The anatomy of a good avatar

Image credit: Avatar movie poster
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No matter which social network you use, your avatar is part of what makes it complete.  It’s also what personalizes the profile, legitimizes it, and gives some life to it.

Literally, an avatar is the graphical depiction of the person who is using the account.  For businesses, it’s your company logo.  As far as I’m concerned, you want that avatar to make a good first impression, even if you’re on a professional network.  Everything about your avatar tells us something about you, and because a picture speaks a thousands words, your avatar tells us more about someone than we realize.


Being the most casual of the social networks, it’s arguable that anything goes.  With the exception of nude photos, or ones of someone’s genitals (which I have seen), Facebook is extremely lenient of what can be an avatar.  If it were me, the guidelines I would go with are:

  • You by yourself without excessive visual noise in the background.  If you insist on your partner being in our picture with you, reserve it for the profile banner.
  • Smiling and with positive body language.
  • Avoid risque, shirtless, or photos of cleavage.  If you are fortunate to be one where your looks are part of your brand and how people recognize you, consider keeping it clean.
  • While it is fun to user filters on your avatar, unless they will compliment your avatar, avoid using them.   You have a much larger space for expression via your profile banner.  Furthermore, many causes have banners available for download so that you can be in solidarity for your cause.
  • Remember that if you wear clothing with branding that people will associate it with you and assume that you support its message.
  • While Facebook is a casual network, employers are using it to research people.  While employers will take into account that they’re viewing a profile on a casual network, what they see could turn them off.


Being the gold standard in social media, there is no question that this avatar should not only be a professional one, but one that you should consider having professionally taken.  If any photo of you should be well-thought out, it should be this one.  While my guidelines are based mostly on standards set by the corporate world, the actual poses should be determined by a photographer who is photographing based on industry or job type (I.E. executives, presidents, management figures, and officers of companies or organizations)

  • This should be upper-thirds, or a face shot.
    • Upper-thirds:  Fully-clothed and nothing risque.  Dress the way you would present yourself to a client or customer.  If your company has a relaxed dress code, go one step up.  Active Duty military should dress in the type of attire they would wear to an interview for a military position.
    • Face shot:  Make sure you’re smiling.  Either face the camera or turn your head to the side.  Avoid wearing headdress unless it’s for cultural purposes.  Keep the facial expressions professional and positive.  It should neither look like a mugshot, nor like you’re at a party.
  • If you normally wear flashy jewelry, remove them for the shot.  You don’t want any detail that might be a distraction to the person viewing your profile.
  • This picture could be the one used in if you’re featured in an article, or you cover a story.  It could happen that you are asked to appear or speak somewhere; that picture could be all people have put a name to a face upon meeting.
  • It should be a solo shot.  If you want to include a professional group photo, use your profile banner for that purpose.  Right now with the new interface, your avatar does get in the way of the banner, but the banner is the appropriate place for that.


While Twitter is as casual as Facebook, it can also be as professional as LinkedIn.  Since social media is such an integral part of our personal branding, you Twitter account should strike a balance.  An equitable balance could be a professional photo of you, but with more flavor to it.

Many conferences and professional networking events now encourage users to tweet live from the event using a hashtag.  Additionally, some events that utilize name badges are also getting into including your handle.  When you’re at a networking event where you could meet hundreds of potential clients or professionals, your Twitter avatar might be how they approach you to introduce themselves.  As you are retweeting and replying to various people you meet, it’s common for others to join the thread.  When you see that person’s picture, you might say, “I know I saw her with Jack and Bill earlier.  I need to find her.”

As it turns out, as you’re enjoying lunch, one table over from you is someone that looks strangely familiar.  You do a double-take and realize that she is the person you’ve been looking for.  There’s no time to connect via LinkedIn, and you don’t want to friend a professional contact; follow her on Twitter.  It might happen that she sees your follow, returns it, and down the line, she approaches you.  Twitter is also convenient in that you can update your picture in-the-moment, but not have it broadcast to your network like a PSA.

For example:  You give an acceptance speech and a colleagues a picture of you at the podium.  Your colleague takes the picture and crops it to an upper-thirds and texts you with it.  You make that new picture your avatar for the duration of the event.  Your following can increase based on that split-second visual considering all eyes were on you, and people remember visuals before anything else.  Twitter is the type of network where you can get away with an expressive picture for a short time and not lose your brand or professional image.


While I don’t personally have an account on Instagram, I have seen plenty of them through others.  Instagram has become the mainstream way to gain a following with a good visual.  If your brand has you involved in charity work, and you took a ‘selfie’ with the rest of the team, this would be the network to showcase it.  It will be obvious that you are the one in the picture, but the picture tells the recent story of the charitable work you performed.  Unlike Facebook, you’re not connecting with new friends, and perhaps your updates will be more pictorial than text; Instagram would be where you can have the fun of Twitter, but still positively express your brand in a professional way.


I don’t personally use SnapChat, but from what I’ve seen of others’ accounts, it seems to be more causal than Facebook, but given its theme of a picture of video disappearing in short time, (which is ironic because you can still take a snapshot of the screen) whatever you’re doing, you want it to count the first time.  I would treat SnapChat like Facebook, but heed the fact that the picture will disappear quickly after it’s messaged.  This reminds me that despite my reluctance to join SnapChat, I might have to just to learn how it works.

Above all else, it’s important to remember that the visual you give someone could be their first, and will be the visual that will stick with them.

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About the author

Mike Rana

Mike Rana is one of those people who is hard to define, though he's not immune to being labeled for something. He likes to talk about many topics including technology, business, politics, education, psychology, and human behavior. In his spare time, Mike enjoys traveling, people watching, analyzing the world around him, writing about his life experiences, absorbing information from various social media channels, and trying to be the voice of reason in the political arena.

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