talent from marketing.

    I suspect that the bland, linear course is the default answer to too many questions because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” For most people, that *is* how we’ve always done it, because we grew up going to conventional schools that also avoid risk and package all learning in a teacher-driven course.

    One small step toward breaking the cycle could be to make alternative solutions more visible. For example, conferences and awards programs could make an effort to show more creative stuff, and trade publications could include success stories. But that sounds pretty feeble in the face of such an entrenched system.

  5. Cathy,
    More people seem to reach for surface metaphors, and the stock sites have better search and categories for these. When we ask for deep metaphors that are constructed from images that are less obvious, it takes more time and work. They are much more effective however, for conveying meaning.They encourage the viewer to think about the association instead of just assuming they ‘get it’.

    Yes, working with images is hard when you have not had training and education around visual literacy. But just like learning technology skills, it’s a must in order to stay current.

  6. Using “business” images are not just confined to elearning instructional designs but for any kind of presentation format (Powerpoint anyone?). I actually have frequent debates with my co-workers regarding what images to use for our powerpoint presentations because I’m known for using non-standard visuals. Instead of using our office templates, I actually scoot on over at for my visuals. This gets me into trouble sometimes but I say it’s more important that I get the response I want from a learner instead of just capitulating on some template. (And who says that these things don’t mix, anyway?)

  7. Oh, I can’t even begin to tell you how frustrated I am with boring training using boring images and boring language and boring structure! I design training (and I’m one of those people who contributes to all stages of development), and no matter how hard I try to convince clients to do something new or different or *god forbid* interesting, they just want to be safe. They don’t want complaints. They don’t want to “take away” from the “seriousness of the content.” I’m currently making training that focuses on interpersonal relationships. Our original idea was to use hand puppets (you know, with eyelashes and lips painted on the hands, etc.). The client said she laughed out loud, but didn’t want to use the idea. And then she didn’t like our cartoons because they just weren’t professional. So now we’re going with silhouettes. I can’t think of anything more dull. And it breaks my heart to make bad training. I think the problem has to do with the idea of “taking risks.” Our clients seem to have a hard time giving credit to the learners. They don’t understand that emotions engage. They don’t understand that millions of Americans watch TV for hours a day, getting them used to non-professional images, emotional images, quick changes, etc. They think they’re going to get in trouble if their boss thinks it’s not serious or unprofessional. And they’re afraid someone’s going to complain. I’m shocked people don’t complain as it is, being forced to take training that makes you practice keeping your eyes open. (…but maybe I’m just bitter right now…)

  8. Carolyn, I certainly empathize. I’ve especially heard “I don’t want to take away from the seriousness of the content.”

    The silhouettes are a classic example. If people don’t have faces, then they’re going to have a hard time showing any emotion, and we’re going to have a hard time caring about them. This seems especially unfortunate in a course about interpersonal relations.

    I’ve seen silhouettes being used more lately, and I hope that they don’t become the norm.

    I agree that some clients have trouble giving credit to learners. They think learners must be led by the nose and can’t be trusted to interpret anything that isn’t baldly (and seriously) stated as a fact or rule. It’s tempting to wonder how the learners manage to do their jobs when apparently they can’t be trusted to think.

    One solution could be to point to successful uses of humor, emotion, etc. For example, I pushed hard for the chance to use humor in a very dry technical course, and luckily the client agreed. They mentioned that their learners laugh about being geeks, so we gently played off that.

    That course became one of their most successful. A few people said they didn’t like the humor–they weren’t offended; they just thought it was unnecessary. But they were easily overwhelmed by the many more that did.

    Another solution could be to push for a quick audience test very early in the process. For example, maybe the hand puppets could be shown to 4-5 learners or the learners could be asked to choose between hand puppets and silhouettes. This could help convince the client that the “serious” approach wouldn’t be as effective.

  9. Steve, thanks for the warning about the incompatibility with Flash Player 10. That sample is showing its age!

  10. lol – good example Cathy. FYI, the Flash Player 10 Beta slaughters the audio code (everything plays at once at various spots).

  11. FP10 has a lot of issues with audio. Large overhaul to the way audio works in the upcoming player. I have problems with the simplest code driven audio methods (noise, control problems).

  12. Cathy,
    Thanks for your advice! In the world of unreasonable deadlines, the silhouettes have had their way (though I’m still pushing for dancing silhouettes on the “congratulations” screen). I’ll make my audience tests more formal next time, and continue to shoot for the laughing stars. I just wanted to mention that reading your blog definitely keeps my hopes up and offers so much in the way of a creative spring-board.

  13. As Instructional Designers, we are also supposed to provide the right images to the course. One of the problems in mage selection I faced is that people want direct images. When we donot get such images, we tried to provide representative of the images. Also, we need to tprovide the images which are in action, emotionally fitted and with proper light and shade contrasts. This provdes an ambience for the people to understand the sitaution.