How to illustrate difficult causes and subjects

Images are an important part of web (and social media) content. But for many organisations using images is problematic. There are thousands of charities who cover sensitive or difficult to illustrate causes. Many therefore don’t use images at all which makes their message hard to engage with. This post focussing on websites looks at some ways around the problem.

The purpose of images

A web page without images can feel overwhelming. Images help skim reading as they break up the text and work as shorthand to help the user make sense of what the page is about. Therefore images play an important part in boosting the usability of a page.

They also help to soften difficult subjects. Websites with no photos can feel cold and impersonal with no human connection. Using a photo in a case study or an information page about an issue or condition can help to bring the subject to life. On a donation page it makes us feel empathy. We relate to text more if we can picture the person or issue being described.

For example, here is Albert’s story from St Joseph’s Hospice, shown here with the image taken out. It has good headings and an engaging first paragraph.

Case study with no image

Here is the same story again but as it appears with an image. The image instantly connects you with Albert and the care he received at the hospice. It draws you in to the story as you can relate to him straightaway. It also brightens up the page and humanises a potentially upsetting story. It helps that it is a beautiful picture clearly showing care in the setting of the hospice.

Case study but with image

“We can’t use images”

But what if Albert’s story was so sensitive that he couldn’t be shown? Or the page was one about a medical condition or dealing with bereavement – much harder to represent? It can be tempting to just not bother because it is too difficult. A culture of “we can’t use images” can develop and become the norm without anyone challenging the fears or trying out some creative solutions. It is understandable that worries about alienating readers or lack of time, budget or skill create barriers to solving the problem.

I looked at hundreds of small charity websites while researching this post. The vast majority didn’t contain any images at all. In a competitive market, having a dense text-only website where users can click on to something more friendy within seconds, means you can’t afford to ignore images. Images perform an important function and there are creative ways around the problem.

What makes a good image?

Images can appear at lots of different sizes depending on how they are formatted and what type of device is being used to look at them. Images that work well online are therefore clear and uncluttered. They are unambiguous. They instantly tell a story and are emotional where they need to be.

It can be tempting to use a literal image; something which shows the obvious and is easy for everyone to understand. But being too literal can help to reinforce stereotypes. Time to Change’s Get the Picture campaign provided alternatives to the standard ‘headclutcher’ which they argued stigmatised mental health. To date they say that their bank of alternative images have been downloaded 17,000 times. And this blog post by Patrick Murray from NPC called Do charities need a ‘Gran test’ for fundraising argues that stereotypical images of beneficiaries used in fundraising material are doing much to reinforce negative views in order to raise funds. He cites a few examples of organisations who are consciously not using obvious images.

But even if you aren’t working to change attitudes, showing the same type of literal image over and over again can lose impact. If you are medical condition charity how many pictures of people wincing in pain can you show?

Images don’t have to be literal – the actual person going through the actual thing being discussed. They can instead create a tone by showing the context of a situation. Or they can help to reinforce your brand by showing images of the work you do and the people you help. How you do this depends on the style of image you use. Finding your own “tone of voice” for images should be part of your branding (for example Parkinson’s UK include their image style in their brand description) and your content strategy.

Remember that what works offline might be different from what works on your website or Facebook. And what works on your donation pages might be different from the images you use in your services section.

Images of people

Stories which describe the work you do can be very powerful. For many organisations there will be sensitivities around privacy. There are lots of different ways to illustrate a story if you can’t directly show the person involved.

This case study from drug and alcohol charity, Addaction tells the story of Alison, a young mother. The image preserves her anonymity as it only shows the side of her face. It could of course be a model rather than Alison but it helps us to connect with her story. It feels like an appropriate image to use.

Addaction: Case study image of woman looking towards a window. We can see her hair and cheek

Images don’t always need to show a face to give impact. Showing a personal object or situation can be just as effective. This survivor’s story from Women’s Aid uses a close-up of women’s hands holding mugs. It suggests warmth and support.

Woman's Aid: close up two women's hands around tea cups

Images of children have to be handled sensitively. If you are a children’s charity you can’t avoid the issue. Options include using images which protect anonymity, making use of very clear model release forms or good stock photography.

This page from Adoption UK about aggression in adoptive families uses a very strong image. It is quite brave but having an image of an aggressive child might help to normalise or reassure families going through the same thing. The page wouldn’t feel as supportive without it.

Adoption UK: page about aggression showing a young angry boy shouting direct to camera

Other images

Images don’t have to be photos of people. This Prisoners Abroad case study includes an image of a quote. It helps with skim reading and to highlight the important message.

Prisoners Abroad: use an image of a quote to break up the page

Images of things can also bring your work to life. These stories from Make Lunch use a thank you letter and an image of the food cooked.

Make Lunch: close-up of a thank you letter and an image of pizza

Illustrating difficult subjects

Illustrating shocking stories can be really hard – how much should or could you show? It’s always a judgement call based on the topic and the culture of your organisation. But storytelling is much more effective with images and shocking ones are sometimes needed to show the gravity of a situation. For example, the shocking image of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi in September changed many views on the refugee crisis. Read more about why images trigger empathy.

Images illustrating shocking stories don’t always have to be graphic or shocking themselves. Showing the situation can be really effective. This blog post from British Red Cross on the refugee crisis uses lots of images taken in the camps in France. This picture of a muddy toy is really powerful.

British Red Cross: blog on the refugee crisis showing a muddy teddy in a refugee camp

Simple graphics like this page from NE Child Poverty Commission can work well especially if used sparingly. (See previous blog post on illustrating data.)

NE Child Poverty: graphic showing one in five childrenin the UK live in poverty

Photos from an image library can be a life-saver when illustrating common-place but sensitive subjects. This example from a page on sex by Diabetes UK is a good example.

Diabetes UK: sex and relationships page using a stock image of a couple in bed

Using graphics, illustrations or stylised images can also be used instead of photographs. They can be a good way to illustrate a complex idea or situation. See this blog post from Mind which uses an illustration. Kelly’s story from Crisis is an example of using an illustration to tell the whole story rather than just illustrate it.

Mind blog: illustrated with a cartoon about taking compliments

Filling blank spaces

When your website has a space for a photo on every page, it can be a real challenge to fill those spaces especially on “subject” pages. In these cases it can be tempting to be literal. But images which show detail or pattern or a general mood can work well here.

For example, this navigation page about seizures and the brain page from Epilepsy Society uses a close up of brain scans. The picture doesn’t actually teach us anything but helps to lift the page which would otherwise be very functional.

Epilepsy Society: image of brain scans

Practical tips

  • Sourcing images – can you find an expert volunteer or talented member of staff to take photos of your work? If not, it is worth investing some budget into producing a portfolio of quality images you can use across your work.  Plan your shoot so you maximise the time and resources you have.
  • Model release / photo consent forms – if using images of ‘real people’ you should always get signed permission from them which specifies how and where you will use the image. Take a look at Macmillan’s photo consent form and this one from Parkinson’s UK (Word). Diabetes UK have an open form for people to share theit story.
  • Stock photos – images of ‘real people’ always feel more authentic than stock photography but for some organisations or situations stock images are a good solution. There are lots of free sources available (see below) but remember that the images you choose may be being used by other organisations to illustrate other topics.
  • Alt text – when including images you should always include alt text. Alt text is important for people who can’t see the image due to accessibility or technical reasons. See the 5 golden rules for compliant alt text (AbilityNet).
  • Manage your images – plan where you use which images. Using the same image over and over again means it will lose impact. Build a database or manage your images online (see below).

Useful links

Don’t miss the Social Media Exchange on 8 February, this practical event is a change to develop your skills. There are a few sessions on photography and images.

In summary

If you need alternatives to literal images or find it difficult to find people to represent your cause there are lots of creative ways to use images. Why not experiment with some of the following and see what works for your brand and cause:

  • close-ups of people
  • images of things or text
  • images which show the siutation
  • stock photography
  • graphics or illustrations.

Your tips and examples

Have you seen any good examples of images? Have you done creative things with images to illustrate a sensitive subject? Got tips or thoughts to share? Please join the conversation in the comments box. I’d love to hear from you.

Can I help?

I help charities and non-profits with their content. Whether you are looking for training for the team, copywriting or  input into your content strategy, please get in touch.

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8 thoughts on “How to illustrate difficult causes and subjects

  1. Thanks Madeleine – an excellent blog! It’s so easy to forget about images when discussing difficult subject, I say be bold and push the boundaries on this to make it easier for people to understand what you want to say and why you are saying it.

  2. Interesting and really comprehensive blog. Thanks Madeleine. Agree imagery is a very important part of sharing content and we all know an image supposedly speaks a thousand words!

    Something that I’ve struggled with in the past is ensuring that we steer clear of imagery that could act as a trigger for some. For example, at the moment i’m seeing a lot of pictures of alcohol (full wine glasses, shots, empty beer glasses) to illustrate articles about Dry January and it doesn’t feel quite right! It’s all about getting the balance and remaining mindful of the implications of using certain imagery whilst ensuring its eye catching and does not stifle the message.

  3. Thanks both for your comments.

    I’d not thought about how images could be triggers Beth so thanks for sharing your experience. Have you got any examples of how organisations have tried to get round this?

    Jenni – I’d love to see more organisations being bold and pushing the boundaries to change perceptions. Time to Change’s Get The Picture campaign has led the way in the mental health sector to drive change and stamp out the stereotypes. Be good to see others doing the same.

    • Thanks for sharing examples of how Parkinson’s UK creates image to solve a problem. Sounds like the organisation has real clear sense of how it uses pictures. I like that there are guidelines on images in the brand information and clear statements about being used to represent some with Parkinson’s on photo consent forms (both links above).

    • Thanks Sarah, I guess it is tempting to use those literal images because they are quick shorthand. But actually they are counterproductive when not accurate depictions or sensitive to the people needing the information they are illustrating.

      I was interested to see how organisations dealing with abortion used images. BPAS have designed their information very clearly so they don’t need photos. Their pages look uncluttered and use nice, gentle colours. The information is well organised and clear headings help skim reading. The pages have coloured circles rather than photos which soften the page.

      Do you know of others who are doing something interesting?

  4. Pingback: An apology, a declutter and some useful links | Kirsty Marrins

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