What’s the secret to creating quirky characters with mainstream appeal? Digital Arts asks the experts.
Character-based art is one of the most popular design genres: in recent times the world has been flooded with cute, wide-eyed creatures, cool DJ chicks and cuddly monsters.
Character design is now taken seriously enough to warrant major exhibitions in prestigious art galleries, but unlike a lot of fine art, character design also has a mainstream market, meaning that it’s possible to make a career of commercial character design – and many creatives do.
Although character art is popular among the design community and public, trying to pin down the qualities that make a character successful is tricky. “There’s no magic formula to get it right,” says designer David Cousens, who runs illustration studio CoolSurface.com with his wife Sarah.
“It’s something that’s instantly recognizable, both in terms of visuals and what the character stands for. Quite often the character will tap into the zeitgeist and represent some of society’s feelings, and other times it can just be pure blind luck that something scribbled on a napkin develops a cult following.”
Cousens feels there’s something unique and iconic about the best characters. “They can be identified even when drawn by a number of people in different styles,” he says. “There’s always the old silhouette test – if you can work out who a character is just by looking at their silhouette, you’ve cracked it.”
Like most other art forms, character art experiences trends and movements; the Pictoplasma project (www.pictoplasma.com) studies these trends closely, mounting exhibitions, publishing anthologies and organizing conferences – the group’s first US exhibition takes place in New York in September.
Peter Thaler of Pictoplasma summarizes recent trends in character design: “As we started the project at the turn of the century, a global scene of character designers were producing billions of happy-DJ depictions,” he says.
“Cute and cuddly robots were far removed from feelings of technological paranoia. Naive boys and girls with over-the-top expressions and ecstatically widened pupils promised a bright future.” However, trends change quickly:
“Just three years later, the same golden boys and girls were tortured, twisted and mutilated,” says Thaler. “The blunt combination of cute and abused, naïve and sexualized, harmless and violent became the focus of content.”
Today things seem to have changed again: Thaler observes that character art increasingly takes on complex spiritual motifs. “[Characters] are born, grow up, make mistakes, replicate, grow old, eventually die and either go to heaven or hell – or they are simply reincarnated,” says Thaler.
During the research for their latest compilation book, The Character Encyclopaedia, Pictoplasma noted that many artists were depicting the exhalation of a character’s soul at the point of death. “We’re pretty sure that the creators weren’t aware that there are uncountable other artists around the world drawing on exactly the same motif,” says Thaler.
The character design scene is becoming increasingly international. “If we were forced to name just one current hotspot, it would probably be South America for all things cute and cool,” continues Thaler.
“But there is also a lot of fresh work coming from Israel and Turkey, and France has emerged as the epicentre of a new scene of artists working on rough, figurative abstraction.”
One of the strongest style references on the burgeoning character design scene is Japanese anime style; Alex Jenkins, interactive director of London-based digital production company Unit9 (www.unit9.com), says that this style of character creation remains influential. “They [anime characters] are iconic and they lend themselves to vector graphics tools so easily,” he says. “But I’m seeing more and more quirky entries into the character market, a return to pencil and ink, and more illustrative, craft-based approaches.
"I think the desire to be more unique and feel less mass-produced is appealing to a lot of people right now. I also think people are tired of seeing the same ‘designer toy’ style of characters that must have been around for around ten years now.”
Other trends are also seeping into mainstream character design. “There have been a lot of puppets used to good effect over the past few years,” says Keshi Bouri, creative director of branding agency Dragon Brands (www.dragonbrands.com).
“Flat Eric for Levis, the Pets.com sock-puppet dog in the US, and more recently we’ve seen the reemergence of the Thunderbirds for all sorts of things, from Specsavers to bottled water.”
Bouri continues: “Overall, I think that characters or illustrative elements have to be the right approach for the brand they are employed to represent,” continues Bouri. “If the concept doesn’t work or the strategy doesn’t fit then these ideas, characters or illustration will fail.”
The most obvious place to look for memorable characters is the world of marketing, advertising and branding, but illustrator Rian Hughes (www.devicefonts.co.uk) points out that all kinds of clients are commissioning character art. “These could be corporations who are looking for a ‘mascot’, comic-strip characters, toys, as well as general character-based illustration where the characters don’t necessarily have a name – they just embody the spirit of the product, such as my Forever Friends work for Clark’s Shoes,” he says.
Chris Steele, a director at Koko Digital (www.kokodigital.co.uk), a digital marketing agency, says that the appeal for corporate clients is that characters can add depth to the user experience. “They’re sometimes a way to inject humour into a subject,” he says. “Or they simply act as something that the end-user may remember or associate themselves with.”
Power of association
Of course, using characters in commercial design is nothing new. Cereal brands, for example, have personalized their products with mascot characters since the golden age of TV advertising.
Danish branding agency ICON22 (www.icon22.com) has several international clients who employ character-based artwork for Web sites and other features.
“We believe that it’s a trend that will continue, because characters are easier to shape and personalize than photos,” says ICON22’s Jan Ligaard.
“For the designer, it gives a brand new way to communicate without thinking too much of which stereotypes you might be insulting. You have the chance to create your own unique character with characteristics from a lot of different cultures and thereby talk to all of your users and viewers.”
Keshi Bouri says that characters work best for younger markets, as they are often more open to playful brand expression. “You can see illustrative characters employed to sell merchandizing or to communicate with them on another level,” says Bouri. “It definitely resonates with them [young audiences] more – which is why you probably see them used more on things like children’s breakfast cereals or confectionery.”
Designer Dan Capozzi and his Bionyc Industries studio (www.bionyc.com) do a lot of branding and identity for the youth and young adult market with character-based design.
“The briefs we get are really creative, and we stay away from super-straight corporate stuff,” says Capozzi. “We just like working on projects that excite us and that we’re proud to add to our portfolio. We often get asked to inject youth and to boost and refresh an existing brand’s credibility, that will appeal to the demographic we’ve been set.”
Chris Steele of Koko underlines the power of strong character design: “As a viral agency, Koko does try to involve character designs into all viral and adver-games – whether that’s a parachuting sheep, or an exaggerated American sports commentator,” he says.
“Recently we’ve been commissioned to develop a character to solely represent a brand. This character will then be used within all of their marketing material; from printed brochures and exhibition stands to viral marketing campaigns.”
It’s a tried and tested route, and many characters have been highly successful in raising brand awareness. “It’s almost the same relationship that you’d expect from an brand emblem and a brand name,” says Steele. “Everyone who sees the Nike swoosh knows that the brand is Nike without seeing the actual brand name, and in the same instance most people who see the Fido Dido character will think of 7-Up.”
It doesn’t always work, however. Keshi Bouri points out that several telecom brands have had a mixed reception when using characters or illustrative elements to sell products or segment audiences.
“These can be misconstrued by customers who don’t understand the complex messages or strategies they are being urged to understand, especially if they’re not communicated or introduced in the correct way,” says Bouri.
“There’s also often a time limit on how long they are effective, as illustrations or characters have a tendency to age quickly as technology or trends change, which means they either disappear or get revamped often,” he continues.
So is character design here to stay? It’s far from certain: Pictoplasma’s Pete Thaler has witnessed a change in the amount of characters being used in advertising and branding. “We have the impression that things have reached saturation,” he says – but this isn’t disastrous: “To tell you the truth, we’re quite thankful.”
MAKE YOUR CHARACTERS WORK
Designers give us their top tips for creating successful characters – every time.
Daniel Capozzi, Bionyc
If you’re going to design an action hero, don’t draw him or her with their hands just by their side. Give them movement, power and energy. If the character has a very stressful personality, draw them in a whirlwind of frantic mayhem, completely out of control, with bits of paper flying everywhere, or pulling out their hair. The pose and expression speak volumes. In advertising and commercial character design, avoid the scary. They hate anything that might scare people or kids. Sharp teeth, especially, are a big no-no. The amount of times I’ve had to change sneaky eyes and sharp teeth... It’s a shame, because they’re always the ones that look cool, but they never survive the commercial meat-machine of approval. As for toys and free-rein commissions like record covers and flyers, go nuts!
Alex Jenkins, interactive director, unit9
In the case of characters as ambassadors for brands, [designing] a good character can be similar to creating a logo, often refined and crafted over a few versions. Use small details like adjusting the line-weight, size and position of eyes, to create a sense of harmony and balance. Above all, a good character must have personality and magnetism in its poise that makes you believe in the illusion of its existence. A beautifully crafted character can lose out to a deceptively simple sketch if it fails to capture this.
Rob Reger, Cosmic Debris
Refine your character until it’s simple enough to convey expression with fewer marks. It’s difficult for me to say how to convey expression when my main character [Emily the Strange] never has any! Emily’s personality is to be expressive in actions/words but not in the face itself for the most part. What makes a character appealing is when it makes you think of something beyond what you are looking at.
Jan Lingaard, Icon22
Know your expressions – especially around the eyes. You can use anything around you for inspiration. The fridge, the vacuum cleaner or a mobile phone – all of these can be converted to characters with personalities.
Peter Thaler, Pictoplasma
The key to character design is investing the design with an appearance of life, an anthropomorphic appeal, and animating it in the sense of lending it a soul. It is what we project onto the image that triggers this animation – but it is the density and strength of their design that makes characters an ideal screen for our imaginations. So we have the impression that what we see is looking back at us.
David Cousens, CoolSurface.com If you aim for ‘cool’, you’ll instantly start being influenced by current trends, which will normally result in clichéd and quickly dated characters. Instead, it’s best to try to think about your character’s personality and work from the ground up. When you start thinking about these things, you can adapt their look to fit their personality and history, and you’ll have a much stronger character. Pay a lot of attention to your characters’ faces, as this is where the majority of their emotions will be displayed.
Emily the strange
Licensing characters can really pay off. Fifteen years after Rob Reger printed a T-shirt of a moody girl for a friend’s shop in California’s Bay Area, Emily the Strange has grown into an international character-design phenomenon. His friend Nathan Carrico had created the initial illustration, but Reger was persuaded to start designing more T-shirts and stickers in response to Emily’s immediate popularity.
Now creative director/president of clothing and accessories company Cosmic Debris, Reger leads a team of designers, including lead illustrator Buzz Parker (illustrator on the comics, clothing and Web site), and senior illustrator, Nicomi ‘Nix’ Turner.
Over the past 15 years, Reger and his team have created a world for Emily and a number of related characters, building her an ever-growing backstory and publishing her adventures in a series of comic books by Dark Horse Entertainment and Chronicle Books.
With the books now translated into 15 languages, Emily graces bags, calendars, hoodies (Mötley Crue’s Tommy Lee wears and promotes them), has her own Web-based community and is on track for being made into both a film and a video game. Not bad for a character on a T-shirt.
Reger believes that a key part of Emily’s success lies in the fact that people can identify with her – ‘strange’ though she is. “Emily is very different from the typical Barbie-doll type that society seems to push for girls. I think a lot of people can identify with not fitting the mould. Plus she is strong, has an attitude, can reel off clever lines without blinking an eye, and loves rock and roll. It seems everyone finds a bit of themselves in the character.”
She may not be Barbie, but Emily has smartened up over the years. “Emily has become a lot more polished-looking, feminine and cute than she was in the early years,” says Reger.
“The white ring in her hair has gone from looking like bird poop to an actual shine line. Her actual clothing has changed from time to time: she can sometimes be spotted wearing striped tights – in the early days this would have never happened.”
Reger says that inspiration for new Emily the Strange artwork can strike at any moment – “from scratch, or an idea from a song lyric, or an image I see somewhere in the day”. He carries a sketchbook with him at all times to capture new ideas as they occur.
“These ideas pile up, and about once a month I ‘data dump’ all the ideas and share them with others to see which ones have the best chance of becoming top-notch material,” he explains. Next, he assigns the idea to one of his team of graphic designers and artists, or continues to develop it himself.
“If it’s me, I’ll usually redraw the image in a few different ways until it sorts itself out, then will scan it. Depending on the image I want to end up with, I may ink it, then Streamline it or Live Trace it to get it into vector to finalize in Illustrator. I might also take the sketch and place it in Illustrator and use my Wacom screen to draw right over it straight into vector,” he says.
“If it’s a painting, I often project the sketch to canvas and rework the sketch live with pencil or oil paint on the canvas.” If he’s handed over the idea to one of his team, he gives feedback on the progress – although he finds it hard to hand over the idea completely: “I might take it over again at any point,” he says.
“The brief for Faith was simply, ‘naked, cheeky cherub’,” says character designer Jeff Cummins (www.jeffcummins.com). “I spent a morning sitting with the designer and scribbling. By the end we had moved away from a baby cherub, having exploded a clothed teen manga-like idea and settled with a more ‘womanly’ route – retaining the cheekiness, of course.”
Cummins then spent a week developing and refining the character. “Originally, the girl only featured as a tiny part of the logo, but she took off in her own right when she was blown up and featured on the Faith bags,” says the illustrator, who started to notice his character evolving.
“I spotted a few female commuters reusing the bag to carry their bits and bobs to and from work – then a girl who worked behind the bar at my local had the Faith Girl tattooed on her back.”
Nexus Productions (www.nexusproductions.com) director Jim Le Fevre created the Smelliphant for an animated Ambi-Pur ad. “The script felt like it was fairytale-based, so I wanted something beautiful and magical but with a layer of seriousness and charm, and a level of thought to the character,” says Le Fevre.
“I wanted the character to be charming, professional and inquisitive, like a cross between a postman and a bumblebee. Texturally, I had found some felt and some leather scraps and wanted him to be shrew-like and make you want to stroke him.”
THE UPS WIDGET
Unit9 handled the character design and animation for the UPS Widget, an animated character and desktop application that lets customers track packages from their computers, as well as link to other UPS services directly from their desktop.
According to designer Malika Favre, the brief was to create a character that would convey speed and efficiency with a little cheekiness, without being too cute or childish.
“Almost immediately we knew he would have big round eyes and a very small body,” says Favre. “He is curious and cheeky and – of course – very clever, so he needs a big head. We decided we wanted to keep the very tactile feeling of soft toys in the render of the widget to make the monster more appealing and cute.
“My favourite detail is the side-car helmet,” continues Favre. “It was just a random idea that came out of nowhere. I find sidecars strange and beautiful, and this retro helmet fitted the widget perfectly and gave him the extra spark that a normal cap wouldn’t have achieved.”
Created by David and Sarah Cousens for a games character competition, Thunderbolt George is a good example of drawing inspiration from everyday life to create believable but quirky characters.
“We wanted to avoid making a generic ‘cool’ character,” says David Cousens. “We decided to base our design on our pet rat, who would spin his tail like a helicopter when he was picked up. We also used influences from some vintage B-movies, hence the retro pilot’s outfit and cheesy title, and went from there.”
Rian Hughes designed and illustrated a range of characters for Geri Halliwell’s Ugenia Lavender series of children’s books. “There was a pretty extensive cast of a dozen or so characters to conceptualize,” says Hughes. “Geri would verbally describe how she saw each one, with the occasional doodle, and then I’d produce first a sketch and then a more finished illustration of each.”
GOTMILK? As part of the revamp of the corporate Web site of the gotmilk? brand, unit9 designed characters to tie in with a recycling game. “The characters we designed have a paper construction because we wanted to give the idea that they could have been made out of the milk cartons,” says Alex Jenkins of Unit9.
“Upon winning each of the games we created, the user can print out a flat-pack version of the character and make the model themselves at home, whether from a milk carton or something else.”
BATTLE OF THE BANDS
The inspiration for the characters in Koko’s latest campaign, Battle of the Bands, came from a mixture of the agency’s favourite stars, including Jack Black, Dave Grohl and Pink.
“We started by drafting around 30 characters and then chose the ones that offered the greatest diversity,” says Chris Steele, one of Koko’s directors. “We then threw in a few more to make sure that there was at least one character that the end-user could associate themselves with.”
Believable, human gestures and poses make all the difference in creating characters with a real sense of personality, says Daniel Capozzi of Bionyc.
Give your characters soul: make them reflect the concerns of the viewer, advises Peter Thaler of Pictoplasma.
Rian Hughes’ character designs for Geri Halliwell’s books had to represent the former Spice Girl’s vision closely.
Unit9’s Web campaign for Gotmilk? uses characters to encourage people – particularly children – to engage with the brand’s corporate message
Koko’s Battle of the Bands characters channel real-life rockstars, giving players the chance to play characters closely resembling their favourite personalities.
Although Emily the Strange now has a whole team developing images and products, the ideas still come from Rob Reger, who has been developing Emily for over 15 years, and also oversees every aspect of the design process. He says that the keys to Emily’s success are constant tiny innovations, and a strong, unconventional personality with aspects that many people will identify with.
Illustration Meni Tzima