on design and DEI: the need for diverse brand imagery

By: Amador AJ” Jaojoco, digital senior art director

Many jobs ago as a junior designer, I was assigned to curate images of healthcare providers for a sales brochure. The direction? They should feel real. To me, real meant a diverse group of professionals with a range in race, gender, skin tone and age. I spent hours on multiple stock image sites building that library only to receive feedback on my PDF of images with a red X’ over every clinician of color. Why?

The client didn’t feel the people we chose looked professional enough to be in a hospital.”

It hurt to hear that client feedback not just as a new designer but as a Filipino-American as well. Thankfully in contrast to my past experiences, I now find more clients are requesting increased diverse racial and gender representation in their brand imagery. This progress is welcome, though the search for authentic representation today presents a unique challenge for designers. 

When stock is stuck in time

Sourcing stock photography with a focus on diverse representation can be a challenge because algorithmization of racism and sexism in digital image databases still exists today. I anticipate the desire to incorporate DEI into branding is only going to increase — as it should. So how can designers navigate stock libraries that are still behind to deliver authentic, diverse image libraries? Here’s what I’ve learned.

Search with specificity

To avoid stereotyped image results, ensure your search input sets you up for success by defining your desired criteria.

• Adjust keywords to add nuance. Knowing the process photographers use to write keywords can also inform how you direct your search. 

• Enrich your descriptions. A search doesn’t just have to describe physical characteristics; consider emotions, style, and community.

• Consider options beyond preconceived boundaries. For example, an image of a parent doesn’t always have to have a child present.

Edit Existing Imagery Responsibly

Stock images offer a finite amount of options no matter what your search terms may be.
With the right art direction and resourcefulness, a designer can create a unique image by combining elements of multiple stock images.

• Think critically and ask inclusivity questions. If you go down the image manipulation route, ensure what you create is both sensitive and accurate.

• Details matter. For example, knowing the difference between hospital wheelchairs vs. active ones made for independent wheelchair users can support better representation and avoid harmful or dehumanizing portrayals.

• Make no assumptions. It is extraordinarily difficult to best represent a community unless you are part of that marginalized group. So when it comes to seeking feedback, Nothing about us without us” is the ideal.

Set up a photoshoot

Designers may be limited to stock photography due to budget. However, when possible consider setting a custom photoshoot. Here’s why:

• There are limitations in quality and representative imagery from stock libraries. It’s possible that the same models will be used in a competing brand’s imagery.

• You can create a fully ownable brand. Custom photography will achieve both authentic representation and maximize your ability to tailor imagery to the brand.

• You will be supporting other creatives. Not only can you hire talent from diverse backgrounds, you can collaborate with diverse photographers, hair stylists, makeup artists, and production assistants as well.

Start — and continue — the conversation

There may be little you feel you can contribute to change image library algorithms, but it’s possible to progress towards equity in other ways.

• Educate yourself and listen to underrepresented voices. While many marginalized groups have limited representation in mainstream stock imagery, there are community-led efforts bridging this gap that you can support.

• Engage in discussions with colleagues. This can help ensure others in the industry are well-informed and help make diverse representation a priority.

• Advocate for change. If you feel imagery or imagery direction is misrepresentative, performative or harmful, and if it is safe to do so, advocate for or find support to address these concerns.

Enhancing the inclusivity and diversity of your imagery

With an increase in companies creating DEI initiatives, priorities are shifting towards diverse representation in brand imagery both internally and externally. I believe it is our collective responsibility as designers, creatives, and decision makers to represent diversity authentically — not just in spite of limitations, but because of limitations. 

As Audacity CEO Jill Collins has said in regards to DEI, “…it is the genuine drive and belief in these efforts that will ultimately lead to success.” That success is not just in building a strong brand. It is also in actively challenging the status quo, so that we may progress towards a truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive advertising ecosystem.

About the Author

AJ is a Filipino-American Senior Art Director/​Digital at Audacity Health. In addition to creating compelling digital experiences, he is the president of Audacity’s DEI committee. AJ is passionate about helping clients incorporate authentic, diverse representation to advertising and brand storytelling.

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