Use Those Powers for Good: Design with Diversity

In today’s society, graphic design is everywhere in our daily lives — packaging, advertisements, magazines, websites, signage, apps on your phone — EVERYWHERE. For example, go to a coffee shop and graphic design is responsible for the logo on the door, the look of the menu, store signage and even your coffee cup. And all of that design — print, digital, environmental — has the extraordinary power to lead and shape the visual language of our culture.

As Stan Lee taught us, “With great power, there must also come great responsibility.”

Our society is ever changing in demographics and ideas — it is important to reflect this diversity in design. And if your client is an organization that wants to advocate for social change and betterment, you are particularly obligated to show inclusiveness in all visual communications you create.

Contrary to popular belief, achieving this is not always as easy as using photos that depict people of all races, ethnicities, gender, age, etc. This is why I personally love graphic design — there isn’t one quick, easy or universal answer. Instead, it’s like a puzzle: You must discover and explore alternate solutions in order to achieve an effective and visually pleasing design/product. And no matter the challenge, every project begins with a choice — take a photographic approach, or one based in illustration.


In a perfect world, all of our clients would have the budget for a photoshoot of people that actually use and benefit from their services. But, alas, the world isn’t perfect and there is typically not enough money for such luxury when designing for nonprofits. So, oftentimes, we must make stock (specifically, royalty-free) photography work. I say “make it work” because sometimes it’s quite the challenge to find that perfect photo in a royalty-free photo database — that photo that portrays the who, what and where of the target audience you’re trying to reach. The majority of stock photography lacks diversity, and can tend to show out-of-date or biased stereotypes. But it is the duty of a designer to challenge and prevent incorrect stereotypes. Show patience and do your research to achieve this. For example, designing informational materials for an organization centered around families? You’ll see way too many photos like this come up in that vague “family, home” search:

Family Stock Photo

Is this your target audience? Doubtful. Try adding more specific keywords to your search to zero in on what you’re looking for, such as “family, home, single, father, Hispanic”:

Family Stock Photo

Fortunately, new royalty-free photo sites are emerging to meet the need for more diverse photography. Though they are newer and still building their libraries, more diverse resources are emerging like GetColorStock, WOCinTech, InMagine, Blend and CreateHerStock.


Nine times out of ten, I find the best way to work with a limited photo library is to use abstraction or symbolism. This will reach a broader audience, and is less likely to alienate or stereotype any one demographic.

In photography, this can be done by taking a more “macro” approach:

  • Picture a setting/location (example: an organization focused on DC communities could use photos of neighborhoods/buildings in the city).
  • Use creative photo cropping and angles to capture a concept rather than a specific subject (example: a zoomed in shot of a baby’s feet).
  • Use black and white images rather than color, or a mix of the two, to create drama (example: using black and white to convey something of the past, and color to represent new/change).

Illustrations can also be used to represent or symbolize something. The reason infographics are so successful and used today is that they focus on subject matter, rather than a specific demographic. Using illustrated symbols, objects or abstract figures to represent specific points would be more appropriate than a photograph for reaching a more general, broader audience.

Now go use those design powers for good and help shape change!