In a world where anonymous digital interactions are the norm, an avatar is often the only symbol representing a person online. Unlike emojis, memes and actual words, an avatar is both a vehicle for expression and a mask, for better or worse. And as useful as avatars are in both cases, they are only bound to become more important as the world grows more online and remote.
But what makes for an effective avatar? After all, a selfie is only one type of the many kinds of avatars out there. Out of all of the potential options, it can be hard to know what type of avatar is appropriate for a given clientele. This challenge is only complicated by the fact that avatar design has to be nonspecific enough to be used by a wide and diverse range of people, and yet—somehow—specific enough for individual people to feel like it stands for them personally.
Fortunately, good avatar design is not as contradictory as it sounds: in this guide, we’ll walk you through how avatars work and what goes into developing a great one.
What is an avatar?
An avatar is a representative substitute for a person or organization. Avatars are sometimes branded with different, proprietary names (such as the Apple Memoji or the Nintendo Mii), but the core idea is that an avatar allows us to project our identity into a place where we ourselves cannot travel, such as the intangible digital sphere. But the concept has a history that long predates routers and modems.
The term “avatar” originates from Hinduism, where it describes deities transferring their essence into another form. Essentially, Hindu gods would travel to other realms, such as Earth, by inhabiting a human vessel—the avatar.
Much later, avatars would return in the imagination. Tabletop role playing games like 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons would introduce the concept of character creation, in which players invent their own avatars (complete with stats and a backstory) to traverse a fictional fantasy world through speech.
An early version of the digital avatars we know today was introduced soon after the birth of the Internet, when AOL Instant Messenger introduced “Buddies”—images to supplement usernames. In 2004, Yahoo! Introduced its own iteration, “Yahoo! Avatars,” which officially fostered the link between the Sanskrit term and digital profile pictures.
The concept of an avatar was popularized in the 2009 film Avatar, in which a wheelchair bound marine transfers his consciousness into an alien body in order to fit in on an alien planet. Although the movie was science-fiction, with Neuralink founder Elon Musk repeatedly demonstrating interest in the transfer of consciousness into computers, the science behind the film may not remain fiction for long…
What avatars are used for
Digital avatars can largely be summed up into two principle types—the first of which is largely what we’ll be discussing throughout this article.
The most popular and most straightforward avatars have been images used on social media profiles, messaging apps, or any online service that requires a representative photo of a user. Although these are commonly static pictures, they can be animated, but they do not extend user control (like the avatars we’ll discuss in the following section). The purpose is solely to give users a face.
Vessels for simulation
Technology that allows users to move around simulated environments—such as a video game or Facebook’s Metaverse—also requires avatars. Because these spaces are digital, we experience them through a digital avatar whose movements we control and whose eyes we see through.
When it comes to video games, it is important to note that not every video game character you control is an avatar. Video games can involve storytelling, which means you often control a protagonist. This is a specific character in the game’s lore with a distinctive name, personality, and backstory. In other words, you’re not really meant to think of these protagonists as extensions of yourself—it’s closer to how you would inhabit the perspective of a protagonist in a novel.
A true avatar is designed as a blank slate for the user to imprint themselves on. In video games, these are often “silent protagonists,” or protagonists who do not have scripted dialogue outside of what you choose to have them say. Often this will have you customize their appearance in a character creator screen, but it is also common for there to be no human design—such as a suit of armor covering the character or a first-person camera that reduces the avatar to a pair of eyes.
VR and the future of avatars
Speaking of first person, one of the more promising uses of avatars in the simulation space is developing in virtual reality. VR uses a sensory isolation headset with digital projecting goggles to foster a heightened immersive experience, allowing users to visualize 3D digital worlds and chat rooms through their avatars. This, for now, is the closest that we can get to an out-of-body experience like Avatar the movie.
At present, the current iteration of VR hardware (the most mainstream since the 80s) has been publicly available since 2014. But compared to the rapid adoption of smartphones, VR has struggled to establish itself as more than a novelty due to its cumbersome headsets, inaccessible price point and tendency to cause motion sickness. As the technology gets more accessible and the digital environments become more realistic, it is possible VR will succeed in blurring the digital and the real world even if Elon Musk’s brain chip future doesn’t come to pass.
Avatars and branding
Avatars that represent a brand, as well as its consumers, are increasingly common. This is probably not surprising as many technology brands—Google, Apple, and Slack—that involve user profiles and messaging naturally rely on avatars. And creating custom avatars that align with an existing brand image not only helps to keep a consistent look across a site, it can also help customers see themselves reflected in a brand.
There is a natural overlap: avatars and brands both seek to convey an identity. And assuming the brand personality is informed by the target audience, brand and consumer identities should not be too far off.
Brand imagery is commonly repurposed into default avatars or placeholders that are automatically generated when a user first creates a profile. While many default avatars are gray, featureless human silhouettes, Tumblr assigns new users different versions of abstract graphics based on its branding.
As default avatars are made to be changed, it is essential to provide users with a series of avatars to choose from that all align with a brand. This entails hiring a designer who is able to take your existing visual identity and translate that into a selection of custom avatars.
With that in mind, let’s get into how avatar design works.
The practice of character design in creating avatars
Avatars can seem like made-up characters that we inhabit, but there are key differences between avatar design and character design. To understand this, let’s briefly define what characters are (in addition to some other avatar-adjacent terms).
- Character: A fictional persona with specific traits that are created to inhabit a story.
- Mascot: A fictional persona created to represent a brand (commonly, a sports team).
- Emojis: An imagistic representation of a specific emotional reaction. Emojis can be depicted as a face, eyes, a gesture, or even a popular meme.
While avatars can be fictional depictions, they are meant to be representative of real people. And unlike characters (but much like emojis), avatars don’t even have to resemble a person at all: they can be inanimate objects or abstract shapes. It all depends on what kind of image the user feels exemplifies their personality (as opposed to the singular emotions emojis represent).
But even though avatars are not characters in the strictest sense, the character design process is still useful for avatar design—provided you approach it differently.
Character design is about visual storytelling, painting a picture in the viewer’s mind of the kind of world and background this character comes from. Avatar design is about emphasizing personality—what kind of person is this? This makes the target audience research phase more important for coming up with an effective concept—in avatar design, the character doesn’t just have to appeal to an audience, the character is the audience.
Because an audience needs options in order to choose the avatar that best represents them, several avatars must be designed. To get the best result—with each avatar looking like they belong together yet different enough to appeal to different audience members—suites of avatars should be designed all at the same time.
Additionally, some avatars are designed for customization. This means that, unlike traditional character design, users are given the tools to build their own character. One approach is to design a blank base avatar and to design a wide array of customizable parts, such as hair style, skin color and accessories, around this base. On the other hand, some designers will find it helpful to create the finished avatar first and work backward to separate the avatar into interchangeable parts.
Beyond these considerations, the basic steps of the character design process—such as concept, research, sketching and rendering—are essentially the same for avatar design.
Types of avatars
Avatars styled after actual people are the most common kind. While the most straightforward is a selfie photo, humanoid avatars can also be custom illustrated. When providing custom illustrated humans, most users these days will expect avatars are inclusive of a full spectrum of human users, including diversities of race and gender. And inclusion has to be authentic—meaning no unnaturally colored characters to suggest diversity without actually doing it.
- Faces lend themselves to forging strong, interpersonal connections
- These can eliminate anonymity, with the best potential for an accurate representation of a person
- Illustrated styles can range from realistic to caricature, making these avatars versatile in terms of age group and professionalism
- Representing diversity in users requires many avatar options, which can lead to more an expensive design and consultation process
- Some users prefer to live out their wildest fantasies through an avatar rather than to be portrayed as their everyday, offline selves
- Default human avatars can present an issue: it is hard to make them generic enough to be racially ambiguous, gender neutral, still recognizably human and consistent with the style of the rest of the avatars
For the purpose of this article, we’ll consider creature avatars to cover all nonhuman characters. These include animals, monsters, aliens and other imaginary creatures. Serious or photorealistic takes tend to be out of place here—typically, these types of avatars will be designed humorously in a cartoon, anthropomorphized fashion.
- Many animals (and legendary creatures) have symbolic associations that connect readily to personality traits
- Imaginary creatures provide users with more creative self-expression than straightforward human avatars
- Cartoon characters are ideal for audiences consisting largely of children
- These avatars are taken less seriously—they are not ideal for professional environments
- Because these are nonhuman faces, this provides less of an authentic representation of a user
An avatar can consist solely of the initials of a user’s personal name. Although this is a straightforward solution to an avatar, that doesn’t mean this avatar can’t be creative in terms of font styles or background colors.
- Little time or money needs to be invested in hiring a designer and creating a suite of custom avatars
- These avatars are useful in situations where user messaging is a small, nonessential aspect of the overall business, such as customer support chat
- This is useful for more professional, corporate settings, where silly characters and illustrated depictions would give the wrong impression
- This is useful for personal branding, getting people to associate an online identity with a personal name
- Outside of the background and font styling for the initials, there is little creativity to be had in this style
- Even though it comes from the user’s name, initials don’t communicate much about the user’s personality
Abstract avatars can include patterns, geometric or organic shapes and actual objects. While these do not have a face associated with them, they can still be emotionally expressive in terms of shape language, color, or the cultural associations assigned to an object.
- Although they lack faces, the color and energy of an abstract composition can induce emotions in a more primal, gut-feeling way
- These types of avatars are the easiest to incorporate into a brand’s visual identity, since that will usually consist of abstract design elements like color and shape
- Mundane objects can provide more indirect, personal characterization out of their normal context; or they can leverage humor and irony for the same reason
- While colors and shapes communicate emotions, you lose the personal touch of a face
- Without a direct representation of a person, these avatars are completely anonymous
Design for the person behind the avatar
Avatars are like digital extensions of ourselves. In fact, they are often the only images that represent us in certain online contexts. This inevitably means that the more online our lives get, the more important avatars are bound to become in the future.
While avatars of course cannot represent the full complexity of a person, they do bring an important human element to distant interactions. So when you need avatars that are more expressive than a badly cropped selfie, consider getting in touch with a freelance designer.