I’ve called myself an artist for as long as I knew what the word meant, always having been drawn to experimenting with acrylic paint, pencil, and ink. As an avid reader who found inspiration from book illustrations and fantasy novel covers, I wanted to be a children’s book illustrator for a long time.
Art is a medium in which we can participate in challenging the status quo and redefining our world views. For me, inclusive art is about celebrating the many identities that have been historically under-represented and often maliciously misrepresented.
When you’re drawing or creating visual art, you have an opportunity to portray community with the concepts you’re envisioning. When people see themselves in a piece of art, whether that’s a photo, a drawing, a story, or a film – they feel a sense of connection to that work and are more engaged in the idea that’s being shared.
Art helps bridge the gap between the audience and what is being shared, advocated for, or explored. Whether you’re discussing a new piece of legislation, a First Voice story, or a new way of working – art and visual imagery is a powerful storytelling tool.
In 2019, I took part in an Introduction to Graphic Recording workshop hosted by BraveSpace, which gave me another way to bring my artistic talents to the organization and communicate through visual language.
When creating art for community impact, the need for representation is critical. When developing artwork or choosing imagery, there are several considerations. I often start planning the piece by asking the questions, “Who is asking for the art?”, “Who is the audience?”, and “What is the art trying to do and say?”
When I created the feature image for the “Failing Forward” blog written by Emma and Lydia, I had a conversation with them about the visual direction. As the authors and given what the article discussed, they wanted Black women to be celebrated and reflected in the imagery. It was incredibly rewarding to produce a piece that my colleagues were proud of and felt inspired by. Seeing the positive feedback on social media and how the image resonated with others reinforced the importance of representation.
Designing Ethically: Question the Process
Creating inclusive art is an intentional act that requires recognition of our own biases. This often means taking more time to question the metaphors and symbolism that we’re using and being critical when selecting stock imagery. Drawing this past year asking questions has taught me about things that I’ve never had to consider as a white woman. I’m grateful for the learnings from my colleagues and peers that have helped shape my process, and to Lydia for helping me formalize the ideas below. When I start designing, applying a JEDDI (Justice, Equity, Decolonization, Diversity and Inclusion) lens to visual art means asking the following:
Have we only included straight thin, white able-bodied people in the image?
If you’ve ever done a Google search or combed through stock photos using a key word, you’ve most likely seen a lot of similar, stereotypical images. Get into the habit of asking: who is missing or excluded?
The graphic for the IONS Theory of Change is my most recent project and was developed with an emphasis on community. Given the multiplicity of the sector we serve, the decision to create a shared space showing diverse people and activities felt imperative in making the document more engaging. When developing visuals, I try to be conscious of the identities that may exist outside of my own – am I including diverse races, ethnicities, genders, abilities, bodies, and ages?
Are there stereotypes being perpetuated in the metaphors or imagery?
In many stock photos I’ve seen, efforts to be inclusive often result in people being represented in stereotypical ways. This is where it’s important to be aware of our own biases and how imagery can have negative connotations.
In the first Sector Transformation article about the importance of the Community Impact Sector, we used the metaphor of “home” to reflect belonging. I drew people of various ages, physical abilities, ethnicities, and gender expressions throughout the artwork. I paid close attention to how stereotypes could be reinforced in imagery depicting housework and caregiving. I asked myself, are we placing people in roles that maintain the status quo or are we challenging worldviews?
Have we included visible diversity authentically or is it tokenized?
How are we including folks? Are we aware of how privilege and power can show up visually? When evaluating an image or art, think about who is being spotlighted, who appears to be in a position of power, and who is in the background. Was diversity an afterthought – is anyone from an underrepresented group included in a performative way to give the impression of diversity (i.e., being tokenized)?
Some questions to reflect on are: Would I want to be portrayed this way? Is this image empowering? If not, then it’s probably back to the drawing board or photo library.
Am I actively seeking and accepting feedback?
Creating art is highly personal, but collaboration and openness to feedback is how we grow. Input and feedback are crucial to my process when creating visuals for IONS. This helps challenge my confirmation bias and often leads to questions that I wouldn’t even have known to ask. That feedback can often lead to the art going in a completely different direction than planned.
For example, the original Theory of Change graphic was going to highlight key concepts through a simple drawing of a garden, which didn’t include any people or animals. Through team discussions, I realized that the original version was not going to represent the community as intended. Including people and beings would allow us to visually represent complex ideas while also incorporating our organizational values. Which is how we ended up with the dynamic and interactive Theory of Change we have now!
Art is a Learning Process
When done well and with intention, approaching visual imagery using a JEDDI lens can make people feel seen. It can elevate the reach and impact of the accompanying work.
Creating visual art for others can be a challenging process – creating art that will be out in the world as a representation of IONS adds another layer of complexity and anxiety to the process. What if I get it “wrong”?
If I get the art “wrong”, there is the potential to alienate and harm people in our community that we are seeking to work with and serve. This is why I take the time to learn and engage with multiple people. I brainstorm concepts with the team and collect feedback throughout the various stages of the process from initial sketches to final draft. This ensures that my world view isn’t the only perspective informing the direction and imagery.
And, as mistakes are inevitable, I need to be receptive to feedback and criticism. Continuously researching metaphors and symbolism to add to my own visual vocabulary and observing and analyzing media critically is important. I also try to regularly identify areas where I can step outside of my comfort zone and explore techniques around drawing diverse people authentically and respectfully.
I will say – my favourite thing about creating art is that I am always learning!
Tips for Creating More Inclusive Imagery
Whether you’re creating a custom illustration or selecting a stock image for an upcoming program, it must be a deliberate and thoughtful process. I’ve outlined a few tips that I’ve learned along the way for artists, graphic designers, marketers, and anyone who is designing visuals:
- Create a quick questionnaire for yourself to challenge your assumptions and biases throughout the process. You can include questions like the ones discussed above!
- Seek input and feedback early in the process from trusted sources whose perspectives differ from your own.
- Research metaphors and visual language to develop your visual vocabulary. This has helped me visually represent complex concepts. It’s also been key in identifying and learning about metaphors and imagery that are culturally significant or that can be harmful and insensitive.
- Know your artistic style and be okay with saying ‘no’ when your style wouldn’t be best suited for the requested art.
- And of course, have fun!
Visual art is a powerful tool for social change. It nourishes the soul, challenges us to think and see things differently, and allows us to better connect with and understand complex ideas that words often can’t express. I hope that this discussion provided questions and items to consider that help inform your process. Whether your art is a simple stick figure, a stock image, or a fully illustrated image, we have the responsibility to design ethically.
Authored by: Edited By:
Alexandra supports the internal operations of IONS including financial management, systems management, and development and implementation of policies and procedures. She also applies her artistic talent to elevate our communications.
Lydia oversees IONS’ external communications, branding, social media, and website development. She creates content and contributes to our work through championing the sector through her power in writing and storytelling.