Why your profile picture is important
Choosing a good profile picture will make collaborating with others easier, especially if you haven’t met them yet. Here are some tips to help you pick a good one.
For the last couple of months I’ve been getting used to working remotely. I’ve worked on many open source projects in the past with remote collaborators, but this is the first time that I’ve been 100% remote from the people I’m working with every day. It has been going great and I’m really enjoying it, but it has really shown me the importance of a good profile picture.
Currently my primary means of working with my colleagues is either via email (Outlook), Slack or GitHub and it is notoriously difficult to convey emotion and emphasis in a text only communication method. When we speak to someone face to face there are a whole bunch of physical queues that we do with our body language, facial expressions and tone of voice which add context and meaning to the words we are saying.
Since switching to a text only medium I’ve noticed myself picking up these same social queues from profile pictures of the folks I’m speaking to. It is the only other thing to focus on while reading the words they’ve written. I’ve noticed this particularly strongly with people that I haven’t spoken to in real life or by video call. Their profile picture is the only thing I have to frame who they are, their personality and their tone. When working in open source you speak to new people every day, so while you will build up a mental image of a direct colleague via video chats and occasional in person meetings, you are always going to be speaking to new people and experiencing this.
Therefore if a person’s picture is friendly and welcoming then everything they say will be taken with a subtle positive spin. If it is cold and professional then their words may feel more critical. I’m by no means a body language expert but I wanted to break down what I think are some good guidelines for creating your profile picture in order to make communication easier, especially with people you haven’t met yet.
Start with me
This is my current profile picture.
I’ve used this picture for around three years across most of my social media and communication channels. I didn’t put much thought into choosing it, a photographer was taking pictures at work and when I saw this one I was pleased I hadn’t blinked at the wrong time and the picture was high quality. That was about all of the critical thinking that went into it. Once we’ve gone through my suggestions for choosing a good picture let’s review this to see how I did.
Have a profile picture
It may sound obvious in a post about profile pictures but it is really helpful to the people you’re working with if you have one.
I have no idea at a glance who has replied to this Slack thread because they are using the default Slack profile pictures. It’s great that Slack provides unique profile pictures to everyone by default but they are not THAT unique, they all seem to blend together in my mind. Having a distinctive picture helps others identify you at a glance.
Use a photo of yourself
Choosing a picture from some pop culture reference can create a unique avatar which people can use to identify you, and it also communicates your interests. However it doesn’t communicate who you are or what you look like. It’s great that you love xkcd and I’m sure cueball sitting at a computer sums up how you view yourself, but it doesn’t help anyone’s mental picture of you.
Making a character that looks like you in the South Park Character Creator, or using the carriacature you got at your friends wedding goes a little further to help identify who you are to others. But you just can’t beat an actual photo of you.
Note: There are many valid reasons why you might not want to put a photo of yourself on the internet. If you’ve made the decision to keep your face to yourself then that’s your business. Many of the following points may still be valuable when considering how your chosen picture represents you.
Be warm, positive and happy
The emotion that you present in your photo will subconsciously provide context to the words that you write. It’s very common for people to strike a “professional” pose which consists of a neutral expression and folded arms.
While people intend for it to make them look respectable this pose may come across as defensive and put people on guard.
The neutral expression adds to this and will give people the impression that you are putting on a poker face. It’s better for you to be smiling in your photo as it will add positive connotations what whatever you are saying.
Try using a photo like this with open body language and a friendly facial expression.
Frame your head and shoulders
Your profile picture is going to be viewed at many different sizes, and most likely it will be very small the first time someone sees it. So you might want to focus on your face to keep it clear and visible, which helps avoid any body language issues too! Frame just your head and shoulders in the shot because you are going to lose a lot of detail as things are shrunk down.
Compare the two following images at different sizes. The full head and torso shot begins to look cluttered and the facial expression is hard to make out as it gets smaller. But you can still see the smile in the smallest version of the head and shoulders shot.
Keep your face uncovered
Obscuring your face can give the same impression as a negative facial expression. Covering your mouth is a common gesture that people do when they are lying or being deceitful.
If you want to let people know that you are a coffee fanatic in your profile picture try holding your mug out of the way.
Face the camera
If your picture shows you facing away from the camera it can give the impression that you are not open to hearing what people have to say or may make your picture feel detatched from the person they are talking to.
When you talk to someone in real life it is polite to face them and give them eye contact. It shows that you are listening and engaged in the conversation. This kind of body language could also be inferred from your profile picture.
Be the only person in the photo
Your profile picture is there to give someone an impression of who you are. Having multiple people in the photo will just lead to confusion. Even if it is obvious which one is you (perhaps because of age, gender, etc). It still adds a mental overhead to filter out the other person.
If there is a picture of you with someone else that you particularly like then be sure to crop out enough of them to leave just you.
Keep the photo natural and in full colour
Using a filter on your profile photo is common on personal social media, especially on Instagram. By association this gives these pictures more of a social feel than a professional one. If you’re going to edit your photo I suggest you use effects which fix lighting and contrast to make it look more realistic rather than artistic.
In this example the left image here is going to feel more professional and the right image is going to feel more personal.
Use a high contrast photo
You are the only thing that matters in the photo. To help view your profile picture at smaller sizes you want to make sure there is a high contrast between you and the background. You can use techniques including lighting, focus and plain backgrounds to make sure you stand out.
The busy, green, in-focus background above makes it harder for your eyes to pick out the subject compared to the pale out-of-focus background in the picture below.
Use the same picture everywhere
Be consistent with your profile picture. It is the way people will identify you between platforms. If you use one picture in Slack and a different one on GitHub people will have to put in some effort to identify you when they switch contexts. It doesn’t sound like much but the small discontinuity may disrupt someone’s mental image of you.
That being said different pictures may be better suited to different platforms. You may want a professional headshot on your LinkedIn and a fun photo from a family occasion on your Facebook profile. My advice here is that you should be consistent within your various communities. If you use Twitter, GitHub and Slack regularly for work then it is helpful to have the same picture across them.
You could also use this to create a distinction between your work and home personas with a different image for each.
Don’t change your picture often
To continue the point above, people will learn to recognise you by your profile picture across various platforms. If you change that image too regularly people will have to re-learn to recognise at a glance each time.
Find a picture that you like, that presents you in the way you want people to see you and then stick with it. As long as that picture still accurately represents you then you’re fine! If you’ve cut your hair, grown a beard or gone grey it might be time for an update.
These general tips are intended to help you choose a profile picture that will hopefully ease communication. Breaking some of these rules isn’t going to hurt your work relationships so don’t worry if your current picture doesn’t follow all of them. It is just something to bear in mind next time you update your picture.
Thinking back to my current profile picture I think I actually did a reasonable job, despite not putting much thought to it. I’m smiling, facing the camera and I’m consistent with it (mostly out of laziness). I think I’ll probably stick with it for a while, at least until I’m a bit more grey and have a few more wrinkles.
Lastly a quick thank you to all the creators who made their photos free to use on unsplash. It really helped me put this article together with examples.
Let me know what you think of this article on twitter @_jacobtomlinson or leave a comment below!