Design avatars that make sense - and be more inclusive in the process

May 1, 2017


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In a world that is increasingly digital, human connections are as likely to happen online as offline. Social apps play a crucial role in society’s evolving norms around identity, and one component of this is the imagery used to represent individual users on various platforms, generally known as avatars.

Since this is a favorite subject of mine, I decided to create an all-in-one guide to better avatars. This article covers some common missteps, shows why good avatar design matters, and lays out real-world examples of better avatars in action.

Why should we care about avatars and inclusivity?

The earliest use of the term avatar in a computer game was in the 1979 role playing game Avatar by PLATO, which was inspired by earlier versions of dnd. The first time it was used as a term to represent the user’s identity onscreen was in Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar in 1985.

Now, in addition to games, avatars are a staple on social media and other virtual platforms. Avatars are often used to help people visually organize comment threads without having to keep track of an individual’s name, or to provide a placeholder identity for users who haven’t uploaded their own personal representation.

While this goal of humanizing online communities with human-like iconography is good, platforms have almost exclusively started off with very male and often white-typed imagery. This may seem like an understandable early solution to an empty state, but the use of white male avatars reinforces the idea that this identity is the norm. These assumptions can lead to real-world outcomes that are detrimental to people who have subdominant identities. More on that in a minute.

And while designing good avatars can seem unnecessarily complicated, there are some theories that suggest that more inclusive approaches to avatars in digital spaces can improve gender and race equity in the non-virtual world.