8 Tips To Master Inclusive Character Design

L&D's DEIB Impact: 7 Tips To Champion Diversity Via Character Development

Reflecting The Diversity Of The Learner’s World

Simply put, diversity of characters in eLearning matters. From the characters who act out storytelling to the narrators who walk through demos, who we see and hear on screens impacts how we relate to them, engage with the learning experiences they are part of, and, ultimately, how we put the content they present into practice. Diverse representation in eLearning connects with a broader diverse learner population with authentic experiences where they all (I!) feel seen and respected, reflecting the diversity of the real world they live in.

In the past, SweetRush has shared tips and case studies showing how we’ve approached representation, diversity, and inclusion in learning experience design. They are filled with real-world examples, insights from our team, and tips you can apply to your own learning designs. What’s changed? We’ve learned a lot! We are committed to staying open to new ideas and continuously pushing ourselves to do better. Read on as our team shares 8 new tips for raising the bar with inclusive character design to revitalize your approach to creating representation in eLearning.

8 Tips To Master Inclusive Character Design

1. Start With Learning Objectives

As Jose Redondo, SweetRush’s 2D Team Lead, shared in a previous article, “Rather than just focusing on appearance, the characters’ personalities shine through in the details. They become individuals, and we find that our teams treat and protect the characters as if they are real people.” But how do you create those personalities?

As with most things in learning experience design, we start with the learning objectives. Here’s an example: in a recent learning experience design, we created learning objectives aimed to help learners adopt new behaviors and attitudes about LGBTQ+ coworkers.

Using storytelling, characters would need to reflect different personalities, identities, and relationships that would support achieving the learning objectives while telling the story in a relatable and authentic way. Before the visual design began, we imagined who the characters needed to be so that they could communicate the “why” and the “how” of adopting the learning objectives, along with guiding learners through potential challenges that often come with them.

2. Rely On The Power Of Partnership

To create learning experiences that reflect learners authentically, client partnership and collaboration can’t be understated. Empathy interviews, audience profiles, and iterative client reviews help us understand what about the learners can be applied to illustrations, selecting stock photos, or casting voice talent.

“We don’t want to go in with preconceived ideas,” explains Shane Donahue, Creative Director. “All communities, all people, have nuances. Something that’s not as important to one person is very important to someone else. We want the client to show us, send any references they may have, and share their vision. We care about diversity and have our own ideas, but you’d be surprised what you can learn from your client and their people!”

The power of partnership extends to your internal team as well, especially a team that prioritizes diverse perspectives without blocking or gatekeeping. Says Carlos Salazar, SweetRush’s Art Director, of his experience while designing a group of diverse characters: “The team can see the blind spots that you may miss. The more collaboration that’s fostered, the better.” In fact, Carlos recalls that on a recent learning experience design, it was our Build Manager who made a significant contribution to the character design.

After seeing the initial designs, he shared how the lack of body diversity left out a lot of people like himself. The result? Carlos was able to iterate on his designs with fresh eyes, on the lookout for body diversity. Adds Salazar, “Being aware of body diversity is now part of the process I use for other projects, making the work, the process, better for me overall.”

3. Recognize Your Biases

“We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are” is a Talmudic saying to keep in mind with inclusive learning experience design. It means that something can be important or even a barrier for someone else, but if it’s not part of our own experience, we can miss it.

While this tip applies to all aspects of inclusive learning design, such as creating illustrations or selecting stock photos, Scott Shankland, SweetRush Audio Team Lead, shares how he’s come to understand this concept as applied to his work casting voice talent. “One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in recent years is admitting that you carry implicit bias everywhere you go,” he explains.

“What I want are voices that learners can empathize with and feel safe.” To make choosing diverse voice-over talent easy, SweetRush created SweetRush Voice Over (SRVO), an easy-to-use online service. It supports representation and inclusivity by giving clients the option to choose voice-over talent using categories such as accents by regions, ages, ethnicity, and vocal tone so choosing for diversity is easy.

4. Leverage Perspective-Taking

Sometimes inclusive character design not only reflects the characters learners see on the screen, but it can also include the learners themselves!

In learning design, perspective-taking means walking in someone else’s shoes to better understand the experience from a point of view that may be unfamiliar. It allows the learners to experience the content from different angles, which helps develop empathy and understanding for what others are going through.

We asked Rafi Mittlefehldt, Senior Learning Experience Design Consultant, how he applied perspective taking in a learning experience design where the learner is asked to apply gender-inclusive language at work.

He explains how the learners are “put in a situation where they are experiencing the nuance of interactions outside their normal perspective. The learner wants to do the right thing, but it challenges them.” After closely partnering with the client and creative team, Rafi describes how the character design and script writing facilitated this perspective-taking experience, with rave reviews from learners.

5. Normalize, Don’t Pander

Stereotypes exist. How do you deal with them in learning experience design? It’s a question that requires constant awareness and vigilance to address in character design, selecting stock photos, or casting voice talent.

Scott Shankland puts it like this: “I like to cast non-typical sounding people that you don’t typically see represented.” His example is a coding walkthrough learning experience featuring an on-screen demo. Instead of casting the stereotype of a young-sounding white male as the narrator, he cast a middle-aged-sounding Black woman to normalize a voice that breaks tech stereotypes.

“I think the more you’re able to flip those roles is a good thing as long as you don’t sound like you’re pandering.” The anecdote for addressing stereotypes isn’t simply checking off boxes from a DEIB list that makes it sound like you’re forcing the appearance of diversity—it’s about widening our frame of reference for representation authentically.

6. Recognize That Mistakes Happen

The hard truth about the inclusive design process? Whether you’re selecting diverse stock photos or creating custom illustrations with nuance, you’re likely to make mistakes—everyone does. Chances are you’ll even be uncomfortable at times. But remember: what you learn from those mistakes and discomfort will be so worth it in the long run for your learning experience design!

Rafi Mittlefehldt shares his experience working in close collaboration developing characters that reflect authentic identities: “What’s important is if you’re trying to write another identity than your own, never presume you’re ‘getting it.’ Instead, tap into SMEs or people of the character’s identity to tell you if you are. There’s a lot of nuance! I think what I’m doing is really removing my ego from it. I’m going to do my best to hear what the needs are, and then we’ll see as it develops, knowing that we’re going to iterate and get a little bit closer every time.”

We asked Shane Donahue how he navigates through mistakes as someone who wants to do the right thing and say the right thing, especially collaborating with clients about inclusive design. “Sometimes you may find yourself embarrassed with something you’re learning on the fly,” Donahue says. “You can feel vulnerable. Go easy on yourself and don’t make a big deal about it with the client.” The trick is to know how to move on and learn from your mistakes. Here are a few tips:

  • Apologize
  • Correct yourself briefly
  • Move on

The bottom line? Know that mistakes will happen. When they do, don’t apologize profusely or linger on the topic. Most likely, if you do, that’s going to make the other person uncomfortable or put them in a position to help you process your mistake. Instead, move on and learn from it!

7. Manage Feedback

At this point, you might be thinking that this is all well and good on paper, but with tight schedules and budgets, how do you put these tips into practice and still keep a deadline? Collaboration, client partnership, multiple iterations, and extra effort devoted to selecting stock photos or casting voice talent does take time.

We asked Shane Donahue to share his thoughts about how to manage the process while maintaining the intention of creating inclusive characters. “It’s important, when you bring the client in, that you help them navigate the process,” Donahue advises. “Early in the process, ask them to tell you everything! As design development continues, make it a point to manage expectations and solicit the types of feedback that are appropriate at that stage. Try to give clients opportunities to collaborate and adjust throughout the process. Most importantly, know when to say ‘pencils down,’ letting the clients know when to stop providing feedback in order to make the deadline and stay on budget.”

8. Focus On Safety

Sharing nuances about identity, being vulnerable, showing up for often marginalized groups with respect, relying on others’ input and partnership while putting your own ego on pause…it’s a lot to ask in a professional environment. Says Donahue regarding how to create safety for the team and clients to achieve these goals, “I think what working on inclusive design does on a bigger level is put it out there that you must do whatever you can to create safe spaces to really listen, stay open, and learn.”

But it’s not just about creating safe spaces during the development and design process. It’s about paying attention to how the character and learning experience design can impact a sense of safety for the learners. We asked Gonz Solorzano, SweetRush Client Experience Manager, to share an example of how creating a safe environment for the learners impacted character representation in an unexpected way.

Gonz explained how a client consulted with us about implementing an onboarding program created for a global company. The learning experience included several LGBTQ+ characters, representing the learning audience authentically while emphasizing the company’s commitment to diversity and belonging. The challenge? The onboarding program would be launched in countries where it wasn’t safe for members of the LGBTQ+ community to be open about their identities.

The easy response would have been to simply take the recognizably LGBTQ+ characters out of the program. But it was important to the client and to us to find a way to maintain the integrity of the course and the intention of inclusivity. The program design emphasized the value of making sure learners were seen, heard, and supported—creating a safe space in the learning experience. The thought process was that if learners felt otherwise, how could they pay attention to what they needed to learn? Inclusive character representation, in this scenario, didn’t involve character design at all. Instead, we looked for symbols that would subtly represent the LBGTQ+ community, acknowledging their importance in the company while maintaining their safety.

Gonz closed the story with a final thought: “This is what we should be aiming for in every single DEIB conversation. If we’re working on a project, ask ourselves: are we making sure that the learners are being heard, seen, and in a safe environment?”

No doubt; new scenarios with opportunities to apply our best with inclusivity and representation will continue to unfold. Along the way, we will continue to be open to new ideas about representation as our craft evolves and our collaborations with client-partners and team members help us grow.

Keep leaning into inclusivity, and stay tuned for more tips from SweetRush as they evolve in this space!

Additional Resource:



SweetRush

Our job is to help you achieve your objectives and be successful. Engage us at any point, from analysis to custom development (including e-learning, mobile, gamification, and ILT) to evaluation.