December 14, 2009

Jon Burgerman's 20 Character Design Tips

1: Research and evaluate
It can be helpful to try and deconstruct why certain characters and their characteristics work and why some don’t. There’s no shortage of research material to be found, with illustrated characters appearing everywhere: on TV commercials, cereal boxes, shop signs, stickers on fruit, animations on mobile phones, and more. Study these characters and think about what makes some successful and what in particular you like about them.

2: Design and plan
Where will the character be seen and in what medium? This will have a direct bearing on how you go about your design. For example, if the character is for a mobile-phone screen, there’s no point designing it to have a lot of intricate details and features. Nathan Jurevicius says, regardless of the format, “The process of thinking up concepts always starts the same: paper, pencil, green tea... lots of thumbnails, written ideas, scratches and sketches over sketches.”

3: Who is it aimed at?
Think about your audience. Characters aimed at young children, for example, are typically designed around basic shapes and bright colours. Find the genre, is it a sci-fi, fantasy, horror, realistic, cartoony, videogame, or comicbook style? If you’re working for a client, the character’s target audience is usually predetermined, as Nathan Jurevicius explains: “Commissioned characters are usually more restrictive but no less creative. Clients have specific needs but also want me to do my ‘thing’. Usually, I’ll break down the core features and personality. For example, if the eyes are important then I’ll focus the whole design around the face, making this the key feature that stands out.”

4: Visual impact
Whether you’re creating a monkey, robot or monster, you can guarantee there are going to be a hundred other similar creations out there. Your character needs to be strong and interesting in a visual sense to get people’s attention. When devising The Simpsons, Matt Groening knew he had to offer the viewers something different. He reckoned that when viewers were flicking through TV channels and came across the show, the characters’ unusually bright yellow skin colour would grab their attention.

5: Line qualities and styles
The drawn lines of which your character is composed can go some way to describing it. Thick, even, soft and round lines may suggest an approachable, cute character, whereas sharp, scratchy and uneven lines might point to an uneasy and erratic character. Sune Ehlers characters are bold and seem to dance on the page, which echoes his approach to drawing them. He explains: “Drawing a doodle is about decisive pen-manoeuvring. A strong line for me comes from strength and rhythm.”

6: Exaggerated characteristics
Exaggerating the defining features of your character will help it appear larger than life. Exaggerated features will also help viewers to identif y the character’s key qualities. Exaggeration is key in cartoon caricatures and helps emphasise certain personality traits. If your character is strong, don’t just give it normal-sized bulging arms, soup them up so that they’re five times as big as they should be!

7: Colour me bad
Colours can help communicate a character’s personality. Typically, dark colours such as black, purples and greys depict baddies with malevolent intentions. Light colours such as white, blues, pinks and yellows express innocence, good and purity. Comic-book reds, yellows and blues might go some way to giving hero qualities to a character.

8: Adding accessories
Props and clothing can help to emphasise character traits and their background. For example, scruffy clothes can be used for poor characters, and lots of diamonds and bling for tasteless rich ones. Accessories can also be more literal extensions of your character’s personality, such as a parrot on a pirate’s shoulder or a maggot in a ghoul’s skull.

9: The third dimension
Depending on what you have planned for your character, you might need to work out what it will look like from all angles. A seemingly flat character can take on a whole new persona when seen from the side if, for example, it has a massive beer belly. If your character is going to exist within a 3D world, as an animation or even as a toy, working out its height, weight and physical shape is all important.

10: Conveying personality
Interesting looks alone do not necessarily make for a good character; its personality is key as well. A character’s personality can be revealed through comic strips and animations, where we see how it reacts to certain situations. The personality of your character doesn’t have to be particularly agreeable, but it does need to be interesting (unless your characters is purposely dull). Personality can also be expressed simply in how the character has been drawn.

11: Express yourself
Expressions showing a character’s range of emotions and depicting its ups and downs will further flesh out your character. Depending on its personality, a figure’s emotions might be muted and wry or explosive and wildly exaggerated. Classic examples of this can be found in the work of the legendary Tex Avery: the eyes of his Wild Wolf character often pop out of its head when it’s excited. Another example of how expressions communicate motions is deadpan Droopy, who barely registers any sort of emotion at all.

12: Goals and dreams
The driving force behind a character’s personality is what it wants to achieve. This missing ‘something’ – be it riches, a girlfriend or solving a mystery – can help to create the dramatic thrust behind the stories and adventures your character gets up to. Often the incompleteness or flaws in a character are what make it interesting.

13: Building back stories
If you’re planning for your character to exist within comics and animations then developing its back story is important. Where it comes from, how it came to exist and any life-changing events it has experienced are going to help back up the solidity of, and subsequent belief in, your character. Sometimes the telling of a character’s back story can be more interesting than the character’s present adventures… or not, in the case of the Star Wars prequels.

14: Quick on the draw
Don’t be afraid to experiment and ignore all the rules and tips about planning and crafting the look of your character. Going against what is supposed to be the right way of doing something could create unexpected and exciting results. When artist Yuck creates his characters he doesn’t really know what he’ll draw. “I just listen to music and draw the result dependent on my mood: freaky or cute. I always want to have a drawing that I find interesting. I then work more on the character after it’s okay with me and my brain,” he says.

15: Hone, plan and polish
Instead of just drawing or doodling without too much pre-planning, Nathan Jurevicius prefers to take a different approach. “I take a long time creating finished looking roughs and also thinking about how the character could be expanded beyond a 2D artwork, what the character will do in a specific world, and how it speaks and acts,” he says.

16: Drawn in mud
Having decent materials to work with is useful, but not essential, for the early planning of your character. A lot of amazing characters were successfully designed years ago when no one had personal computers and Photoshop was just a dream. The drawings of your character should still work when rendered on paper with a simple pen or, as Sune Ehlers puts it, “The character should still be able to work with a stick dipped in mud and drawn on asphalt.”

17: Real-world drawing
Ian, of I Like Drawing, generates some of his characters away from both the computer and the sketchbook, allowing outside elements to influence his work. “I really like characters that interact with their surroundings,” he says. “The environment normally suggests an idea and then I let my strange mind do the rest. I prefer drawing in the real world with a pen instead of on the computer, because it feels good and odd things happen.”

18: Release the beast
Show people your creations and ask them what they think. Don’t just ask whether they like them or not. Instead, see if they can pick up the personalities and traits of your characters. Find who you think is the suitable or ideal audience for your work and get feedback specifically from them about it.

19: Beyond the character
In the same way that you create a history for your character, you need to create an environment for it to help further cement believability in your creation. The world in which the character lives and interacts should in some way make sense to who the character is and what it gets up to.

20: Fine-tuning a figure
Question each element of your creation, especially things such as its facial features. The slightest alteration can have a great effect on how your character is perceived. Illustrator Neil McFarland advises: “Think about the meaning of the word ‘character’. You’re supposed to breath life into these things, make them appealing and give them the magic that will allow people to imagine what they’re like to meet and how they might move. I think it’s strange how creating characters for the sake of it has become a distinct branch of graphic design.”

See the Art of Jon Burgerman here.

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