Clip Art/Illustrations Versus Photographs

Mar 11, 2014

Hi All --

Does anyone have any research on the effectiveness of using clip art/illustrations versus photographs in elearning? I’ve done some poking around on the web and can’t find anything that specifically addresses this question.

Thanks in advance for your help! 

19 Replies
Bob S

Hi Pam,

I have not seen any hard research, but perhaps one of the heroes here can point you towards something. That being said, there are other factors to consider when making the choice between illustrations and photographs...

  • Flexibility - It is usually simplter to find / create an illustration that suits your purposes exactly than it is to find the perfect photograph. This is especially true when you are trying to represent concepts (think "loyalty" for example)
  • Creativiity/Consistency - It''s easier to modify an illustration to change backgrounds, colors etc to suit your needs than it is to try and recompose photographs. On a similar note, it's fairly easy to modify disparate illustrations to have a similar look/theme to create consistency in your course. That's extremely hard to do with photographs and you often wind up with several different styles of shots and color variations.
  • Aesthetics - Some business leaders feel that photographs look more polished/professional. Interestingly, and it's probably just pure coincedence,  the strongest reactions I've had against using illustrations in e-learning happen to have come from a variety of women business leaders who saw them as "clip art trash" or "cartoons".

Not sure if any of the above helps inform your decision, but hopefully some value for you.

Also... A while back there was a discussion here based on opinion / anecdote that asserted that learners tended to "look past" the particulars of the illustration more and focus on it's meaning. Whereas with photographs they focused on the visual details itself more and less on the message. I don't remember anything research-based in that discussion.  But perhaps that too might help your decision.

Good luck!

Rebekah Massmann

We did some research internally before launching a course, and our particular learners wanted either to see real people who worked for our company (real employees) or they preferred the characters. We don't have the resources to create our own photographic images, so we went with the characters, and most people have liked them. At my old company we had a small studio and took some photographic images of real employees on a green screen for a couple of courses. It's very time intensive!

Mike Taylor

There are a few references in some of Ruth Clark's work including her book "Elearning & the Science of Instruction"  that are pretty interesting. In addition the questions of time, expense, flexibility etc she also talks about the features of a graphic that can influence learning. 

Here's a bit about it :

"Clark explains that graphics contain two types of features, surface and functional. She notes that it does not come as a surprise that graphical features themselves can influence learning effectiveness. What is surprising is that it is not the surface features, which are typically associated with graphics that make the difference. Surface features describe the graphic. Is it a line art, or a photograph? But surface features alone do not determine the effectiveness of a graphic. Rather, it is its functionality that determines its impact on learning " (Clark, August 2003).

Often it is a judgement call based on your resources, etc. but I'm always fascinated to read the research too.

Pam Robbins

Thanks for your suggestions, everyone! They're very helpful.

I tend to lean more towards using photographs, as I generally think they look more "professional," but now I'm reconsidering my practice. You all make some really good points in favor of using illustrations. And I love your point, Mike, that functionality is what's most important!

As you can see by the number of posts I have, I'm new to the forum, and I'm impressed with the speed and quality of the responses I've received so far. Thanks for a great intro experience! Hopefully, I'll be able to return the favor at some point! 

Karen Marsh

I have a client asking for research-based evidence that cartoon characters are just as effective as photographs, particularly for Millennial audiences.  I know I've seen a few articles about that, and am continuing to look, but haven't found much (other than Ruth Clark) so far.  Does anyone have a source?

On a second note, same client wants evidence-based research that shows it's beneficial to use appropriate humor & storytelling in eLearning to increase engagement & diffuse controversial topics.   Another thing I know I've seen articles on, but can't find the source.  Anyone?

Many thanks!


I don't know of any research, but I agree their are some great points in this thread. My gut feeling is that in some cases, photos have more impact while in others, a graphic is better.

If I see a photograph of a car, I relate to it more than I do a drawing of a car. It is more real to me. This lets me tie new information to the existing knowledge that I have about automobiles.

But to Jerson's point, sometimes that level of reality can also lead to distractions &/or judgements being made by the learner. I might be distracted by the fact that the car looks much better than anything I could ever afford. Or get lost thinking about the fact that the model shown was just recalled due to a major airbag failure. Of course, that would be great if the course were on automobile safety!

The point is, you use whatever image (photo or graphic) that is going to best communicate your message with as little noise or distraction as possible. I truly believe that you have to take this on a case by case basis with input from several other people from your target audience. Test and gauge their reactions to both the photographic and graphic images and then go with their feedback.

Karen Marsh

I agree, Owen, and there IS evidence-based research showing that appropriate images work better because humans are visual, and that distractions need to be minimized. Ruth Clark and others have done some excellent work in that area, but it's not quite what I'm looking for so I'm looking for other sources.

It's really kind of funny - 12 years ago when I was working on my M.Ed. in Training & Development, I was asked to justify my views & found myself struck by how little ACTUAL evidence-based, scientifically validated research there actually was on adult education, specifically related to eLearning. Understandable then - considering that eLearning was in its infancy then, but things have changed a lot in 12 years - and I would really have expected our field to be a bit more proactive in the research arena.  I see a lot of opinion pieces, case studies, and white papers, but very little ACTUAL research - am hoping I'm just missing something, and it's out there somewhere.  If I can't, I will be forced to allow them to torture their employees to a slow death by dogmatic, old-school eLearning!  :-)

Jerson  Campos

Just to share a recent experience, we had a client review several courses where we used photographed characters.  Most of the feedback that came back involved how the characters look, from a character being too happy looking, being dressed too formal, being too pretty, and not looking like the right shade for a certain ethnicity. And these characters were pulled from a stock image website so it was a nightmare to look for images with either the same characters and different expressions in the same or similar pose, to new characters that would fit. I had to do some creative photoshoping on some of the images we did find.

IMHO, i don't think we would have received the same problems if we used illustrated characters.  So from a developers standpoint, I find using illustrated is much easier. This may be because I can draw my own characters in different styles so I may be a little biased.

But from the ID perspective, it really depends on the culture and message of the course on what you use. 

From a users POV, I've never really focused on what was used as long as the image conveyed the same message that was being stated. The only time I really focused on the character was when a really cheezy piece of clipart was used. Then I do the eye roll and just click next. 

Karen Marsh

Agree, Jerson - avoiding the cheesy clip art is critical. 

Unfortunately, culture IS the issue; the audience is multinational & all cultures have different perspectives on what is & isn't attractive or appropriate.  For example, both the drawn and photography characters from Storyline and other sites like iStockPhoto and eLearning Art were deemed "too American looking" and might be seen as offensive. 

After explaining that the characters we recommended represented various cultures and being told they were still inappropriate, we tried switching to non-human characters which were more generic & could not possibly show any specific nationality, ethnicity or race.  To that, we added a humorous back-story, however were told that was  "juvenile & inappropriate for corporate training."

While I know intuitively that cartoons, stories, comic books, humor & scenarios work (I've been doing this for a long time), in order to make my point, I need to see a scientist's opinion and a few validated research studies!

Jerson  Campos

@ Karen,

Well would it really matter what the research says? If it said that amorphous colored blobs with eyes had the highest results for effective eLearning, would it be enough persuade a "corporate" culture to use them?  

When deciding to use photographic characters or illustrated, I go back and take a good look at the script for the course and ask myself several questions. What is the tone of the course, what is the culture of the client, who is the audience. I also pre-visualize the script. Will i be able to find the appropriate photographic characters for the course in the correct poses? How demanding is the script for characters? Does the client want to pay for a custom photography session if it demands specific poses or actions? If I can get away with using a few poses for a photographic character because it really doesn't matter what they look like/wear/ or are doing, then I'll use them. But if it really does matter because it helps with the message of the course/slide then I will push for custom photography or illustrated characters. 

So either way, illustrated or photographic, the main question is "Can it help me achieve the results I want". 

Karen Marsh

Short answer: Yes, research matters to this client.   To me?  Not that much - I agree; results are what matters, but I'm not the check-signer; I'm the consultant they hired because I have the experience and expertise they need.

Your method / system for designing the learning interaction, graphics & storyboard is perfectly appropriate, and similar to what I and most other ID professionals use, however the issue here is not whether the client wants photographic or cartoon characters or what poses they're in; the issue is that they want evidence-based research proof that cartoon characters are appropriate at all, and if so, why. It might sound like a no-brainer to you and I, but it's not to everyone. 

Like it or not, that's the reality we deal with in this profession sometimes, and as educators and professionals as well as practitioners, it is our responsibility to do the best we can to promote the field and provide a scientific basis for the work we do. 


Brent deMoville

I think both photographs and illustration have their place.  Corporate clients tend to prefer photographs but they are more quickly dated than illustration.  Learners are less likely to identify with the photographs since the style of dress or attractiveness of the model does not match their specific experience.  Illustrations or simple drawings with less specific characteristics are easier to identify with and translate better across regions.

The initial references I found were focused either on children or in health settings but they clearly show that imagery is better received than text alone and depending on the setting and purpose, illustrations work better than photographs.

Here are some references:

Children and young adults 1979


Written health material

The role of pictures in improving health communication: A review of
research on attention, comprehension, recall, and adherence (2005)

"Moll [26] investigated the effects of different kinds of
pictures on comprehension of health information with 637
subjects. He compared different ways of illustrating a
booklet on osteoarthritis and reported that the version with
cartoon drawings had the highest comprehension scores
followed by the one that used ‘‘matchstick’’ drawings, and,
finally by the version that used photographs. Readance and
Moore [27], in a review of education research on the effect
of adjunct pictures on reading comprehension, concluded
that ‘‘line drawings seem to facilitate comprehension more
than do shaded drawings or photographs and color
photographs seem to have a greater effect than black
and white pictures.’’
Both papers suggest that simple drawings are most
effective in facilitating comprehension. The advantage of
simple drawings over more complex pictures may be due to
their minimizing distracting details. Research has shown
that people with low reading skills are more likely to attend
to irrelevant details in illustrations than are people with
higher reading skills."