Avatar design and the way forward for character illustration

In a world the place nameless digital interactions are the norm, an avatar is usually the one image representing an individual on-line. Not like emojis, memes and precise phrases, an avatar is each a automobile for expression and a masks, for higher or worse. And as helpful as avatars are in each instances, they’re solely certain to grow to be extra necessary because the world grows extra on-line and distant.

A person looking into their photo to see a cartoon tiger illustration
Illustration by OrangeCrush

However what makes for an efficient avatar? In spite of everything, a selfie is just one sort of the numerous sorts of avatars on the market. Out of all the potential choices, it may be onerous to know what sort of avatar is suitable for a given clientele. This problem is just difficult by the truth that avatar design must be nonspecific sufficient for use by a large and various vary of individuals, and but—one way or the other—particular sufficient for particular person individuals to really feel prefer it stands for them personally.

Luckily, good avatar design just isn’t as contradictory because it sounds: on this information, we’ll stroll you thru how avatars work and what goes into creating an excellent one.

What’s an avatar?

An avatar is a consultant substitute for an individual or group. Avatars are generally branded with totally different, proprietary names (such because the Apple Memoji or the Nintendo Mii), however the core concept is that an avatar permits us to challenge our id into a spot the place we ourselves can’t journey, such because the intangible digital sphere. However the idea has a historical past that lengthy predates routers and modems.

The time period “avatar” originates from Hinduism, the place it describes deities transferring their essence into one other kind. Basically, Hindu gods would journey to different realms, equivalent to Earth, by inhabiting a human vessel—the avatar.

Illustrated avatar designs based portraits for a technology company
By Nandatama ✪

A lot later, avatars would return within the creativeness. Tabletop position enjoying video games like 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons would introduce the idea of character creation, through which gamers invent their very own avatars (full with stats and a backstory) to traverse a fictional fantasy world by way of speech.

An early model of the digital avatars we all know at the moment was launched quickly after the start of the Web, when AOL Immediate Messenger launched “Buddies”—pictures to complement usernames. In 2004, Yahoo! Launched its personal iteration, “Yahoo! Avatars,” which formally fostered the hyperlink between the Sanskrit time period and digital profile photos.

The idea of an avatar was popularized within the 2009 movie Avatar, through which a wheelchair certain marine transfers his consciousness into an alien physique as a way to slot in on an alien planet. Though the film was science-fiction, with Neuralink founder Elon Musk repeatedly demonstrating curiosity within the switch of consciousness into computer systems, the science behind the movie could not stay fiction for lengthy…

Stick figure avatar design
By Fabio Fantini

What avatars are used for

Digital avatars can largely be summed up into two precept varieties—the primary of which is essentially what we’ll be discussing all through this text.

Consumer self-portraits

The preferred and most simple avatars have been pictures used on social media profiles, messaging apps, or any on-line service that requires a consultant picture of a person. Though these are generally static photos, they are often animated, however they don’t lengthen person management (just like the avatars we’ll talk about within the following part). The aim is solely to present customers a face.

Vessels for simulation

Know-how that enables customers to maneuver round simulated environments—equivalent to a online game or Fb’s Metaverse—additionally requires avatars. As a result of these areas are digital, we expertise them by way of a digital avatar whose actions we management and whose eyes we see by way of.

Sports themed cartoon avatar designs
By Warlourd arts

On the subject of video video games, it is very important word that not each online game character you management is an avatar. Video video games can contain storytelling, which implies you typically management a protagonist. This can be a particular character within the recreation’s lore with a particular identify, character, and backstory. In different phrases, you’re probably not meant to consider these protagonists as extensions of your self—it’s nearer to how you’d inhabit the attitude of a protagonist in a novel.

3D design of a robot character in a suit

A real avatar is designed as a clean slate for the person to imprint themselves on. In video video games, these are sometimes “silent protagonists,” or protagonists who don’t have scripted dialogue exterior of what you select to have them say. Typically it will have you ever customise their look in a personality creator display, however it is usually widespread for there to be no human design—equivalent to a swimsuit of armor masking the character or a first-person digital camera that reduces the avatar to a pair of eyes.

VR and the way forward for avatars

Talking of first individual, one of many extra promising makes use of of avatars within the simulation area is creating in virtual reality. VR makes use of a sensory isolation headset with digital projecting goggles to foster a heightened immersive expertise, permitting customers to visualise 3D digital worlds and chat rooms by way of their avatars. This, for now, is the closest that we will get to an out-of-body expertise like Avatar the film.

At current, the present iteration of VR {hardware} (essentially the most mainstream because the 80s) has been publicly accessible since 2014. However in comparison with the speedy adoption of smartphones, VR has struggled to ascertain itself as greater than a novelty resulting from its cumbersome headsets, inaccessible value level and tendency to trigger movement illness. Because the know-how will get extra accessible and the digital environments grow to be extra reasonable, it’s potential VR will achieve blurring the digital and the actual world even when Elon Musk’s mind chip future doesn’t come to go.

Illustration showing two people using VR to travel
By lemonGraphy

Avatars and branding

Avatars that symbolize a model, in addition to its shoppers, are more and more widespread. That is most likely not stunning as many know-how manufacturers—Google, Apple, and Slack—that contain person profiles and messaging naturally depend on avatars. And creating customized avatars that align with an present model picture not solely helps to maintain a constant look throughout a web site, it could additionally assist prospects see themselves mirrored in a model.

There’s a pure overlap: avatars and types each search to convey an id. And assuming the brand personality is knowledgeable by the target market, model and client identities shouldn’t be too far off.

Tumblr default branded avatars
through Tumblr

Model imagery is usually repurposed into default avatars or placeholders which might be mechanically generated when a person first creates a profile. Whereas many default avatars are grey, featureless human silhouettes, Tumblr assigns new customers totally different variations of summary graphics based mostly on its branding.

As default avatars are made to be modified, it’s important to supply customers with a sequence of avatars to select from that each one align with a model. This entails hiring a designer who is ready to take your present visual identity and translate that right into a choice of customized avatars.

With that in thoughts, let’s get into how avatar design works.

The observe of character design in creating avatars

Avatars can seem to be made-up characters that we inhabit, however there are key variations between avatar design and character design. To grasp this, let’s briefly outline what characters are (along with another avatar-adjacent phrases).

Illustrated avatar designs of a baby character
By betoartdesign
  • Character: A fictional persona with particular traits which might be created to inhabit a narrative.
  • Mascot: A fictional persona created to symbolize a model (generally, a sports activities crew).
  • Emojis: An imagistic illustration of a particular emotional response. Emojis may be depicted as a face, eyes, a gesture, or perhaps a standard meme.

Whereas avatars may be fictional depictions, they’re meant to be consultant of actual individuals. And in contrast to characters (however very like emojis), avatars don’t even must resemble an individual in any respect: they are often inanimate objects or summary shapes. All of it relies on what sort of picture the person feels exemplifies their character (versus the singular feelings emojis symbolize).

However despite the fact that avatars will not be characters within the strictest sense, the character design process remains to be helpful for avatar design—supplied you method it in a different way.

Abstract character avatar designs
By HannaSymo

Character design is about visible storytelling, portray an image within the viewer’s thoughts of the sort of world and background this character comes from. Avatar design is about emphasizing character—what sort of individual is that this? This makes the target audience research section extra necessary for arising with an efficient idea—in avatar design, the character doesn’t simply must attraction to an viewers, the character is the viewers.

As a result of an viewers wants choices as a way to select the avatar that greatest represents them, a number of avatars should be designed. To get one of the best end result—with every avatar wanting like they belong collectively but totally different sufficient to attraction to totally different viewers members—suites of avatars ought to be designed all on the similar time.

Pirate themed cartoon avatar designs

Moreover, some avatars are designed for personalization. Which means, in contrast to conventional character design, customers are given the instruments to construct their very own character. One method is to design a clean base avatar and to design a wide selection of customizable elements, equivalent to hair model, pores and skin coloration and equipment, round this base. Alternatively, some designers will discover it useful to create the completed avatar first and work backward to separate the avatar into interchangeable elements.

Illustrated sports avatar designs
By Heyjuly

Past these issues, the essential steps of the character design course of—equivalent to idea, analysis, sketching and rendering—are primarily the identical for avatar design.

Kinds of avatars


Avatars styled after precise persons are the most typical form. Whereas essentially the most simple is a selfie picture, humanoid avatars will also be customized illustrated. When offering customized illustrated people, most customers lately will count on avatars are inclusive of a full spectrum of human customers, together with diversities of race and gender. And inclusion must be genuine—that means no unnaturally colored characters to recommend range with out truly doing it.

Cartoon avatar designs of human characters
By Mark Rise through Dribbble


  • Faces lend themselves to forging sturdy, interpersonal connections
  • These can eradicate anonymity, with one of the best potential for an correct illustration of an individual
  • Illustrated kinds can vary from reasonable to caricature, making these avatars versatile when it comes to age group and professionalism


  • Representing range in customers requires many avatar choices, which may result in extra an costly design and session course of
  • Some customers favor to dwell out their wildest fantasies by way of an avatar slightly than to be portrayed as their on a regular basis, offline selves
  • Default human avatars can current a difficulty: it’s onerous to make them generic sufficient to be racially ambiguous, gender impartial, nonetheless recognizably human and in keeping with the model of the remainder of the avatars


For the aim of this text, we’ll contemplate creature avatars to cowl all nonhuman characters. These embody animals, monsters, aliens and different imaginary creatures. Severe or photorealistic takes are usually misplaced right here—sometimes, a majority of these avatars might be designed humorously in a cartoon, anthropomorphized style.

Illustrated avatar designs of a whale character
By Andreask84


  • Many animals (and legendary creatures) have symbolic associations that join readily to character traits
  • Imaginary creatures present customers with extra artistic self-expression than simple human avatars
  • Cartoon characters are perfect for audiences consisting largely of kids


  • These avatars are taken much less severely—they don’t seem to be very best for skilled environments
  • As a result of these are nonhuman faces, this offers much less of an genuine illustration of a person


An avatar can consist solely of the initials of a person’s private identify. Though this can be a simple answer to an avatar, that doesn’t imply this avatar can’t be artistic when it comes to font kinds or background colours.

Default avatar initials for Dropbox
through Dribbble for Dropbox


  • Little time or cash must be invested in hiring a designer and creating a set of customized avatars
  • These avatars are helpful in conditions the place person messaging is a small, nonessential facet of the general enterprise, equivalent to buyer help chat
  • That is helpful for extra skilled, company settings, the place foolish characters and illustrated depictions would give the unsuitable impression
  • That is helpful for private branding, getting individuals to affiliate a web based id with a private identify


  • Exterior of the background and font styling for the initials, there may be little creativity available on this model
  • Despite the fact that it comes from the person’s identify, initials don’t talk a lot in regards to the person’s character


Summary avatars can embody patterns, geometric or natural shapes and precise objects. Whereas these don’t have a face related to them, they’ll nonetheless be emotionally expressive when it comes to shape language, color, or the cultural associations assigned to an object.

Identicon abstract avatar designs for Github
through Github


  • Though they lack faces, the colour and power of an summary composition can induce feelings in a extra primal, gut-feeling manner
  • These kind of avatars are the simplest to include right into a model’s visible id, since that may normally encompass summary design components like coloration and form
  • Mundane objects can present extra oblique, private characterization out of their regular context; or they’ll leverage humor and irony for a similar cause


  • Whereas colours and shapes talk feelings, you lose the non-public contact of a face
  • With out a direct illustration of an individual, these avatars are utterly nameless

Design for the individual behind the avatar

Avatars are like digital extensions of ourselves. Actually, they’re typically the one pictures that symbolize us in sure on-line contexts. This inevitably implies that the extra on-line our lives get, the extra necessary avatars are certain to grow to be sooner or later.

Whereas avatars after all can’t symbolize the complete complexity of an individual, they do deliver an necessary human component to distant interactions. So while you want avatars which might be extra expressive than a badly cropped selfie, contemplate getting in contact with a contract designer.

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