Photo versus illustrated characters

May 25, 2022

Hi everyone,

I have a question for everyone about their experience using photo or illustrated characters and graphics. My organization is at a bit of a crossroads right now where we're not sure what direction we want to take future online learning projects, in terms of the graphics. 

We've done a number of projects using Articulate's illustrated modern characters and only using Articulate's stock library of illustrations and icons. The characters and illustrations are quite limited, especially for our purposes as a health non-profit (for example, the characters, from any set, lack people aged 60+). We're willing to purchase external character sets or access to graphics databases, but more importantly we need to first determine what the appropriate look and feel for these projects will be and the merits of both approaches.

My boss and I have different views; she expressed that she prefers real life photos in online learning, like photorealistic characters and photo stock images as they add a human element that she thinks mimics in-person learning. I have expressed my concern that photorealistic characters as they can look quite corny and dated. My preference is more towards illustrative characters and vector images as these can give our work a more modern feel. I am also concerned that the photos of people may be more distracting as human faces are quite attention grabbing. 

I've tried to do research on this topic to determine the value of either photo or illustrative images, in terms of education, and I could not find anything in a google or academic database search. From what I have heard from other instructional designers, this choice usually has to do with brand preferences. While I am in the process of working with others on our team about brand preference, I wanted to open this question up to the e-learning heroes community to find out what others think about this question of photos versus illustrations. Which do you use in your projects and why? Which is more advantageous, pedagogically and graphically? 

I look forward to hearing from others.

Thank you,


6 Replies
Veronica Nalley


This is a tricky one. Your boss and you both have valid points supporting your unique preferences. If I was at a similar impasse, I think I would turn to the target audience for guidance. I'd go hunting for data on their preferences—or, better yet, solicit their feedback via poll, survey, etc.—then use that data to guide the ultimate decision. This method is supported by adult learning (andragogy) principles which hold that learners engage better when they are given a chance to participate in decision making processes. 

My two cents on the matter - I'm not wild about using characters (of any style) in my own e-learning creations, but sometimes they are a useful tool. During those "sometimes" and all else being equal, I'd probably pick modern illustrated over photographic... for similar reasons to what you explained above. 

Also, I've been in a not-too-dissimilar situation with my own boss. I let her "win" and still made a great presentation that was effective for the audience and I was proud of. 

Good luck!!

Daniel Canaveral

Hey Jessica.  My vote is for illustrated graphics due to their sheer versatility.  Can't tell you how many hours I've spent searching the web for just the right photo...only to come up short because, while the scene looks great, the model is not looking in the right direction or wearing the right type of clothing...or the model looks perfect, but the scene is not quite right.  With illustrative graphics, you have complete control over all those nuances (assuming you have access to the vector file and vector editing software).

Case in point:  I found an image of a male nurse on my favorite third-party site - - in just the right pose, but I don't like that unnaturally orange-y skin color.  With a couple of clicks in Illustrator, I can totally transform that graphic to suit my needs:

Pain BC Education

Thank you for your assistance, Veronica. Having more perspectives from others in the community helps me in this discussion moving forward. I really appreciate your insight to involve learners in the decision process. I'm not sure that's something we as an organization can do easily, but I'll bring it up in our next meeting! Thank you so much! 

Pain BC Education

Thank you so much, Daniel. I have seen Freepik's offerings before and have presented them to the team recently as a great potential source for future graphics. My weak point is that I don't have a lot of experience with Illustrator, even though I do have the program.

I was trying to import character sets into the software earlier (same file type as is in your screenshot) but when I went to export them I found that they were too blurry to use when imported to Storyline. Where and how did you learn how to use Illustrator for this purpose? Would you happen to have a tutorial that you'd recommend to get started? Thanks!

Daniel Canaveral

Hmm...may I ask what file type you are choosing when exporting?  Now that SL supports SVGs, I would highly recommend exporting content in the SVG file format to avoid blurry graphics (graphics will likely appear blurry when dropped into SL, but it looks a lot better after publishing).  As far as Illustrator tutorials go,  YouTube channels like Satori Graphics and tutvid have been extremely helpful.  For an in-depth look into Illustrator's Recolor Artwork tool, you might try watching this.


Update:  Just came across this slightly newer video that walks through the tool at a much nicer pace 🙂

Pain BC Education

Hi Daniel, I was choosing SVG file. I have done some more tinkering today and think I have found the issue. I have since been able to export higher quality SVG files. I really appreciate your sending those tutorials on, as they were quite helpful. I'm so glad this community exists.