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!

Canada’s Food Guide: A Win for Designers

One of my passions is healthy eating, so I was really excited when Canada announced plans to unveil a new food guide. I thought it would be interesting to reflect on the influence of visual communication through current and past food guides.

Let’s start with Canada’s new Food Guide:

Simple, Clean Design

I really like the simple look of this new guide. I suppose it’s not so much a guide as it is a simple visual. They have removed the recommended portion sizes, which I thought was a nice touch because we tend to fixate on serving sizes rather than a holistic view of health. Now, when I am planning a meal, I can easily picture this in my mind and plate my meal to be more health-conscious. The simple directions next to the plate of food provide gentle considerations for the next meal. I think this design makes healthy eating more accessible, not to mention it looks delicious! (This is a step up from previous food guides.)

The current American Food Guide doesn’t have any food pictured:

The design is clean, but it doesn’t do anything for me. In fact, it looks quite juvenile (especially compared to Canada’s newest food guide). I want to see delicious, healthy food that I can picture myself eating. It’s fun to talk about food, but this visual makes it hard to get conversation going. Plus, it seems to reinforce that a glass of milk is needed with each meal. Dairy and beef are two major industries in North America, but they haven’t been known to be the best for the environment, or our health.

The vibrant colours hurt my eyes on the screen, which is where I imagine most people will see this visual. I wonder if they shared these visuals with a broad audience and got feedback before sharing it with the public. Do people find this a helpful reference when they plan meals? My gut reaction is no, although I think it’s a step up from some of the retro food guides I grew up with…

90s Throwback

This is the American Food Guide from the 90s. It’s ironic that the Atkins diet was all the craze, since breads and grains are the centrepiece of this guide. I find the dots really distracting, and again the food doesn’t look appealing. It’s interesting the “USE SPARINGLY” section of the pyramid is about as big as the dairy and meat sections. Overall, the pyramid communicates a confusing message to viewers.

In the past, designers have made an obvious choice to steer clear of “real looking” food, as evidenced in Canada’s previous Food Guide:

I don’t really understand this choice, since food is the easiest thing to photograph! It can’t go anywhere!

Final Thoughts

It’s interesting how a simple visual can have such a visceral impact. It makes sense, since our visual senses are our most powerful senses. When done well, a visual can inspire change and have lasting impact. Done poorly, they can confuse the public and even mislead them. There’s a big responsibility to get visuals right, especially now that they are finally taken as a serious way to share information. Go, Canada!

An interesting article on the history of American Food Guides: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/brief-history-usda-food-guides


1992 Food Guide Pyramid image from Choose my Plate: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/brief-history-usda-food-guides

2011 MyPlate image from Choose my Plate: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/brief-history-usda-food-guides

Canada Food Guide image from Government of Canada: https://food-guide.canada.ca/en/

Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide image from Government of Canada: https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/hc-sc/migration/hc-sc/fn-an/alt_formats/hpfb-dgpsa/pdf/food-guide-aliment/print_eatwell_bienmang-eng.pdf