When it comes to the people in your PowerPoint or eLearning programs, do looks matter?

Over the weekend, I found myself chatting about visual imagery with a co-worker as we zoomed in and out of traffic on our way to the Pune (India) airport. She recently joined my organization after working in marketing and communications with GE for several years.

We began to talk about marketing materials, then we began to talk about the sorts of visual images that I’ve inserted into PowerPoint slides and even elearning presentations. We debated whether the content of the presentation or the visual representation of the material was more important.

Almost as if on cue, I noticed this card sitting on the reception desk when I walked into my hotel in Delhi:


My immediate reaction was: I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone working in this hotel who looks like anyone on this card.

I really do think that looks matter. What to do about it, however, can be a more complicated question.

In an ideal world, I think that the images of people in all learning materials (PowerPoint slides, elearning modules, handouts, etc) would resemble the audience as closely as possible. Of course, we don’t live in an ideal world. What do we do when we need to scale our learning initiatives across regions and various cultures and ethnicities?

The card in the hotel lobby (above) seems to be tasked with just that challenge. It appears the Hilton marketing team decided to try to get as many different faces as possible onto the card.

I asked my marketing and communications colleague this question and she said that sometimes it’s better not to have actual photos. Using text or other styles of visual assets (like line drawings) is sometimes a better option. This was comforting to hear as one of my go-to characters when I use PowToon is this guy:

PowToon Guy

My colleague also conceded that often times people in the developing world are simply more accustomed to seeing white people in marketing materials (and I assume by extension, training materials) simply because of the pervasive reach of Hollywood.

There’s certainly room for debate about whether the quality of the presentation (whether in-person with PowerPoint or self-guided through elearning) is more important than the visual images used to represent people. Yes, the quality of the presentation, the level of engagement, the accuracy of the content are all critical to learning. At the same time, I don’t think it completely lets training designers off the hook.

As I said, looks matter. I think it’s the responsibility of every training designer to make the material – including the visual imagery used – as relateable as possible to the target audience.

What do you think? Do looks really matter that much? Sound off in the comment section.

3 thoughts on “When it comes to the people in your PowerPoint or eLearning programs, do looks matter?

  1. I was just having a similar conversation today too. It really does matter what it looks like. As for photos vs drawings, I think the answer is, “It depends”. There are situations where including less detail is actually a better approach for learning. Too much detail and not knowing what to focus on can hurt learning. Other times the details are important. In general, it seems to me that people could get away with a lot less detail than they think.

  2. My understanding is that for people who do not speak English as their native language, photographs are much better for vocabulary acquisition and comprehension. Using a photo that exactly represents the concept aids learning and retention. Sometimes the brain has to work harder to figure out a line drawing or vector art and slows retention.

    • That’s interesting. I know there’s research about font types and when people use fonts that are a little harder to read it forces the brain to slow down and process things a bit more which actually aids retention. Not sure if that is transferable to photos vs line drawings. Maybe we can commission a study on visual images???

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