is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
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.
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.+