The Rapid Elearning Blog

Has this happened to you?  You’re building an elearning course on site safety and need a woman in a hard hat?  Yet when you search your clip art, all you can find is the same people you’ve used in your previous courses. 

Now you’re left with the only clip art you haven’t used–a man in a Zoot suit and a Cardinal.  You put them in your course and pray that no one notices the characters’ hats are not hard hats at all.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Zoot suit and Cardinal caps

Building scenarios for your elearning courses is a good way to engage your learners and it helps place the course content in a real world context.  However, when using clip art to build your scenarios you run into a couple of challenges.  One is having enough characters and the other is having the right characters.

If you have the skills, you can draw your own characters.  But most of us don’t have those skills, and even if we did, we don’t have the time.  The next best step is to buy clip art packages.  But eventually you run into the same issue with limited characters and you most likely don’t have the budget to keep buying more clip art.  So what do you do? 

Create Custom Clip Art

That’s easy.  You can create your own characters.  In a previous post, I explained how to create your own clip art.  You start by inserting a clip art image and then you ungroup it.  Once it’s ungrouped, you can modify the clip art by taking away or adding to it.  When you’re done, you regroup it, and you’re all set with a custom image to meet your needs.

Today, I’m going to build on that technique and share how to create custom characters for use in your elearning courses and scenarios.

Start with Images in the Same Style

Go to the clip art available through PowerPoint and Microsoft Office Online.  Do a search for "people."  At this point, don’t worry about an exact image.  Instead, look for clean styles that have a variety of people. 

When you find an image you like, locate its style and then download all of the images from that style.  What I usually look for is body parts, facial expressions, and items that I can use in my scenarios.  I’m not really concerned if the image is an office worker or an Eskimo as long as there’s something in the image that I think I can use.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Clip art style1280

You’ll notice that in style 1280 above there are some images that are obviously good and some that appear to be useless, unless I’m doing a course on ancient Egypt.  Regardless, I download them all.  You never know what you’ll need and having the same style makes the custom images look like they belong together.

Save Your Clip Art in a PowerPoint File

Spread the clip art over a series of slides so that you can quickly scan the images.  Then save the file as style1280.ppt.  Now you have a basic repository of all images from that style.  It’s easy to open that file and quickly scan the slides for the images you like.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Save clip art style1280

Create a Library of Spare Parts

Once you have all of the clip art saved, start to take them apart.  Separate the people from the backgrounds.  You can have whole people, or do like the Jacobins, and take their heads off. This way you always have bodies to which you can easily add heads.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Pull characters from the clip art

You can go as far as pulling body parts from the characters.  Suppose you need a hand, just grab it from your hand slide.  Or an arm that’s pointing up?  Same thing.  A slide with just heads is good because you can quickly grab a head and put it on a different body to create variations of the same character, as I did in the blended example above.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Separate heads from bodies

I do the same thing with facial elements such as the eyes, mouth, and nose.  Then I can use them to create more expressive characters.  As you’ll notice, style 1280 has characters that all look like they’re sleeping or have some sort of personality defect that prevents them from looking the other clip art in the eyes.  I don’t want my clip art sleeping and not paying attention to what’s going on in the scenario.  So I quickly add eyes.

Here are the basic steps:

  • Find a character you like
  • Remove the facial features to create a blank face
  • Add the facial features

If you need more facial features than the style provides, find other clip art images that are more expressive, ungroup them, and just pull the features you need.  They don’t always have to be from the same style since you’re only using a small part.

 The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Create custom faces 

Create Your Characters

Using the approach above let’s you create hundreds of characters for your elearning courses.  You’re no longer constrained by the clip art and you have the freedom to position them in ways that work for you perfectly for your scenarios.  By having spare body parts, especially heads and facial expressions, you can create exactly what you need, when you need it.

In the image below, you can see a before and after example.  By cleaning up the character and getting rid of the purse and newspaper, I’m able to create a multi-use character for my scenarios. 

Here’s what I did with the character below:

  • Added the facial expression from one of the faces above
  • Repositioned the character’s head and arms
  • Changed the color of the clothes

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Before and after character  

Now, if I am going to build a scenario and quickly need a character, I just copy and paste the woman from the slide into the scene. 

In the example below, the lady’s arm position was changed.  I also placed her head on another character’s body.  This allows me to use the same character in a different scene on a different day.  It’s like a virtual wardrobe, only without the cost or dry cleaning.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Character wardrobe change

If you go through a clip art style and separate the characters, you can quickly create a character library for use in your elearning courses.  As a best practice, take some time to pre-build characters for future courses. 

For example, with the lady above, I might name her Cynthia and then create a "Cynthia" folder.  I’d make multiple versions of her on the PowerPoint slide.  To save her as an image, just right click on her and select "Save as Picture."  Over time, you’ll have a collection of clip art characters you can easily use in your courses.

The Rapid E-Learning Blog - Right click to save character as an image

While the techniques take a little practice, they are easy to do and it’s a quick process.  Once you master them, you’ll never be at a loss when it comes to any characters you might need for role playing, case studies, or elearning scenarios. 

If you have any ideas or would like to share some of your own experiments with the clip art, feel free to add your feedback to the comments section of the post.


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80 responses to “Create Custom Characters for Your E-Learning Scenarios”

Hi Tom,

I loving using images to illustrate something. However I am not very good at using graphic tools and this has always been a constraint for me.

I am so delighted to read your post and I tried creating my own image using the group/ ungroup option. It really works.

Thanks for the useful information.

[…] post on how to create custom charaters for e-learning scenarios has really put an end to my problem of […]

Hi Tom,

this is absolutely great! I’ve been following your blog for quite some time now, and I’d like to thank you for sharing your marvellous ideas. I’m very impressed.

Cheers, Kirsten

Tom! How incredibly timely! I’ve been struggling with graphics options for a course due next month and this might just do the trick! Very helpful, as are all your posts. Thanks for sharing!

Tom — what an absolutely AWSOME posting today. I will save and cherish this forever. I have experienced the very same problem of running out of real characters and resorted to “ghosts”. Argh. Now I have a way of creating people that’s useful.

Keep sending these great ideas….
Nancy R

April 22nd, 2008

Hi, great idea. Our company uses only photos and doesn’t want us designers to use clip art. Any hints for photos?

Hi Tom,
Thanks for the great tips. I am just beginning to look into using characters in our elearning modules. I came across a website that allows you to buy character packs ($20 each) that come with all of the different body and face parts to allow you to quickly create the expression or action that you need for the scene. If anyone is interested you can find them at

This probably violates a million copyright laws, but I stick comic heads (Dilbert is a favorite) or real people (politics and entertainment) on clipart bodies and it really grabs people’s attentions.

Great, thc for post…

I always find your tips to be very creative and am often amazed at your genorosity in sharing them so freely


why is my email still visible


Great post again, Tom. The disassembly/reassembly of clip art is a real lifesaver to those of us without access to an in-house illustrator (which is likely most of us). I would like to see Microsoft add some more updated artwork. I’m currently milking a single collection or two for all they’re worth as there just aren’t that many truly great collections to choose from. And most of the stuff they have is really old and really tired.

Having to do the Ungroup command twice on these images, not to mention the annoying alert message you get each time, grows tedious. As does having to save as a Picture and reimport if you want to do things like adjust brightness or contrast. Do these irritations persist in PowerPoint 2007?

April 22nd, 2008

This is another wonderful post, Tom!
Maybe if there are enough of us out there who would like to take some time to dissect some of the better-styled clip art, we could create a sharing repository online and use the methods you described to create consistent files for the different styles and body parts.
I know that it would be a major time saver for me in creating rapid elearning, as I sure many others would find it quite useful.
If others are interested, any ideas on how or where we could store it? Would it be breaking any rules in regards to royalty free clip art?

In my goal to help you think about PowerPoint in a new way, I also want to be clear that I in no way encourage violating copyrights.

@Christine: Using the clipart for your own projects is one thing. I think you run into issues as you start to modify and share content with others. Not to say you can’t. I’d just check into that.

@Chris: You can always use screen beans:) I find that the clipart that MS puts online is constantly being updated. You’re right, you run into some issues working with the clipart. But then PPT’s not really designed as a graphics editing program.

BTW, you can modify the clip art on the first ungroup (at least in PPT2007). You can even move parts around and not lose the grouping. I’ll be doing a post on some of the cool new features in 2007 that I think really make rapid elearning that much more viable and make PPT like Flash-lite.

Great idea. Where did you get the style number? I couldn’t find that anywhere. Not that it matters much as I find I’m always using clipart from style 1280 anyway!

Good post about editing images and reusing image parts to create new ones!

April 22nd, 2008

This is a fantastic post Tom! Thanks for sharing your secret! While I’ve used lots of the clipart, I’ve never actually considered making the customizations you suggest in this post! Nicely done.

Dear Tom:
Spectacular! This is one of the best blog posts I’ve seen in a long time from anyone; great combination of “why” and “how.”

I will, again, be recommending your blog to the membership site owner community at, a market segment that can profit from these, and other, ideas.

Roger C. Parker

April 22nd, 2008

One thing that this does for me is point up the gender diffences in eyes, expressions and bodies. The person created in the second “Blended” illustration, for example, is definitely feminine, but has the eyes ordinarily associated with a charactured man.
In the first “Blended,” the figure and stance indicate a feminine person, but the head is masculine. I’m getting a visual mixed message.
Cartoons should provide visual identity clues. Clark Kent, for example, could not hide his Superman chin, but disguising his eyes with glasses and his massively muscled body with a suit allowed the viewer to see both sides of him at once.
How would you go about using clip art to differentiate a supervisor from a worker? How about a careless person from a careful person?
There was a cartoon that showed people standing in an elevator. All the eyes looked down, except one pair. Those eyes looked up.
The caption was “What happened here?”

April 22nd, 2008

Tom, Thanks for this post. I too have been leveraging Microsoft’s free clip art to use in my training presentations. I’d also mention that it’s extremely useful to use the ‘recolor’ format feature on both graphic and photographic clips. This has been a very quick and easy way for me to align sometimes oddly colored items to my presentation’s set palette colors.

April 22nd, 2008


I love this post! You really have nice bag tricks and tips. I concur with you regarding the scenario idea. This has served very well with my modules. I will practice the clip art and see what I can create.

Thanks a lot! 🙂


Love the idea but when i tried it out I found it difficult. I am using PPT 2003, is it much better with 2007. When I ungroup the image it ungroups everything and trying to take out a face or piece of clothing and trying to put it together again is impossible as it comes in too many pieces.

I love the blog it is really helpful.

This is terrific information Tom!

I’m not sure if you have a blog entry related to this next question, but do you have any recommendations on how characters are best suited in an eLearning session?

I do a lot of Software training and even though I think having a character in the eLearning session would be beneficial, sometimes I find it hard to fit in characters when explaining very technical or procedural steps of how to use software.

What are your thoughts on having a character take the participant on a tour from start to finish of the eLearning session?

Great tips and feedback. See Cheryl’s comment about cartoon packs and Jane’s on recoloring.

I detail how to find an image’s style (if it is part of one) on this post about custom clip art.

Rob makes a good point about the ungrouping which can seem confusing when you first get started. I’ll do a post on how I manage the ungrouped objects. Once you get used ot it, it’s pretty fast. 2007 is a little better working with layers because you hide and unhide them and then only work with the parts you want.

@Jason: Good question. From what I’ve read, using an avatar in your courses can help make it a better course. Ruth Clark and Richard Meyer have done a lot of writing on this.

If you haven’t gotten this book, E-Learning and the Science of Instruction it’s a good one to have as a resource. I used to whip it out when I’d have a customer who wanted to do something I knew was wrong, but didn’t want to listen to me. They always seemed to trust the book more. 🙂

April 22nd, 2008


Great stuff as usual. The only thing I would caution readers about is not to let your coworkers know you are keeping spare body parts in your office! They may not understand that you’re just using them to liven up your eLearning. “It’s alive! It’s alive!!”


@Paul: Good point. I kind of thought the blended guy looked a little like Clay Aiken :). I think the combination of the text, narration, and context helps set the stage and complements the visuals. Just think of the first image as a well groomed metrosexual.

April 22nd, 2008

Like some others I’ve used this technique before. I actually discovered it by accident. I sort of take it a bit further and scale the clip art really big then paste it into a graphic programme (Fireworks). Then I can select the clipping paths and covert them to vectors. That way I can work with the image in Fireworks where resolution and gradients and other tools are available to edit images to suit.

Good on you for sharing this.

Hi again. Thought I would share my own little blog post on this subject as I refer to your post today as the motivation to share my dirty little clip art habit. 😉

Love this technique! Saw you last week at the e-learning guild and couldn’t believe how relatively easy this was to do (and creative!). Thanks for all of your tips/tricks!

[…] Create Custom Characters for Your E-Learning Scenarios – The Rapid eLearning Blog […]

Tom – You inspire me man! You are always coming up with the helpful blog posts. This is a wonderful tip for those of us who don’t have ready access to our own graphics department. My organization is big enough to have a graphic designer in the Public Relations department, but small enough that he is way too busy to be on call for my design needs. So once again… I’m gushing over your work!

— “fanboy” Richard


Looks like Microsoft Online has stopped displaying the style of an image. I tried with the clipart j0437485.wmf and could not find the style displayed in its properties.

Trying further I found that some cliparts have Style displayed and many others do not.

Great post anyway


April 23rd, 2008

A great trick indeed. You’re a genius Tom.

– Saurabh

April 23rd, 2008


If your organization’s graphic designer builds her/his designs using layering techniques similar to the above mentioned clipart, you can ‘borrow’ graphics already made for other purposes and retask and recombine those too. Likely you will have to use a good graphics editing program rather than PPT but that way you will have a leg up in maintaining consistancy in your corporate images.


Allen – nice tip! I’ll visit with him and see if he’s got anything I can use. Thanks!

Tom – thanks for providing this forum for all of us!

April 23rd, 2008

Hi Tom,

I find this great when dealing with bigger ‘body parts’, such as arms, hair, legs and etc, however when I try to transplant something smaller like another characters eyes.

I find that since the eyes are made up of a number of tiny piecies it’s hard for me to copy and paste over to a differnet character in a way that look reasonable.

Any suggestions?

Glad to have a “fanboy.” 🙂

@Jane: God demo on your blog.

@Manoj: Some clip art will be in a style group and some isn’t. I used to have a note on my PC with the styles I liked, but can’t seem to find it.

@ungrouping small objects. I’ll do a post on how to work with ungrouped objects. Quick tip: work with duplicates and make the objects larger. Do frequent grouping and ungrouping to move objects around. CTRL+left mouse button lets you do a quick drag and copy.

April 23rd, 2008

You mentioned in a previous post which styles you liked. I bookmarked them originally, but then later created something similar to what your current post suggests… I created a Powerpoint with a link to each style and samples from each of the styles so I could quickly find what I was looking for.

This is from your previous post:
“Here are some of the styles I like to use when building courses:
1382, 1541, 1280, 1368, 1366.”

You are the BEST! I just scanned your latest tips on custom characters and I think you are going to put some graphic artists out of business!

I have not designed a scenario based training program in quite a while, but I have my graduate capstone coming up this summer. I was starting to consider (and worry) how I could make what I have in my head work with clip art and still look professional without the backing of a corporate budget.

I do occasionally ungroup, recolor, reposition and customize PowerPoint art for a presentation “as needed”. Your suggestions regarding downloading, ungrouping and reorganizing an entire collection before even starting the project has the potential to save many many valuable hours of time. ALso, on contractor projects, I dont always feel justified billing my client for untold hours just because I cant locate the clip art people I want. Now I can create them.

Thank you so much for the wonderful advice you keep sending us.

[…] o “link do dia” é o RapidLearning do Tom Kulmann. Descobri ele através de um interessante post sobre criação de personagens usando […]

I am agreeing with everyone else’s comments above and wanted to say “you are brilliant”!! Your use of those tools freely available is magic, and inspirational. Thank you!!!

Thanks a lot for stopping by and leaving a comment on my blog Tom.
I know I’ve been prejudiced…I guess its just coz I haven’t used these tools myself too much. And the few experiences I’ve had haven’t been “Wow!”. But, now I know that you can defintely some really “WOW” stuff with them. And your blog posts have been instrumental in changing my opnion. I’ve been reading your posts for some time now. They’ve encouraged me to look beyond my preconceptions. I AM surprised by the stuff you do. And I will continue to read and try out your tips…you have me hooked! 🙂
Thanks once again.

Hey Tom, I’ve got nearly 30 years in teaching and training but new to the elearning arena. I love your blog and the information is terrific.

Hi Tom, as usual you are AWESOME. One question however from this post….I CAN NOT for the life of me find where to “locate the style number” as you suggest, I’ve looked at properties, etc. Can you please fill us in on how you find the style number? Thanks again, Scott

Good question, Scott. Here’s a link to a previous post where I describe how to find the styles.

Something’s funky on the Microsoft site with regard to styles. When I do a search for people, some of the clips I find that do have a style don’t show a style listing. When I search for them by style, they do.

I sent MS a note about it.

Thanks again Tom, guess I should have just read back through the old posts first. 🙂 Thanks again, Scott

[…] Tom’s earlier post “Create Custom Characters for your e-Learning Scenarios” shows you step-by-step how he created characters for his courses by altering the clip art […]

[…] Create Custom Characters for Your E-Learning Scenarios Posted on May 29, 2008 in PowerPoint, Professional Development, Web/Tech by Tim Childers […]

June 17th, 2008


I have been working a lot with editing the clip art and removing and adding the pieces I want. Do you know how to get the inverse of an image? For example if a man is facing to the left, and I want to take his beard and put in on a man facing to the right. Can I flip his beard?

That’s totally awesome! I’m looking for a great set of characters to use with my company’s website tutorials.

thank for post

This post is amazing!

[…] Even if you’re stuck using clip art, you can find images from a similar style and then modify them to fit together.  I show you how to do that in this post on creating your own custom characters out of clip art. […]

June 25th, 2009

Just love all the useful, relevant and practical advice you give all the time. Thank you

[…] can use clipart (and if you do, check out Tom Kuhlman’s now-classic post on clipart editing).

Can’t have two cents worth as I am an Australian where we round one or two cents down to Zero and three and four cents up to five cents.Thus getting rid of those pesky one cent coins.

However,I do appreciate getting far more than two cents worth from your site and hope to incorporate it in updating my own web site. Thank you so much. Bernie, Down under.

[…] Create Custom Characters for Your E-Learning Scenarios […]

Could not see how to sort the clip art by style. Found style number OK, but how do you find all the others in the same style?

Click on the style number and all of the image sin that style should show up.

reat post again, Tom. The disassembly/reassembly of clip art is a real lifesaver to those of us without access to an in-house illustrator (which is likely most of us). I would like to see Microsoft add some more updated artwork. I’m currently milking a single collection or two for all they’re worth as there just aren’t that many truly great collections to choose from. And most of the stuff they have is really old and really tired.

Having to do the Ungroup command twice on these images, not to mention the annoying alert message you get each time, grows tedious. As does having to save as a Picture and reimport if you want to do things like adjust brightness or contrast. Do these irritations persist in PowerPoint 2007?

I’ve written a short story about a young boy’s experience growing up in his imagination while learning nature’s dangers… playing in the snow away from his home and then getting lost in a hail storm.

I want to publish it for young readers and for adults alike but I also want to illustrate it. I am an artist in my own rihgt but I want to illustrate it uisng characers I develop from patching together clip art pieces. Can anyione hep me.

[…] Даже если вы зашли в тупик, используя клип-арты, вы можете найти изображения, созданные в одном ключе и затем модифицировать их, для того, чтобы они подходили друг другу. Я показал как это сделать в одном из своих постов . […]

I am trying to do this, but I having a problem with the clipart from microsoft online. I can’t ungroup any of it. Do you have to download or save it a certain way so that I can ungroup. I understand that not all of the clipart will be able to do this, but so far nothing I have chosen has allowed me to do it.

@Marci: you can download or drag the clip art to the slide. Try one of the styles I mentioned to see if it’s working for you. It seems like more of the newer images are not vectors so they won’t ungroup.

[…] earlier posts, I’ve shared how to ungroup clip art to create your own images.  I also showed how you can use a clip art style to create a custom elearning template in […]

February 22nd, 2011

thank you and hello, i hate to do a project useig a chereacter and this website helped me so much. I passed my exams of cartoons hope to be a great cartoonist some day and to everybody keep dreaming as well, how i say from someones wrok can help you in millions of ways!!!! thankyou for your time to read this hope you understand what i think thankyou.

How do you download the entire style? Say for instance your suggested Style 1280. In the new updated Office clipart online, i don’t see an option to “select all” or to “download all.” Great tips and thanks so much.

@Brenda: there’s no real easy way to do the entire style. I just click and drag the images onto a slide. Then sort them later. It’s some work up front, but easier down the road.

[…] Find clip art characters you like.  Make modifications to them and then save as complete character sets.  I show you how to do this in the blog post on creating custom characters. […]

What do you do when the option of group isnt present when you right click the image?

@Jessica: to group an image, you have to have more than one item selected (and it can’t include template objects like the placeholder boxes). If you try to ungroup an image, that is only allowed if it’s a grouped vector image. Some of the images aren’t.

[…] Create Custom Clip Art That’s easy. You can create your own characters. Create Custom Characters for Your E-Learning Scenarios » The Rapid eLearning Blog […]

Lovely… You are simply great!!