Blog Home Inspiration How We Show It: Cybersecurity

The “hacker in a dark room” imagery that typically represents the cybersecurity industry doesn’t cut it. Here’s how we can do better.

Hollywood usually depicts the world of cybersecurity and its corresponding threats as unsettling, apocalyptic, and gendered. Think: a man in a hoodie, in a basement, working on green lines of code. Similar imagery is found in stock images and permeates marketing and advertising.

The problem with these commonplace visuals is that they fail to accurately represent the diversity of cyber risks, impacts, and needs in our society. They create a myopic view of the cyber industry and render apathy in the consumer and overconfidence in the public.

The reality is that, within the cyber industry, there are tens of thousands of high-paying, qualified jobs for people from all walks of life. More people from more diverse backgrounds are needed to help sort, understand, and estimate threats to our well-being. If we cultivate homogeneity in this industry, what we do is cultivate vulnerability.

The pathway to fostering resilience is to expand how people recognize threats and help them see that they, too, can be part of the solution. Then, they need to be empowered with tools to help educate others.

For this, it is imperative that we work on a new visual language.


Reimagining Visuals for Cybersecurity

The Hewlett Foundation in partnership with OpenIDEO has created guidance to help visual creators or those inclined to educate communities on cyber threats to do better. These findings present simple and clear guidance for photographers, videographers, and artists.

Two of the top design principles for cyber visuals are as follows:

  • Images should be clear, compelling, and have solid technical underpinnings. These images should humanize the industry and the community of people impacted by those images. They should inspire humility by showing accessibility and, at the same time, raise an alarm without being alarmist. The more accurate the image, the more it will build credibility.
  • Images should be designed with a human-centered mindset.  The most useful images will be ones that lead with optimism, co-created by designers, artists, and cybersecurity experts. Empathy and narrative are essential.
Confused senior woman sitting on her couch, laptop in lap, credit card in hand
Human-centered images are more impactful. Image via EugeneEdge.

In short, we must take the opposite position of big-budget cyber films. For more on their findings, please read the full report.


Lessons Adapted from Environmentalism & Sustainability

In recent years, narratives of cybersecurity have expanded. The focus has shifted beyond stories of attack and defense. Cyber themes have turned to experiences where people live—in homes, communities, and society at large.

New stories about cybersecurity are unfolding as digital technology shapes environments where we communicate, belong, learn, work, share information, and make decisions.

The culture of cybersecurity has changed to embrace systemic concepts like cyber ecosystem and cyber interconnection. This means cyber issues are social issues—democratic functioning, medical care, scientific breakthroughs, misinformation, and extremism.

Although the language trend emerged about a decade ago, visuals have yet to catch up.

An abstract image of a wireless communications network in a large city
An abstract image of a wireless communications network. Image via jamesteohart.

As we continue to develop an understanding of the power of visuals in diverse verticals, conversations about cybersecurity have begun to adapt concepts and metaphors from other systems-oriented domains, such as discourse around the environment and sustainability.

Woman and child at a non-descript location casting a ballot
Visuals have yet to catch up with the language. Image via Nelson Antoine.

Recent research by Climate Outreach provides guidance on producing visuals with emphases that echo those of the Hewlett-OpenIDEO project.

Visuals for both climate change and cyber should humanize the space by showing real (not staged) people. Both should limit alarmist imagery in favor of showing impacts locally and globally, with a careful understanding of the audience.

Happy couple with their baby in baby's room while mom updates her software
Ren Wang, Secure Home Pt. 1. Image via CyberVisuals.
An abstract photo of an operating room with doctor's working on a patient conveying the delicacy of a professional environment
Linda Graf, Aspects of Cyber Conflict (Pt. 3). Image via CyberVisuals.

As with other domains, the cyber space should be represented by images that convey visions of responsible design, behaviors, and practices that promote security. They can also:

  • Represent diverse demographics.
  • Reimagine portrayals of security outside personal computing and at scale.
  • Affect viewers with emotionally powerful impacts of both security and insecurity.

Cross-Industry Connections

We write and share this guidance as visual creators and enthusiasts ourselves, but we’re also not alone in asking content creators to rethink and reimagine cyber visuals. We represent a small collection of cybersecurity practitioners who are interested in and focused on ensuring that research, stories, and conversations about cyber threats and opportunities become mainstream conversations.

For those interested in creating cyber visuals, we encourage you to reach out to us (Kristina or Jordan), or any number of leading cyber experts to have conversations, join our communities, or further educate yourself on the topic.

It’s vital for national security that artists and creators help to extend and change the face of this industry with the type of visual imagery that works.


Cover image via Rawpixel.com.