Superman, Bugs Bunny, and Darth Vader are some of the most memorable characters in TV and film. They all came from the world of 2D and 3D animation. But before these characters are animated, they are designed. Beyond mere drawings, iconic characters are meticulously crafted, given unique personalities and intricate details that breathe life into narratives. Now let’s get into this. Here are 15 tips and expert advice for brilliant character design. 

1. Hold on to the magic and keep it alive.

illustration of designer with tools

Most character designers often start their projects with a sketch. It’s because they believe this is where the essence of the character is captured. So, when working with your design, never lose that magic.

Renowned illustrator and art director Laurie Rowan says he tries sticking to his original drawing style. That way, his instinct is to try and polish it up. While drawing, artists feel like they just encountered these characters. 

As soon as you start to finalize the drawing, you may lose some of the dynamics. Therefore, having as much personality and life in the early stages is essential. While it is true that you can include movements later in the animation stage, it is much better if movements are already embedded in the initial sketch.  

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2. Don’t rely on the reference materials too much.

You aim to create an original character design, even if inspiration may come from somewhere. Most illustrators agree not to put the reference materials before them as they work. Here are some of the reasons why illustrators step away from reference materials when working: 

  • Some illustrators prefer to rely on something other than reference materials for all their imagination to flow freely. 
  • They avoid direct references to use their interpretation of the subject matter. 
  • Some illustrations prefer internalizing the reference information beforehand and focusing solely on the artwork. 
  • Illustrators want to create unique and imaginative artwork. 

3. Be inspired by conducting research.

illustration of light in a box

Analyzing the effectiveness of different character designs can give you valuable insights. Various research materials contain illustrated characters. You can find them in various mediums, such as TV commercials, cereal boxes, shop signs, mobile phone animations, and more. By studying these designs, you can understand the factors contributing to their success and identify personal preferences that resonate with them.

4. Exaggerate

To make your design genuinely captivating, exaggerate its defining features. This will create a larger-than-life presence. Viewers can quickly identify the character’s critical qualities by amplifying these traits. This technique is particularly significant in cartoon caricatures because it highlights specific personality traits. For example, if your character possesses strength, don’t just give them average arms; enhance them to be five times larger than usual to emphasize their immense power.

5. Think about your audience

If the designs are aimed at young children, the character is typically designed around basic shapes and bright colors. As Australian artist Nathan Jurevicius explains, working for a client, the character’s target audience is usually pre-identified. 

Commissioned character designs are more restrictive but no less creative. In this situation, breaking down the character’s core features and personality is recommended. Jurevicius says if the eyes are essential, he’ll focus the entire design around the face to make it stand out. 

6. Make your characters unique.

Your character design must be visually strong and exciting to get people’s attention. A robust character design leaves a lasting impression on the audience. It combines unique aesthetics, dynamic poses, vibrant colors, intricate details, or distinctive features.

7. Create a line of action.

One crucial aspect to consider when creating a character design is the line of action. This defines the direction of your character, as well as being a helpful narrative tool and bringing a feeling of movement. A ballet dancer is a good example. 

8. Include silhouettes

illustration of man sculpture

Another way to make your character distinct and improve its pose is to turn it into a silhouette. This way, you can see how the character appears and if you need to make the gesture more transparent. Before implementing this strategy, ask yourself this question. Do you understand the character’s emotion and see the line of action? Can things be simplified? Try not to overlap everything, and keep the limbs separate.

9. Find the perfect posture. 

Félicie Haymoz has worked with Wes Anderson on his animated features” Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Isle of Dogs.” When working on a new design, Haymoz likes to start by finding the individual character’s posture. This element kicks off the whole feel of the personality. As you draw, try to capture the stance of the character. Likewise, you must ensure that the face is drawn at a perfect angle to match the posture. 

10. Consider the meaning of lines.

The drawn lines of your character design 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 character.

For instance, straight lines and curves give your character design a rhythm. A straight line leads the eye quickly, while a detailed line slows down the eye. 

11. Choose colors wisely

illustration of color wheel

Colors can help communicate a character’s personality. Typically, dark colors such as black, purple, and gray depict baddies with evil intentions—light colors such as white, blue, pink, and yellow denote innocence and purity. Comic-book reds, yellows, and blues might evoke hero qualities in a character design.

Always maintain a balanced design by choosing the right colors. Complementary colors create dynamism, while monochrome colors invoke feelings of calm. 

12. Build it in 3D

Building your character in 3D opens possibilities for bringing your creation to life. Instead of a flat, 2D image, a 3D character can be manipulated and viewed from various angles. It provides a more immersive and realistic experience.

The 3D illustration model offers numerous advantages. It allows for greater flexibility and versatility in terms of animation. It also creates complex and dynamic poses, making the character more expressive and engaging. A 3D character can be easily adapted for different purposes, such as video games, movies, virtual reality experiences, or even 3D printing.

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