Second only to your name, your profile picture is the most distinguishable feature of your digital platform. Whether you’ve decided to join a new social network or build up your profile on existing ones, you know you need a killer profile picture.

RELATED: How People Really Judge You When Googling Your Name

We traditionally associate images, graphics, and creative design with lateral thinking — by and large subject to personal preferences. While this connection bares some truth, researchers have collected enough data to turn our subconscious preferences into scientific principles.

Soooo…what does that mean for you and your profile picture? It means you can use these principles as a roadmap to help you determine the best profile picture for your online network and digital platforms.

First let’s consider some facts. (If you’re in a hurry, scroll down to the bottom to access the killer profile picture checklist.)

Why A Bad Profile Picture Will Break You

profile picture

You know the old saying: “A picture is worth a thousand words”?

What that really means is: one lousy profile picture can ruin your 1,000 word bio, no matter how eloquently-written, prestigious, or reputable it is.  

I explain the science behind this truth later on, but the important takeaways to remember are…

Your profile picture will convey a message, so what message do you want to convey? 

Look at these 4 restaurants. (They are all from my hometown in Wisconsin if you’re curious.) Which restaurant looks the most enticing?  

a. Mary's

 

 

b. Victoria's italian

 

c. Parma

 

d. How To Get A Killer Profile Picture (And Why It Matters) 3

If you’re like most people, you’d agree that both A & B look shabby, while C & D look great. But what if I told you the opposite is true? Would you believe me? Because it is. Year after year, both restaurants A & B win regional awards for the best food in town. C & D don’t even make the shortlist.

In fact, restaurants C & D have gone out of business due to the underwhelming quality of their food and service. (It really sucked.) Economic forces played a role in their closures as well but that’s beside the point.

The point is we all judge books by their cover. We’ve practiced this behavior since childhood and it’s baked it into our subliminal operating systems.

You could use this example to argue that the interior matters more than the exterior. While I agree to this logic (what’s inside matters more than what’s outside), you automatically disqualify yourself from new opportunities with a bad cover. A bad profile picture turns people away.

The cover, or “first impression,” conveys a message AND gives meaning to that message. Your profile picture functions as your cover, your first impression, and most importantly — your message.

  • What do you want to emphasize?
  • What do you want to minimize?
  • What 3 words do you want people to think within 3 seconds of seeing your photo?

Your profile picture will convey a message but only to a specific group of people, so who are those people?

How To Get A Killer Profile Picture (And Why It Matters) 3

There are 7.6 billion people in the world today. That’s 250 babies born to the planet every minute. I guarantee you this: your profile picture (and your message) will not speak to all 7.6 billion human beings, nor should it. You need to come to terms with the concept of exclusivity if you haven’t already. You’re not committing a mortal sin by being exclusive; you’re defining your audience.

Based on your message, expertise, interests, and passions, who are the people you want viewing your profile picture? Your profile picture is for THOSE people.  

profile picture audience

Your profile picture speaks 1,000 words so take time to think about what you want yours to “say.” Plus, by speaking your audience’s language vis-a-vis your profile picture, it will help THEM find YOU.  

What We Know About Profile Pictures From Experimenting On Humans

Social scientists from across the globe have poured time and money into answering this one question: What makes a good profile picture?”

While there’s no definitive ‘Pass’ or ‘Fail’ law when it comes to a profile picture, we can draw on research to create a roadmap that will help us reach a decision.

Let’s break down that roadmap into 5 key elements:

 

1. Physical Attributes

65. That’s the number of facial features the University of York’s Department of Psychology evaluated in determining the science of a good first impression. They found that in 100 milliseconds or less, we use these 65 facial features to “read” and make inferences about the other person: their dominance, trustworthiness, approachability, etc. I’ve synthesized the key finding.

Eyes: Wide-eyes convey youthful attractiveness, but they also convey vulnerability. Find a happy medium and go for the comfortable squint. (Bonus: SocialFeeler found that a slight squint also increased perceptions of likability, competence, and influence.)

Eyebrows: Relax your eyebrows to show friendliness.

Mouth: Smile or laugh with teeth showing to appear more likeable.

Jawline: Your jawline can reveal stress, tension, and anxiety, so pay attention to your emotional disposition when you get your picture taken. You also need to accentuate the jawline in your picture. Any good photographer and make-up artist knows this.

2. Background

A solid background works best. Some professionals prefer neutrals, like black and white, while others go for bold and bright colors. Whatever you choose, stay away from busy backgrounds and have enough contrast to distinguish yourself from the surroundings.

If you’re feeling edgy, go on field trip with your photographer — maybe to an old warehouse, a college campus, downtown, or a local nature preserve. These are acceptable locations for a professional photo shoot and show off your personality. Just remember to keep the background free from distractions and turn up the contrast.   

3. Colors & Lighting

When it comes time to take your photo, face the light. The source should always come from in front of you.When it comes time to edit your photo, follow the rule of moderation: No over-saturation, no intense filters, (filters work well for other photos but NOT your profile picture), and no dark shadows.   

B&W or color: research from Photofeeler shows how B&W vs. full-color makes no difference in how others perceive you. Both B&W and full-color photos scored the same for competence, likeability, and influence.

4. Clothing & Accessories

Ding ding ding. Pay attention: research shows that your choice of clothing plays the largest role in how others perceive you. Influencers need to dress to impress so wear whatever your industry or niche deems formal.

Ditch the hats, sunglasses, pets, and large accessories too. People who include these items in their profile pictures are considered less reputable than those without them.

5. Positioning

Either look at the camera or gaze away, but do not hide any part of your face. Since humans have a natural tendency to follow the gaze of others, if you decide to look away from the camera, consider what part of your profile you want your audience to concentrate on. Do you want them to ‘follow’ you, click to read your articles, post a message on your wall? Do you have a certain call-to-action somewhere on your blog?  

Using this research will help you capture a profile picture that captures your audience’s attention.   

The Catch-All Checklist For A Killer Profile Picture

To summarize, here’s a catch-all checklist for your next profile picture:

  • Smile
  • Show teeth
  • Squint slightly
  • Relax eyebrows
  • Accentuate the jawline
  • Wear formal attire, industry appropriate
  • Look directly at the camera or gaze away with purpose

Resize your image so it “magically” fits across all your social profiles. For example: An optimal Facebook profile picture is 180 x 180 pixels while an optimal LinkedIn profile picture is 400 X 400 pixels. These recommended dimensions change frequently so stay alert for platform changes.

RELATED: How Social Media Agencies Actually Work (And Why You Should Avoid Them)

Name your image file “YourName.jpg or “YourName.png” before uploading it to your profile. This allows search engines to crawl, read, and find your profile picture.

Finally, remember that your profile picture is not your cover photo (aka hero or header image), and should be treated differently. That’s a different topic, but for now use these tips for a killer profile picture and start optimizing your digital presence.