Artist insight

Character design involves many different skills, from analysis and problem solving, to anatomy and colour. Francis Tsai shares his design tips…
uccessfully designing a character means utilising and combining a whole range of skills, as well as having some basic knowledge. Put another way, a successful design comes out of a process that is one half design and the other half visual communication. The design aspect relies heavily on analysing a situation, formulating a design problem, and then

Francis Tsai
COUNTRY: US CLIENTS: Playboy, Mattel, Motion Theory, Privateer Press Francis works as a conceptual designer and illustrator in the entertainment industry. He studied physical chemistry and architecture and worked in the latter for several years before leaving to pursue his current career, in TV, comics and film.


devising an interesting and elegant solution. The visual communication component depends heavily on basic skills of anatomy, composition, colour theory, and the ability to communicate the ideas that come out of the design process. With that strategy in mind, I’ll work through some examples showing different ways in which ideas are communicated in different character design case studies.

One of the primary ways in which we recognise a character is through its silhouette. This is the main graphic ‘read’ of a character, over and above details, textures and to a certain extent even colour. From a distance, textures and details are obscured, and lighting conditions can affect how the character’s colour is perceived. Rarely will a character’s silhouette be altered by environmental conditions.


This is usually the first step towards a character design. The main goal with this step is simply to generate as many ideas as possible, without worrying about editing anything out. There will be some interesting ideas, and most likely some unusable ideas. That’s okay. Almost everything from this stage onwards involves paring down and editing, so for now it’s good to push the boundaries and get as much out on the table as possible.

Once we’ve had the chance to generate a lot of thumbnail sketches, we have many ideas available to sort through. This is the point in the process where we start refining, combining different elements and keeping the ideas that work and discarding the ones that are not clear or don’t work.



Human beings are very good at pattern recognition. This is a trait that designers should take advantage of, and it’s also the basis for designing with a silhouette in mind. Related to this is the idea of ‘teams’ – it’s sometimes helpful to define groups based on colour, shape, or line. Associating certain groups with certain shapes or silhouettes helps the viewer to quickly determine if character X is part of the Evil Empire or one of the Good Guys.

Sometimes it’s useful to rely on visual cues and ideas with which people are already familiar and have certain associations. One example I’ve provided here shows a super-cyborg soldier type with a design that borrows equally from Nazi and bondage visual cues. This was intended to create a fearful and disturbing aura, and relies on ideas people already have regarding certain kinds of imagery.


February 2007

Artist insight Effective character design Borrowing from real-world cultures and religions for iconic imagery has the benefit of using shared vocabulary. 6 SHARED VOCABULARY: SUBTLE REFERENCES In the previous example the borrowed visual cues were obvious. rather than loudly state your references. Depending on how strongly the original idea shows through. Creating a character with a large head and small body evokes a different emotional response than a character with a small head and large body. Showing a character in some sort of characterspecific action is part of the visual communication tool set that tells the viewer a little more about the character. It’s not usually a critical design element. such as long robes. but this kind of usage shouldn’t be arbitrary. 9 SCALE 12 THE TWIST 8 SHOW PERSONALITY THROUGH EXPRESSION Another aspect of character design that’s often story-based is the character’s personality. A piece of concept art showing a lone character (unless it’s obviously a human character) is often not effective in communicating that character’s size relative to something the viewer is familiar with. sacred writings and ceremonial garb – but I’m not directly referring to any particular religious figure. and very specific. If cultural references are used in an appropriate manner. altering the proportions of the body is another useful tool in communicating a character concept. It’s also possible to hint at. 11 CULTURE SALAD The term actually refers to something you should avoid doing. Borrowing from real-world cultures and religions for iconic imagery has some of the benefits of using shared vocabulary as described above. it’s not quite as useful a technique for character designs that are very specific. however. but it does contribute to the visual communication part of the job. but this usage shouldn’t be arbitrary 10 PERSONALITY THROUGH POSE OR ACTION This one is a technique that is probably better used once the basic character design is mostly completed. February 2007 81 . it can be a useful exercise at times to explore visual cues you might not otherwise use. and combined with other influences that they are not normally associated with. the results can be interesting and unique. It’s usually helpful to add a human figure for scale. Putting a twist on a familiar character or idea is another way to generate interesting character designs. One way to show some sense of that is to portray your character with some sort of facial expression that reveals an important aspect of that character’s personality. 7 ALTERED PROPORTIONS With human and human-based characters in particular. priest-like figures by using cues. An issue that’s related to the area of body proportions is scale. In this sketch I’m referencing religious.

we are portraying ideals and extremes. 19 FOCUS ATTENTION. costume colour treatments. it forms a significant aspect of the silhouette. where secondary details such as graphics. logos.Workshops 13 PROPS: WEAPONS Certain characters derive much of their identity from the equipment they carry – for example. Many classic comic book superhero designs rely on this strategy – a simple. This is a useful note to remember. and playing down what you don’t. but with a bit of thought and research. which often serves as a design motif for their equipment as well. memorable logo. many scifi characters are identified by their weapons and armour. For instance. If a weapon is prominent or odd enough. 20 SYMMETRY Human standards of beauty usually depend on faces and bodies exhibiting left-right symmetry. oversized guns and swords are the most typical examples. If a weapon is unusual or prominent enough. animal companion. Part of the task of visual communication is emphasising the message you want to communicate. facial tattoos. VISUAL COMMUNICATION Once your design is more or less finalised. Using complementary or contrasting colours for skin and costume can provide an opportunity to create graphic shapes that can become a unique identifier. even if in real life people rarely exhibit perfect symmetry. Similar to the way in which the comic book heroes mentioned above benefit from a single. and how they do it. costume graphics and so on – and enabling less important areas of a character design to fall into shadow reinforces the important parts of the design. of course. it’s a common mistake to equate lots of detail with lots of interest. colour and pattern can be used in a more abstract manner to subtly imply particular ideas or motifs. you can provide insight into a character and create an interesting design statement by showing him or her with a particular vehicle. there are many visual communication techniques available to help you communicate the important aspects of it. BE DETAIL ORIENTED Too much detail can kill your design. These items communicate an aspect of the character by providing information such as what the character does. and so on can indicate to the viewer that two or more characters are related. this strategy can yield some interesting design statements. it forms a significant aspect of the character’s silhouette 14 UNIFYING DESIGN ELEMENTS Relating one or more characters as part of a ‘team’ can also occur at a second read level. Stylised. the less memorable each detail becomes. In addition to literal logos and symbols. clear logo on the chest. using lighting to focus a viewer’s attention on the key elements – such as logos. 18 USING COLOUR AND PATTERN 15 OTHER PROPS Weapons are just one possibility. In the field of entertainment design. or mystical equipment. The more areas of high detail you include. 16 ATTENTION. 82 February 2007 . details in a character design should be used with restraint. 17 KEY GRAPHIC OR COLOUR One way to create a strong identity for a character design is to focus attention on one key graphic or colour element.

25 THE ACTION SHOT: BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER February 2007 83 . CREEPY TWIST A phenomenon that’s been discussed a lot lately in the games industry. 24 THE TURNAROUND Normally a character designer is also required to provide a turnaround. at least not for one that needs to have any sort of staying power. this kind of image should be created once the character design has been fairly well developed. I again don’t think ‘sexy’ can be the main concept for a character design. The process of making sure details line up across all the drawings will often reveal problems in the design. One very effective way of communicating a character design is by creating a more narrative style of illustration.Artist insight Effective character design 21 ASYMMETRY If. This is usually considered to be negative. or orthographic drawings of the character that show front. A sexy twist on something that’s not traditionally considered sexy is more interesting – the ‘sexy nurse’ archetype is a great example of this idea. the viewer perceives something wrong about the character. on the other hand. By showing the character engaged in some major conflict or story point. we are getting more information than we would from a simple character design sketch. side and back views. However. refers to the creepy effect that an almost completely human-looking character has on a viewer. Because the character is so convincing except for one or two little things. This is again a visual communication matter – your message has to be clear to be effective. but this effect can also be used intentionally to create a subtly creepy character. you are including asymmetry as part of your design statement. The main thing to remember here is that making something very subtly asymmetrical just looks like you made a mistake. if you’re going for an asymmetrical design element. so doing the turnarounds is a good way to be rigorous about your design working in three dimensions. A sexy twist on something that’s not traditionally considered sexy is interesting – the sexy nurse archetype is a great example of this 23 THE SUBTLE. Obviously. make it obvious. it’s better to be definite about it. On paper. 22 SEX SELLS This is an advertising adage that has been proven time and time again. it’s difficult to anticipate every design issue. called ‘The Uncanny Valley’.

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