The Making of Avatars

I’m designing a social app right now and I need lots of avatars to use in the mock-ups. Designing social interfaces is a bit like trying to visualize a party, attendees and all, which is to say the designer is challenged with representing something full of life using tools that are inherently static.

Insofar as avatars give the impression of lots of people using the system, they’re a helpful design detail. I could use one or two ‘generic’ avatars across all of the various interfaces I’m designing, but the more that the hypothetical users in my mock-ups look like they could be actual, real-life users — and the more of them there are — then the better my chances for communicating a convincing design to collaborators.

Picking up a random selection of avatars from Twitter or Flickr, which is what I’m doing now, presents several problems. First, it’s laborious. Second, the users from whom I’m ‘borrowing’ these assets haven’t granted usage permissions of any kind. And third, they’re not a great cross-section of a wide user base.

Ready-made People

The thing is, I bet lots of designers — and probably many readers — have confronted this problem recently, too, and have probably done just what I’ve done — manually pirating a handful of avatars from various social networks.

This is not the biggest problem in the world, nor does it suggest the most exciting product solution in the world, but it would be nice if someone enterprising would create a ready-made pack of avatars that designers could make use of. This would be something like stock art, but it should be significantly less artificial than what you see from even the most creative stock photo vendors. These avatars should represent a healthy diversity of people, meaning there should be avatars of all different styles: some should be slick, some should be amateurish, some should be straight head shots, some should be creative mini portraits, some should be of a user’s baby or pet or favorite-live action incarnation of a beloved comic book character etc.

These avatars would be rights-cleared and royalty-free, they’d come in small, medium and large sizes, and maybe even accompanied by fictional biographies. To get even fancier, we could extend this product into actual data sets, available via a Web app that would allow an app designer to generate a small population of these hypothetical users that match desired criteria, perhaps even with linkages to one another, and all downloadable in CSV format.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Just getting a passel of pre-made avatars I can use in my mock-ups would be awesome, and I bet there are at least a few designers out there who would like the same thing. Lots of us would pay for it, too.



  1. Man, what a great idea. I think there’s got to be other assets they could offer: social connections between users, sample tweet-size content, sample blog posts, sample flickr photos,etc. Basically, create a reasonably-sized sample of content for a reasonably-sized sample of personas. It would be infinitely useful for designers.

  2. This idea reminds me of the site Lorempixum – basically you enter a URL into your (HTML) comps and (optionally) specify width/height and even category (animals, food, people, etc). It’ll serve up a random image to your specification so you can see a convincing-looking demo filled with real photos. You could probably use it for the purposes of avatars too assuming there’s enough variety of images at the 60×60 pixel ratio (or if you don’t mind scaling down larger ones).

  3. Yes I’ve encountered this problem and yes I’d pay for it (albeit a nominal price.)
    I love the idea of a small API that you could use or some sort of small database that could populate your design. It almost seems an oversight that it isn’t already out there.
    Personally I have a small library going of friends and random potos I’ve collected that seems safe enough for demo purposes. But it’s a hack at best.

  4. Have you tried Maque? It’s an AIR app that you can use as a mock database. It provides data services either statically by generating data files from templates, or runs as HTTP 1.1 RESTful web services for actual testing with code.

  5. Now that everything is becoming more social designers are going to hit walls like these more and more. It’s happening to me too, there are only so many pictures of me I have available to use and I agree that using other peoples’ photographs can be done but without permission just feels a bit naughty.

    Matt’s idea of Lorempixum is good. I’ve used it before when building a site but I’m not sure how it works for Copy/Paste. If you’re trying to get enough detail of someone’s face too, it may not be the most appropriate usage.

    To be honest, you should only ever need about 10 avatars, can’t you just tweet 10 people and ask them if you’ve permission to use it?

  6. @Kevin Cannon: I like that idea a lot. Some kind of service, where providing details (they don’t even have to be real or accurate) to gain access to more.

    I’ve used “Designer’s Toolbox” kind of sites for years now, but they seem pretty dated. Couple stock photos, lorem ipsum, ect ect. Would be great to have a site the provides stuff for current web design and application design needs.

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