I’ve been seeing a lot of debate lately in various online forums and discussion groups about the merits of using photographs vs illustrations for presenting characters in elearning courses. Some people say illustrated characters are cheesy while others talk about how difficult it is to find useful photos.
To be honest I don’t believe one is better than the other – both have a place in our elearning courses. The trick is knowing when and how to use each type to its best advantage. We’ve done projects using illustrated characters and photographs so thought I’d share with you how we go about deciding which type to use.
The first thing we do before starting any design work is determine the tone of the course – formal, informal, intimate, sarcastic, solemn, somber, playful, serious or whatever (I particularly like whatever).
Some tones lend themselves nicely to the use of photos while others are great for illustrations.
Photographs work well when the tone is formal, serious or somber. In this project, we use a serious tone to depict problem gambling and the stock photos work perfectly to visually depict the tone.
Illustrations, on the other hand, are great when using informal, playful or sarcastic tones. This is not set in stone, however, because photos can be fun and illustrations can be somber and serious – it’s just a guideline that we use to get us started. Sometimes the most engaging courses flip conventions on their head.
Now here is something to consider just to add a bit of confusion to the mix – just because a topic might be serious or formal doesn’t mean you have to present it using a serious or formal tone.
Here is an example we did recently using one of our illustrated characters (now available through our online store). In this case, our client wanted us to take a creative approach to present some dry management training (I won’t bother you with the details).
We presented the instruction as a game show and the illustrations where perfect for conveying the information in a fun and informal way.
Another thing we take into consideration before making our choice is how we plan to use the characters in our course. Do we just need a single shot of a person to convey a concept or do we plan to use the character in a story or scenario that will require multiple poses and expressions?
We often build our courses around a central story or narrative in which a character or set of characters appear in different situations throughout the course. When incorporating a narrative or storyline into our courses, we often use illustrations instead of photos because they provide more flexibility in how we present our characters. We can position them any way we want, animate them to make it look like they are responding to on screen evens or decisions made by the learner. We can even simulate it to make it look like they are talking.
The style (overall look and feel) of the course also plays a role in whether we use photos or illustrations. When it comes to style, there are two things that we take into consideration. First, we want to make sure that whatever images we use have a cohesive look and feel so that we don’t end up creating something that looks like it has been cobbled together like some kind of weird patchwork quilt. Second, the style of images (whether photographs or illustrations) has to support the language and tone of any narration, text or any other elements on the screen.
One drawback when using photographs over illustrations is that it is often hard to find photos that have a consistent style. They may use different lighting techniques, have different backgrounds, be shot at different distances and different angles. Illustrations can also be problematic especially when relying on free images or clip art, but if you are lucky enough to have access to a good illustrator the sky is really the limit. I know what you’re thinking – ya if only we had an illustrator. If you can, I’d suggest hiring a freelance illustrator – there is plenty of talent out there for hire. If this is not an option, more and more elearning companies (including Pinched Head) are starting to make available royalty free collections of characters designed for use in online training courses. We offer a set of illustrated characters we are calling Presenter People (www.presenterpeople.com) that come in multiple poses and with a wide range of facial expressions. Other organizations such as eLearning Art and elearning brothers also offer character packages.