Choosing Graphics for eLearning: Photos vs. Clipart

If you are an eLearning developer, you have probably encountered the following question before: Should I use photos or clipart in my eLearning course? If your organization has style guides, this might hold the answer to the question for you. Certain companies ban clipart from being used in their corporate PowerPoints and eLearning courses. They only allow the use of photos, because they find that looks more professional.

Clipart has a bad reputation – but it doesn’t have to look ugly.  Nowadays, most stock photo websites, such as photos.com and istockphoto.com, offer a wide range of professional illustrations that have consistent styles and that look really sharp. It is a good idea to get a subscription or  photo package with one of these sites. This lets you avoid the headaches of finding “free” or “royalty free” images and it makes your searches go much quicker.

Of course, this is less of an issue if you have either a) an in-house graphic designer who can create custom graphics and clipart for your project, or b) a photographer on hand who can take custom photos for you. Often times, neither of those are an option. So when that is the case, keep the following information in mind.

The Pros & Cons of Clipart and Photos

Regardless of which one you choose to use for your next project, there are pros and cons for both.

The pros and cons of using clipart:

  • File size is generally smaller than photos
  • A lot of royalty free clip art available online
  • Can be difficult to find a specific illustration
  • Can be very generic and not strongly convey a message
  • Sometimes look cartoon-y and unprofessional
  • Don’t normally require much further editing in a graphics software
  • It’s generally pretty easy to change colours in clip art

The pros and cons of using photos:

  • File size for photos is generally larger
  • Photos may require manipulation/graphic editing to achieve right look
  • Photos can be more expensive, need to purchase rights to use the photo
  • More difficult to find good quality, free photos online
  • Photos look more professional
  • Photos are better at conveying a strong message
  • It’s more difficult to alter colours in a photograph

Don’t Mix Photos and Clipart

Unless you’re a pro graphic designer who has an extremely keen eye for design, it’s better to choose either photos or clipart and stick to one throughout your eLearning. This makes a project look more streamlined and professional, as opposed to mixing and matching.

Everyone has seen a PowerPoint presentation or an eLearning course with a graphic that makes you think “Have I seen that somewhere before?”. That’s usually what happens when you do a quick Google image search, and grab the first image that is acceptable. You end up with a mish-mash of different photos and illustrations, which doesn’t look neat or professional.

Choose a Clipart Style and Stick To It

If you have decided to use clipart, it’s a good idea to stick to one “style”.

The three illustrations above represent three totally different clipart styles. These all came up when I did a quick “business man clipart” image search on Google. Some styles are easier to find than others, so you may want to take that into consideration when choosing your style. The type of clipart you use depends on your audience (corporate management and higher-ups at a company? Grade 9 students at a high school?). Here is a tip: when it comes to developing professional eLearning for the workplace, I recommend less cartoon-y clipart and more high quality vector artwork and silhouettes. Silhouettes are great because they look professional, yet are very generic, so it’s easy to find what you need.

Another tip for finding good clipart: sometimes when I am browsing through Google images, trying to hunt down a graphic, I will do a search for “vector graphic” or “.png graphic” instead of clipart. These keywords sometimes yield more quality graphics than simply searching “clipart”.

Select Clear and Consistent Photos

If you’ve chosen to go ahead with photos for your eLearning project, choose photos that are of similar style, size and quality throughout to ensure consistency. Don’t mix and match black & white photos and colour photos. If you absolutely need to use some black and white photos, you might want to consider making all of your photos black and white to make it cohesive.  I often  choose photos that have a white background. It makes the screen look less busy and it make the image really pop. Look at the two photos displayed below:

In which of the two photos do the employees “pop” out more? The one with the white background. A white (or solid colour) background also makes it easier  to edit the photo in Photoshop and create photos with transparent backgrounds. If your presentation or eLearning course doesn’t have a white background, make the background transparent and it will look great over any background. Look at the two slides below:

They both use the same photo, but removing the white background allows more flexibility to place the photo anywhere on the screen.  I really find that using images with a transparent background add that extra touch of professionalism and visual appeal. When you are using photos in eLearning, don’t forget to compress the files before you upload them to your course if possible – I use the Save For Web and Devices feature in Adobe Photoshop – it really helps bring down the file size.

Remember: the key is to find the right images that convey your message appropriately and professionally. Choosing a style and sticking to it will definitely help you achieve this.

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One Comment on “Choosing Graphics for eLearning: Photos vs. Clipart”

  1. mrfordsclass says:

    I personally tend to go with photos. One of the more reasonable subscription services I have used and continue to use is Shutterstock. I tried the monthly subscription but found it was not cost effective, now I use the 5 images. When I use my 5th image it renews to another five. I think i have a year to use it. Between using images for my blog and PowerPoints/videos for my class I stick with photos. Regardless of what you use, always keep an eye on the copyright. Even stock image sites have various license agreements.


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