Stock Photography and Corporate Diversity

Selecting appropriate and compelling imagery for corporate communications is tricky, especially when “appropriate and compelling” includes, among other things, the idea of representing a diversity of people.

"I'm thinking we should go a bit more blonde..."

“I’m thinking we should go a bit more blonde…”

Companies are in constant need of pictures for their ads and marketing collateral, articles, presentations, training materials, etc., and a substantial market of stock photography has grown around this need. As an instructional designer, I’m often creating or editing slide decks that are illustrated with images of people taken from stock photo websites.

One of my challenges in these situations is how to put together visually and culturally appealing materials on a tight budget and short development cycle for varied audiences… or, more accurately, for audiences that would like to see themselves as being perhaps more varied than they actually are.

This is what this blog post is all about: Achieving corporate team diversity – both real and imagined – through stock photography.

“Can you add a bit more… color… to this deck?”

For the past five years I’ve had to put together an untold number of slide decks, some of them good, some of them bad, and many of them just plain ugly. During that time I’ve often wrestled with the notion of representing racial and gender diversity in the characters presented on screen – typically stock photography models.

It’s easiest to explain this with images, so let’s do just that:

"I don't always search for 'Businessman' on Google Image Search, but when I do, I want to see a Successful Mature Business Man Smiling"

“I don’t always search for ‘Businessman’ on Google Image Search, but when I do, I want to see a Successful Mature Business Man Smiling”

The above image is the typical, “old school” photostock business guy. Let’s call him Mr. White. I will probably look something like that fellow, about 20 years from now…. okay, maybe I will bear only a slight resemblance to him…  if I’m lucky…  but the point is, the people in most companies do not look like this, at least once you leave the executive suite / boardroom.  Heck, even the boardroom ain’t that good looking, most of the time.

The thing is, most companies also do not look like this:

"Diversity check?  A-O-K!"

“Diversity check? A-O-K!”

My main problem with this image (let’s call it “Team A-O-K”) is that it’s cheesy… and preachy. True, the first image of Mr. White is unsatisfying to those of us who see the importance of communicating the value of diversity and who would like to see more of it in corporate culture… so I get why there is a market for images of Team A-O-K…  but there’s got to be a better way.

Why do we want images of diversity?

As an instructional designer, my preference is to use images that resonate for my learners. When it comes to images of “people at work,” they will identify more with people who look like themselves at work. That’s why both Mr. White and Team A-O-K don’t cut it.  In the type of work I do, the goal is for reasonably accurate portrayals of diversity, not fantasies of diversity.

A lot of folks talk the diversity talk… it’s the walking the diversity walk that trips ’em up. When I talk to clients  (usually, someone in the HR function), they often cite diversity as both an important organizational goal, as well as a personal passion. However, when they describe their desire to have fewer images of Mr. White and more of Ms. Brown in their PowerPoint decks, what I’d love to do is (perhaps gently, perhaps not so gently) remind them that more often than not their companies STILL DO look mostly like Mr. White… and here and there Ms. Petite Intelligent Blonde and/or Asian, most typically represented in entry-level-to-middle-management organizational layers, and tapering off in the mid-30s/early-40’s age bracket.

In other words, their corporate reality looks something more like this:

"As you can see, we have a very open and relaxed culture here... we don't wear ties."

“As you can see, we have a very open and relaxed culture here… we don’t wear ties.”

..and this:

"Here is my leadership succession plan.  It involves two of the people at this table."

“Here is my leadership succession plan. It involves two of the people at this table.”

Changing the stock photography without changing the cultural norms and hiring/promoting practices seems like a great way to focus one’s effort away from real change… like going to the trouble of recycling emptied glass bottles of artisanal, organic, locally-produced beer, even while upgrading electronic devices every 12 months. It might make you feel better, but you haven’t really changed the underlying behavioral patterns, you people. (“What do you mean, ‘you people?’”)  Okay, okay, I get it… okay yes, we’re not here to solve the world’s problems… okay yes, we’ve got a deadline for this deck deliverable… okay yes, we can start with the clip art.

"The other people at this company lack focus."

“I will provide greater diversity focus along the lower-left margin of your document title page.”

There… are you happy?  The guy in the picture certainly seems happy.

It’s a decent picture, actually, especially when considered within the genre of All-Purpose Corporate Photostock.  But yeah, there’s got to be a better, less heavy-handed, and more imaginative way to do this.

Meanwhile, I do feel the pain of HR. I once found myself wanting to throw up when, I was told, that if I were to create a slide deck for a certain corporate audience in another country, I could only use images of light-skinned men, so as not to break rapport with the viewers. Yuck.  In the end, I steered myself away from that part of the assignment, culturally insensitive jerk that I was. Can we agree, however, that my main concern wasn’t with their taste in stock photography?

On a much happier note, many of my current clients are truly diverse companies,  with strong diversity mandates in their recruiting and promoting processes.  Doing work for those companies is a pleasure… and a fantastic learning experience. Some of the most fascinating people with incredible personal stories show up in those organizations, and the overall effect is one of higher talent standards and outstanding performance results.

Of course, even the most demographically diverse company will struggle with a more subtle issue: diversity in thinking and approach. Many companies wrestle with psychographic, rather than demographic, homogeneity… but that will have to be the subject of different blog post.

Here’s an interesting trend that I’ve observed, though: Some of the most demographically diverse companies eschew images of people altogether, favoring photographs of objects, line drawings and iconographic images.

View from outside an office built on diversity

(Above: The only picture in this blog post which I’ve personally taken with an actual camera. I hereby grant permission to any stock photo site, editor, art director or graphic designer to tell their photographers to go out into the field and take more pictures like this one. Not that it’s fantastic. But at least it’s not totally dull and vapid.)

This is probably mostly a stylistic and pragmatic preference on the part of those companies – their PowerPoint decks and printed materials have a (slightly) longer shelf life across wider geographies if they don’t feature images of people with particular fashion of dress. However, there’s also message here about the value of practicing vs. preaching.  “We have achieved diversity in our ranks of real people,” they are saying, “We don’t need no stinkin’ stock photography models to make us feel better.”

What’s a More Realistic Picture?

Okay, so you want to know what diversity really looks like in companies, albeit within a stock photo-quality model universe?

It looks like this:

Three Women in Rapport

And this:


And this:

Laptop Staredown

And this:


And this:

Tech Guys

It’s all those images and more, strung across a much longer and varied presentation. Diversity is not a snapshot Kumbaya moment. Diversity in real life is not some statistically-calibrated melting pot moment where each ethnic group is included in a carefully balanced numbers, looking up into the camera with a smile.  Reality is messy… and clumpy. Diversity in real life involves concentrated pockets of specific cultures and sub-cultures, existing both separately and together with each other.

In other words, diversity takes a bit of work and doesn’t come in plastic-wrapped, single-serve images.

Lean In a Bit More Towards the Camera…

Meanwhile, Sheryl Sandberg’s organization, Lean In, recently threw its hat into the ring by partnering with Getty Images to publicize the “Lean In Collection,” a thoughtful initiative by Pam Grossman that features a very wide assortment of images of women… and also men in nurturing family roles.  Yeah, going through that collection I see a bit of the preachy, contrived  Team A-O-K thing happening, albeit with a contemporary hipster twist. Overall though, there is plenty of usable and compelling visual material.


In terms of the social importance of this initiative, I disagree with the notion that stock photography choices will create the conditions for the advancement of women in the workplace. Frankly, I see it happening the other way around. Scruffy dads wearing baby bjorns preceded the demand for stock photo models pretending to be scruffy dads wearing baby bjorns. Same goes with the models pretending to be flannel-and-jeans-clad motorcycle repair shop female mechanics (femmechanics?), server room techniciennes, the Chairwoman of the Board, etc. etc.. No doubt there are some feedback loops between cultural norms and cultural representations, but in the case of corporate clip art… um, no.  Horse goes first, cart comes second, otherwise it just looks like desperate wishful thinking.

Sheryl quips, “If they can’t see it, they can’t be it.”  Yes, that’s a rhyming slogan Sheryl, but no, that’s not true. We can be what we can’t see.  We always have, and we always will. Quip pro quo.

That said, I empathize with the sentiments being expressed – at least on the surface –  by this project.  I also see it as blow-over from the ongoing concern about advertising images which portray and promote an unobtainable physical ideal for women, and increasingly, for men too.

Rich, Pretty, Skinny, Smart: Choose any four of those

There‘s a whole other conversation to be had here, which is about beauty:  Stock photography models are just that – models. They tend not to display any major imperfections in their skin or facial symmetry, tend to have a slender body shape, and so on. As with the Mr. White phenomenon, from time to time I do notice that some companies, even while diverse in demographic terms, seem to have an abundance of stock-photo-model-quality employees.  Walking the halls of those companies reminds me of the movie Gattaca, where in a genetically-screened future, the protagonist (Vince Freeman) an “imperfect” guy with glasses decides to break through the “In Valid” category that he has been placed into. Through a supreme effort, he impersonates and ultimately outperforms his “perfect specimen” peers.  Although I saw the movie over a decade ago, I still think about it often.

Gattaca Treadmill Scene, aka, What the Gym Looks Like When I'm Business Travelling

Gattaca Treadmill Scene, aka, What the Gym Looks Like When I’m Business Travelling

As for the Getty Lean In Collection, I do wonder if there’s a simpler commercial agenda at work, i.e. Getty Images is catching on that people are tired of the same cheesy, overused stock images and, unable to accurately gauge the level of offline image usage, they are seeking a new mix of products and customers through a publicity-generating  alliance. The backlash to their hashtag is telling. Lean In & Getty are sufficiently sophisticated and resourced to produce a revenue-sharing system for submitted stock photography… but they chose not to.  Saying that “a portion of the proceeds go to grants for somethingsomething” doesn’t cut it.  Asking for free pics of chicks ain’t exactly “empowering.”

Meanwhile, in reading about the Getty Lean In Collection, I started thinking about who really decides which images of women and men represent what is ‘normal’ or ‘desirable’ — the mere presence of ’empowering’ stock photography doesn’t mean it will get used… people (mainly, advertising art directors) have to want to use the images.

Real People, Unreal Photos

I looked at some other sites and photo collections that have been addressing some of these issues for many years.  For the portrayal of women as powerful/accomplished performers, there are a number of  niche collections that seek to provide visual aid. One of these is women-owned which features images like this one:

Shestock - SKO000007

On the issue of too-many-pretty-people in stock photography there is out of Hamburg, with stuff like this:

Plain Picture

In addition to real-looking, non-airbrushed Euro-people, they’ve got nice collection of artistically inspired photography and interesting compositions. If as a designer you’re looking to stand out from the crowd of same-old-same-old stock photography… or if you simply want your stock photography models to be something other than idealized Ken and Barbie dolls (if you can handle it… be honest… can you..? Ken and Barbie are so pretty, and they’re also available in an assortment of trendy skin tones…), take a look at the PlainPicture collection.

Ultimately, we know that people enjoy looking at beautiful images, including images of beautiful people smiling back at them.  For that reason alone, I don’t expect stock photography models to ever go away completely… notwithstanding some my clients who currently insist on a diagrams-and-objects-only approach to their PowerPoint deck imagery. Also, we know that the idea of “beauty” will continue to evolve and diversify, as it always has. For the sake of building more enjoyable, meaningful and high performing corporate cultures, we can only hope that this evolution and diversification continues to happen in the real world, too.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on March 20, 2014, in Communication Skills, Information Design, Instructional Design, Learning, Marketing, photography, Talent and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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