Picture This, Not That! How to Use More Inclusive Imagery in Communications

April 26, 2022

In communication and employee experience, imagery is just as important as the written message. Pictures capture attention, evoke emotions, and quickly convey abstract concepts or large amounts of information.  

As internal communicators and HR professionals, we’ve long recognized the importance and value of including visuals when conveying a message. As I learn more about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), I’ve noticed a few outdated images and die-hard metaphors that could use a bit of modernizing. Thankfully, learning from the past is how we improve for the future!  

I teamed up with our Creative Services Lead, Claire Turk, to reimagine five common examples:

1. Diversity and Inclusion is foundational, not fluffy

Imagery featuring a sea of colorful reaching/touching hands and coworkers hugging with bright smiles has become standard in the DEIB space. While beautiful and inspiring, it’s simply too conciliatory and saccharine.

This fluffy symbolism also downplays the hard work necessary to make real change. Work that can be messy, conflictual, contextual and dynamic cannot be boiled down to rainbow handprints, hugs, and high-fives. Also...can I get six feet, please?

Think of other less flowery, more realistic and dynamic ways to show off the importance of the ongoing DEIB conversation and collaboration happening within your teams. Show teams working through complex problems and strategizing or coming together to build something.  

The construction metaphor works well to suggest a cross-functional effort that requires a thoughtful plan of action and vigilant consultation and iteration of that plan. DEIB is collaborative, challenging and rewarding, so give it the credit it deserves!  

2. Turn up the diversity in depictions of "diverse groups"

Lately, we’re seeing more and more diversity in imagery, which is great! However, the diversity pictured typically only extends to races and genders, leaving much to be desired. Is the (hopefully) broad spectrum of your employees truly being represented through images that only show different races and genders?  

Representation is important because of perception and inclusivity. When people see themselves positively represented in the media, or workplace-related imagery, they feel included! It can also serve as a source of inspiration and reinforces positive views of self-worth and potential. When depicting diversity — apply generously! DEIB includes not only race and genders, but also age, body type, abilities, religion and neurodiversity.  

You might be tempted to think, “But how can I reflect everyone without it being too much?” Remember, one individual may represent multiple types of diversity. You might show an older person with glasses next to a younger full-figured woman of color in a hijab beside a white man in a wheelchair. When you consider the wide net diversity casts, including only races and genders in your imagery is a missed opportunity to be inclusive and progressive.    

3. Mental health should be nurtured, not solved

The puzzle has been a long-standing symbol for mental health and adequately depicts the many complex pieces that make us who we are. However, it also implies that one's mental health is something that can or should be solved and is otherwise a jumbled mess! Like physical fitness, the definition of emotional, psychological and social well-being (the factors that make up our mental health) very much depends on the individual.  

Instead, consider using imagery that highlights mental health as individualistic, and not a problem to be solved. Consider an alternative: plant imagery. Like us, plants are living things, each with their own specific requirements for nourishment and health. What one needs to thrive might be harmful to another. Plants as a metaphor also emphasizes that mental health is never “accomplished” but rather requires continuous maintenance and care.  

4. Embrace the different ways we think  

Cogs and gears are popular metaphors for cognitive functioning, or the mental abilities that allow us to learn, problem-solve, detect patterns and more. Like puzzles however, cogs and gears suggest a state of correctness to strive for. The assumption that our brains should be the same is scientifically and biologically untrue!  

One study conducted by the University of Zurich used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to map and study the brain anatomy of nearly 200 subjects. Researchers concluded that our brains are so individualistic, that an analysis of only a few anatomical measures could be used to successfully identify subjects with more than 90 percent accuracy, comparable to modern fingerprinting techniques!

The anatomy of our brains is continually carved and molded by our unique genetic and environmental influences. If our brains are anatomically distinct, how can we expect them to function the same? Don't forget about neurodiversity! Instead of gears and cogs, feature a variety of exemplars or abstract representations of "functioning" and "thinking." Consider grids, checklists, and charts to represent more systematic ways of thinking. Loops, swirls, or paint strokes could be great alternatives for more visual or abstract-thought processes.  

5. Ditch the Corporate “ladder" metaphor

This one is subtle, and its insidiousness is twofold. First, the “ladder” metaphor is ableist — some people literally can't climb! Second, “ladder” implies a correct and desirable career path with only one way there.

Career goals are highly individualistic, what one person deems successful might not be enough for another. “Ladder” also suggests that promotion is the only method of career advancement and neglects the importance and value of lateral moves and career changes.

Instead, be dynamic in your portrayals of career paths and career advancement. Show more than one path, like a map or boardgame, and show that moving upwards is not the only way to move onwards or experience success.

Honorable mentions go to other common workplace terms like: All Hands Meeting, kick off call and tone-deaf. Instead, try saying: All Company Meeting, launch call and missed the mark.


There’s no shame in our continuous-learning game! All the imagery and metaphors discussed above were accepted at one point. Updating how we visually represent certain topics is no different than updating how we think or talk about them.  

Challenge yourself to take another look at the imagery that accompanies your written message. Consider all the image elements, alternative meanings and implications so you don’t overshadow your intended message. Most importantly: ask questions and get other perspectives! If you need help rethinking your visuals, or even your communications, we're here to help.

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