Visual Design Tip: Cut the Clip Art Clutter

Written by Trina Rimmer | Apr 13, 2010 5:15:14 PM

What is the training slide below telling you? Okay, so the corporate speak is uninspiring, but I’ll bet it’s the random clip art that’s really speaking to you - and it’s probably screaming “Train wreck!”

We’ve all seen (or designed) training that looked like the clip art version of a ransom note. So it’s with great surprise that I find myself intrigued at the idea of revisiting clip art in training design (minus the infamously over-used screen beans). But with clip art’s rep as a visual clutter magnet, is there a surefire way for a non-designer designer to use it well?

Well, check out this slide after a quick style makeover. What do you think of it now?

Better? Okay, so it’s still not a very stirring message, but the makeover slide is much easier on the eyes than its predecessor. By keeping all of the clip art images within the same style and color palette, I’ve cut the visual clutter, built cohesion, and increased focus on the slide content. Now you’re free to critique my uninspired writing instead of focusing on my use of clashing clip art! :)

Much like stock photography, the trick to using clip art well is to keep it styled in a way that reinforces your message. But there are some tips to keep in mind for locating and using clip art images that differ from those we use for photographs.

Let Message Dictate Tone

As I discussed in my first blog post for Mindflash, ask yourself:

  1. What do I want my audience to feel, remember, or do after this training? (Hint: Think big picture and focus on one thing. This is your message.)
  2. Is my message serious or critical? (i.e. an operational imperative, life & death = serious tone)
  3. Is my message inspirational? (i.e. motivating the sales team with new techniques = exciting tone)

If you chose (2) serious - I strongly recommend you avoid clip art unless you have custom images (e.g., technical illustrations). Clip art often lacks the emotional impact needed to impress a critical message upon an audience.

If you chose (3) exciting - Clip art may be a fresh alternative for your next training design!

Find an Inspiration Image

When sourcing for clip art images, you’ll need open eyes and an open mind. First, you’ll need open eyes for spotting clip art that makes a bold style statement. Remember, the goal is to give your training a fresh look through your use of clip art, so this is NOT the time to wimp out and go with the tried and true clip art of yester-year. You’ll also need an open mind to embrace the current clip art trends featuring clean, edgy, and retro-modern images. Because using this kind of clip art can be a little out of our design comfort zone, I’ve put together a table highlighting a few ideas for how some of the most popular clip art styles could be used in training.

Search by Style to Build a Clip art Collection

Have you identified a clip art image you like and you’d like to see more of the same type? If you’re using Microsoft Clip Art Online, it’s easy to search by style.

  1. Click on the image to view it up close.
  2. The image information appears on the right side of the screen. If there’s a “Style” field present and it’s hyperlinked, you’re in luck! Just click on the style link to automatically search for all clip art images created in that style.

If your inspiration image doesn’t have a style field noted, try searching by keyword in the keyword field. In some cases, your chosen image may be part of a collection for purchase from another vendor, such as Again, use the keywords field to help narrow your search on the vendor’s site.

Helpful Resources

For more tips on working with clip art, including steps for customizing your own clip art collection, check out this great tutorial from Tom Kuhlman with Articulate.

If you’re looking for more style guidance before you take the plunge with clip art, Microsoft Clip art Online offers some nice pointers on choosing a clip art style for your next project.

Are you one of the daring few already creating cutting-edge training with clip art? What are your sources for stylish clip art collections? Share your tips with the community by clicking on the comments link.

Trina Rimmer is a learning and communications consultant with twelve years experience designing, developing, and delivering smart, engaging training solutions. When her training skills aren't being tested by her children, you'll find her helping others to develop their own design muscles. Contact Trina at