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Business communication solution: "When should I use clipart?"

Articles on business communication
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Microsoft offers its huge clipart library as a free tool for business communication. Should you take advantage of their offer? After all, it is free...

I had an interesting email from a client the other day, asking me which piece of clipart I thought 'worked' better in the internal document she was preparing for her company.

Argh!!! not clipart again!
Arrgh! Not clipart again!

She was putting together a report on some cultural issues and was unsure of which of two colourful clipart pieces she should use.

She had attached two versions of the same document, each with a different clipart image featured very prominently.

My knee-jerk reaction was to scream in horror, rather like this chap red bullet clipart

I wanted to shoot back an email immediately, using (abusing) a famous quote of Sir Winston Churchill and twisting it out of context:

Never use it.
Never use it.
Never use it.

With stock photography so cheap to purchase, why would anyone want to 'cheapen' their message with clipart, I thought (there's some links to stock photography sites at the bottom of this page).

Luckily for me, my 'early warning radar' rang a tiny, almost unheard alarm bell and I left the email unsent in my 'Draft' folder.

Hadn't I, at some stage, used clipart in my professional communications?

Indeed I had.

About 10 years ago I had purchased a 9cd pack of clipart, full of the most useless artwork. I'd purchased the set for the one cd of fonts the pack had (I was a big fan of fonts and loved collecting them). And that one cd has more than once saved me heartache as I found pc versions of mac fonts various graphic artists had used on brochures and business cards that my clients wanted to re-use on reports and literature they themselves generated.

I had also used half a dozen clipart images in a self-development book I had written, based on my psychology honours research (there's also a link to the book at the bottom of this page).

So I couldn't put my hand on my heart and email my client back with a 'no holds barred, don't ever do it' type of response.

But it did bring to mind certain circumstances when you can use clipart, and when you really shouldn't.

When you can use clipart:

red bullet when you are putting material together with a 'period' look and feel, such as a late 19th or early 20th Century look, or a mid 20th Century feel (such as the 1960s)

red bullet when you are extremely confident that the clipart will enhance your copy, not just bring a bit of colour or imagery to the page

red bullet when the clipart ties in very intimately with the textual content and purpose of your communication

An image from a self-help book

red bullet when you are using the clipart for a specific, attention-getting purpose. For example, with my success strategies book, I deliberately used large cartoons of people to engage both the left and right hemispheres of the reader's brain — the left with the text and the right with the image. Thus, the image here was used on a page about stress and worry.

A very similar concept by Photodisc
A very similar photo concept

(Professional communicators with a long memory may remember a PhotoDisc image that was extremely similar...)




red bullet Caveat: use clipart images sparingly! Use too many in the one document and the word "amateur" starts to creep into the reader's mind

1980s Armani power suits - erk!
You wouldn't believe how many flyers I see that still use this and the image below...
Another, still highly-used stock short from the early 1990s


When NOT to use clipart:

red bullet when the image distracts from the text

red bullet when the image is unrelated or only mildly related to the text (and the same goes for those awful 1980s stock photos of Armani-suited men and women; we are in the 2000s now and power shoulders, like Bono's mullet haircut, have thankfully passed us by)

red bullet when you are attempting a 'cutesy' feel. 'Cutesy' has very little place in business. Want 'cutesy'? Use a photo and compelling text instead...


I accept that clipart does have a place in the professional communicator's bag of tools, but as a business communication solution is leaves a lot to be desired.

My advice? Delete your free clipart folders (how useful is anything you get free, usually?) and instead focus on using compelling words to drive your message home. Underpin and strengthen those words with relevant photos that support your text, not draw attention away from it.

A few extra dollars spent on a quality stock photo can be more than repaid when your communication is received, understood and valued, rather than discarded as another example of unprofessional managerial stupidity.


Reports I have written:

Measuring the impact and ROI of social media
Measuring the impact and ROI of social media - for Ark Group
Making social media work for your business
Making Social Media work for your business - for Ark Group
Social Media: the new business communication landscape
Social Media: The New Business Communication Landscape - for Ark Group
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation
How to get started with podcasting in your organisation - for Melcrum Publishing
How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues
Contributing author to How to use social media to solve critical internal communication issues - for Melcrum Publishing

How to use social media to engage employees
Contributing author to How to use social media to engage employees - for Melcrum Publishing

Contributing author to How to communicate with hard-to-reach employees - for Melcrum Publishing



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