A drawing of a woman holding an umbrella looks at a photo of a computer displaying an e-learning course on storm safety.

When you see illustrations and photos mixed together beautifully in a single design, the end result can seem effortless. And it’s hard not to be excited about how much easier your search for images gets when you can pick from both image types. But when you’re new to it, it’s not uncommon to feel a bit stumped on how to bring these very different styles together in a way that looks polished. If you don’t have the right strategy, your final design can look mismatched and cobbled together.

Does that mean you need years of graphic design experience to get this combination to work? Not necessarily! It’s just a matter of knowing which approaches are more likely to look nice together.

Let’s check out a few creative ideas for mixing illustrations and photos in your e-learning courses. 

Choose one style for the background and another for the foreground 

You’ve likely seen this technique used a lot in e-learning courses. And it’s not hard to understand why.

Landscape photos or images from different locations are easy to find in Content Library 360 or on stock photo sites. And if you can’t find one you like, you can always use a photo you’ve taken yourself. Either way, using photos as a backdrop and adding illustrated characters at the forefront can make for a really unique design. 

The Mori’s Journey interaction by Samara Reyneke highlights one of the most important things that makes this combination work seamlessly: consistency! The backgrounds are all photos. The characters and items in the foreground are all illustrations. Not only that, the illustration styles are all similar. Consistency throughout the entire project helps this look like a purposeful design choice, instead of just a bunch of random image styles.


The introduction screen for the Mori


You can also do the opposite and use illustrations in the background and images in the foreground. Molly Fisher’s Grammar Practice Fill-in-the-Blank example uses the charming combination of an illustrated TV with real video programming.


An illustration of a tv with a video of real car racing displayed on it.

Use image filters to make everything look like an illustration

The challenge of mixing photos and illustrations mostly comes down to how different they look. But what if there was a way to make them work together? That’s completely possible with the help of the photo filters in stand-alone filter apps or photo-editing software. These filters make changes to the look and feel of your images, like simplifying the colors or adding outlines. And because those changes are applied consistently to your photos and illustrations, it helps them look like they belong together.

A good example of how this can work is Tracy Carroll’s project Jonathan’s Story. In it, she used a tool called Colorcinch to make her images look like hand-drawn comic book frames. While this project just used photos, you still get a sense of how you could take this same technique and mix different image types for a cohesive look.

A slide from the e-learning course Jonathan

Use illustrations that look realistic

There are many different styles of illustrations. They can range from simple and sketchy all the way to looking like actual photos. And it’s those photo-realistic illustrations that help you with this approach. Combining realistic illustrations with a photo background helps make your course design look seamless.  

A cool example of this is Sarah Hodge’s How to Fight a Bear course. She used 3D models of bears instead of photos, allowing her to create an interaction where learners can rotate them to show their identifying features. But because those models were designed to look realistic, they blend in smoothly with the photo background.


A scene from the e-learning course How to Fight a Bear. Two bears are shown in profile. The bears are illustrations and the background is a photo of a forest.

Use illustrations as annotations or accents

Have you ever watched sports commentators draw on a still shot from a game to explain a play? Well, that approach can also work in e-learning! Your photo becomes your base image, and then you use illustrations to provide additional information.

You can see how useful this approach can be in this x-ray example by Preethi Ravisankar. Helpful illustrations displayed on top of the photo give you a peek at the inner workings of a person’s skeleton. Because of the way it’s designed, the illustrations work with the photos and don’t seem out of place. 


A slide from an e-learning course. In it there 

You may have also seen advertisements, websites, or book covers that use a combination of photos with doodle-like illustrations. This technique has become more popular in recent years and can give your project a friendly, mixed-media feel. You can see it at work in this interaction example by Samuel Apata, where a hand-drawn sketchnote weaves in a photo character who seems like they’re pondering the topics.

A scene from an e-learning course on leadership development. In the center is a photo of a woman facing away from the camera. Around her are simple line drawings and hand written titles of ten different leadership topics.

Learn More

While these approaches are a good place to start when you want to blend photos and illustrations, they’re not the only way to use the two styles harmoniously. So, keep an eye out for other designs that do this effectively and let them inspire your course designs.

Want more ideas on how you can use images in your courses? Check out these resources.

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