Visual Communications Best Practices

The university serves and is made up of a diverse population, and this should be reflected in our communications. It is important to find and share content about people with diverse perspectives and backgrounds to tell our complete story.

The imagery we use—in all communications—has the power to shape perceptions in positive and negative ways, so it should be chosen thoughtfully and used in proper context. Images that are viewed as inauthentic, that lack diversity, or that are used out of context can imply that underrepresented populations are not valued by our institution. The goal is to celebrate our community and connect with audiences—external and internal—with integrity and authenticity, while being sensitive to differences in culture, race, ethnicity, gender, age and ability, among others.

Keep the following concepts in mind while choosing imagery:

1. Avoid homogeneity.

Does everyone in every photo in a publication look the same when there is an opportunity to feature more diversity of race and ethnicity, physical ability, age and gender identity? Across a suite of materials, photos should be representative of UB’s diversity. (Current campus demographics are available online.*) This is not to say that every image must show a range of various faces. A sense of inclusion and belonging can also come from showing groups—a group of Black students, a group of women researchers or other affinity group—provided it is an authentic depiction. Showing images of marginalized groups can help combat stereotypes and reverse long-standing representational disparities.

*These metrics may be incomplete in some areas, such as non-binary gender identification.

2. Be inclusive without overselling.

While diverse and inclusive photography can communicate that all are welcome, over-representation can be problematic when you’re showcasing a level of diversity that doesn’t exist. Significant overuse of underrepresented students, staff or faculty can result in the loss of credibility within the campus community and with prospective students who visit campus. Be conscious about selecting images that are generally representative of the current makeup of the faculty, staff and student mix in your area.

In cases where diversity is not yet a reality within the unit or department, other visual options can help to bridge the gap, such as detail shots or illustration. Additionally—in the interest of transparency— consider acknowledging where diversity may be lacking and include content on any efforts being made within your organization to increase DEI in the hiring and recruiting processes. Build programs that will attract a broader demographic for your unit.

3. Be ethical in your storytelling.

Show respect to those who have been photographed by using their images in proper context. For example, photos of students and faculty should not be used to promote programs that they are not a part of. Be mindful that people from historically marginalized groups should be featured for their accomplishments—not just for their diversity. When possible, consider naming or giving first-person voice to the individuals in the photos and allow them to tell their own stories.

4. Don’t tokenize through overuse.

Publications and webpages should be reviewed and updated regularly to remain current and to avoid overuse of the same images of the same people. UB’s photo database can be sorted by “most recent” to display the newest images available. If you need help finding images or are in need of new photography within a specific area, contact University Communications for assistance.

5. Search the UB photo database.

University Communications maintains a vast photo library, which is available to all UB faculty, staff and students. When searching for images, do not rely on keywords for diversity; instead search the appropriate content and use a critical eye to find what you’re looking for. Look for diversity beyond skin color and gender. Audiences pick up on the subtleties in a photo, for example, a pride sticker on a laptop, or a sign language interpreter in an event photo. If you need help finding images or are in need of new photography within a specific area, contact University Communications for assistance.

6. Choose commercial stock photography wisely.

Commercial stock photography should be used with sensitivity, as it can read as inauthentic, and often depicts gender, racial and other stereotypes. When you need to go beyond the photo database, look for realistic images that feature people of different backgrounds and abilities. Consider purchasing from a minority-owned stock image company. For a list of stock resources devoted specifically to diverse and authentic representation, visit UB’s Resources for Diverse Stock Images and Illustrations.

7. Avoid unintentional visual communication.

When selecting photos, be aware of what the images may be inadvertently communicating. For example, images used to talk about financial aid and scholarships should feature students of all races, ethnicities and abilities to convey that all students may need—and have access to—financial support. In photos where there is more than one subject, is power/agency being given to one person over another? What is the subliminal messaging around the power dynamic being displayed? Does the body language or positioning of the subjects tell an unintended story?

8. Be sensitive to cultural nuance.

Also consider the sensitivity around words, phrases, imagery and symbols within a photo that relate to culture, race, ethnicity, sex and gender identity. For example, a costume that may be culturally appropriated, or words that have been written on a blackboard. If you are unsure if a certain cultural nuance is appropriate, check resources such as The Diversity Style Guide or consult with University Communications before moving forward.

9. Don’t overlook icons and illustrations.

You should also keep diversity and inclusion in mind when using icons or illustrations of people. Consider not only race and ethnicity but also gender identity, ability, age and body type. Hair textures/styles, facial features and clothing can also tell a story and should be considered. For a list of stock illustration resources devoted to diverse and authentic representation, visit UB's Resources for Diverse Stock Images and Illustrations.

10. Provide historical context.

When using archival images from UB’s past, be aware that it may be appropriate to provide historical context, as they often reflect a time when the student and faculty population was much less diverse and inclusive. Review UB’s Historical Content Best Practices on placing history into context in communications.

11. Follow accessibility guidelines.

Ensure that people with vision and hearing impairments are able to access and engage with the content in your print, audio and digital communications by undertaking an accessibility audit. Include descriptive alt text with every digital image published. (See tips on writing effective alt text.) Be careful not to use color alone as a means of differentiating important content or establishing hierarchy, as the difference may be imperceptible to those with colorblindness. Include closed-captioning on all videos and provide transcripts for audio and video interviews. Use a tool such as AbleDocs to ensure your PDFs are accessible.

12. Help people understand how the university may use their photos.

When setting up a photography session, share information with subjects on how their photographs may be used in university materials. This demonstrates respect and helps to build trust. For example, University Communications shares the following message with the subjects of scheduled photo sessions: 

Please Note: Photos and/or videos of you taken on behalf of the university may appear on UB websites, social media accounts and promotional materials such as advertisements, brochures and reports. They may be added to UB’s searchable photo database or shared with external news media outlets reporting on UB. Though your photo or video may be taken in relation to a specific class/project/event, it also may be used in more general promotional materials for the university. 

13. When in doubt, ask for help.

No one has all the answers. But it helps to talk these issues through. Consider creating an informal committee of co-workers within your school/unit that you can bounce ideas and concerns off of. Or contact University Communications for consultation on specific issues.