Avatars in Learning

I’m building a course where I want to use avatars as character personas. Each avatar represents a different learner, with a unique background and learning needs. I started to explore using cartoon avatars, which was (quickly) vetoed by our design team, but it was still fun to create amateur cartoon personas in Illustrator. I thought I’d share here what I learned.

Designing Avatars

I began by finding images on Google Search and then pasting them into Adobe Illustrator for inspiration. I used the pen tool to trace images and then updated the features to make it my own. I’ve only traced images in Illustrator a handful of times, so it was a good opportunity to practice.

Here are my first forays with cartoon avatars:

The top image, Caroline, is my most recent approach. I can already see a major difference between Caroline and Amy, at the bottom. (Yes, I named them. I’m not attached, you are.) I still have a lot to learn in Illustrator, but I feel way more confident using some of the tools!

You’ll notice I designed the characters so they appear to be popping out of the circles. Ever since reading Tom Kulhmann’s post on creating 3D pop-outs in PowerPoint, I wanted to try it for myself! I think this technique can make a character more appealing and welcoming. It looks like my characters are almost gesturing for the audience to come into the screen and join them in learning.

My design team suggested that we use photos of people from a recent photo shoot. Then we are going to use special effects in Photoshop so they don’t appear like an image, but rather like a character. I think this approach will work, and it’s aligned with my vision for the course. But I was sort of hopeful I could use these cartoon characters. Maybe next time…

Learning with Avatars

When I think of avatars, I tend to think of the avatars from the 90s: weird looking characters with robotic voices. Not approachable! I think avatars have come a long way since then, but I also recognize that they aren’t going to reach all learners.

I plan to use my avatar characters to guide learners through different learning themes. They aren’t the main part of the course, but rather they help to supplement students’ learning. When students are learning about a specific topic, they are given scenarios about the character and then have to make decisions. I think this can take pressure off the learner to feel like they always have to have the right answer. It can be comforting to make a decision and then see how the character responds to the consequences.

The eLearning Coach wrote a blog post about the value of using characters to create an emotional connection with learners. I think when characters are relatable and still look human, they can make that connection. I find that most characters in Articulate Storyline look a little too cartoon-y (or unapproachable) for my purposes. Instead, using photos of real people or even creating your own characters can have more impact.


Before using avatars or characters, I think it’s important to think about how they’re going to support course content and how students might relate to them.

Just sticking in a character won’t help students process information or create an emotional connection. But when a character is fully developed and has its own personality, students can relate and even connect in a deeper way than had the content just been presented to them!

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