Character design has been around longer than graphic design itself; the challenge for today's designers is how to move the genre forward.
Open your refrigerator or wander the aisles of your favourite supermarket chain, walk into any cool design studio from San Francisco to Solihull, channel-hop through numerous digital TV programmes or plug into your PSP - what do you see? From the Jolly Green Giant to Kaws or from Tony the Tiger to Sonic the Hedgehog, it's clear that the wonderful world of graphic design continues to use character designs in effective, proactive and increasingly creative ways. The art of character design is alive and well and living in! well, living just about anywhere and everywhere as platforms, markets and opportunities continue to open up.
Some history for starters: where exactly did it all begin? This is impossible to answer, but the finger points at our ancestors living in caves and dressed in fur. By painting directly onto cave walls or carving representational figures and animals out of wood or chipping them out of stone, these distant relatives, in their quest to visually comprehend their own place in the world, attempted to capture the essence and spirit of, for example, an animal that was to be hunted for food. These ancient drawings and personal sculptures were man's first character designs.
While technology has come on in leaps and bounds and carving characters from wood or stone has since been replaced, in three-dimensional terms, by the use of roto-cast vinyl, the spirit of character creation remains intact. The joy, as a designer, in seeing your own character start to take shape - take on its own identity, begin to breathe and then walk by itself for the first time - can be compared to giving birth, obviously without the physical pain and the endless nappies. Sleepless nights, however, can often be part of the creative process in character design.
Creating characters, despite prehistoric beginnings, is a relatively new discipline; much, though, has occurred since its humble beginnings. In their quest for producing greater revenue, many companies at the dawn of the last century began to recognise that personifying the products that they manufactured could be a valuable marketing tool. Essentially without the aid of huge advertising agencies, brand development teams, focus groups, art buyers and account handlers, these manufacturers started to promote their own company's characteristics by unveiling their own company characters.
In 1895 the Michelin Tyre and Rubber Company introduced Bibendum, the Michelin Man, as its corporate character. Inspired by a stack of car tyres, Old Rubber Ribs, as he was fondly referred to, remains an iconic symbol to this day. Another that has proudly stood the test of time, albeit with a make-over or two throughout the years, is the Jolly Green Giant. Launched in 1924, the Green Giant was developed as the corporate mascot of the Minnesota Valley Canning Company with a sense of style and a touch of friendly humour. In 1999, celebrating his 75th anniversary, the Green Giant expressed this and maybe passed a wry comment on the American diet, in a promotional ad campaign encouraging families to Give Peas a Chance.
While static print advertising posters and trademarks captured the attention of the public, it was animated characters that truly captivated their imagination. Steamboat Willie, released on November 18, 1928, was Walt Disney's first outing for Mickey Mouse. Known for being the very first animated short film with a completely post-produced soundtrack of music, dialogue and sound effects, Steamboat Willie shot Mickey Mouse en route to global fame and fortune.
After the Stars and Stripes flag, it is claimed that Mickey Mouse may be the most recognisable symbol of America, President Jimmy Carter once even saying, "Mickey Mouse is the symbol of goodwill, surpassing all languages and cultures." This may be considered high praise for what is just a drawing of a mouse, but the legal team for Walt Disney Productions expressed it well when it stated, "Mickey Mouse and his various friends are performers and salesmen who serve without pay. They work at all hours, whenever called upon. They are not temperamental and they need no union card. They need no food, no transportation, no lodging. But one thing is certain - they need a lawyer!"
The battle of the video games
With the advent of the digital age, increased avenues along which characters could parade opened up and it was the video games industry that paved the way. Inspired by a pizza with a missing slice, Namco designer Tohru Iwatani came up with Pac-Man's look during dinner with some friends. After eight people worked constantly on the software and another eight on the hardware for 15 months, Pac-Man was good to go. In 1980, the year that the game launched, 100,000 Pac-Man machines were made and sold around the world, making it easily, and still, the best-selling coin-operated game in history.
Two years later in 1982 another arcade game, Donkey Kong, appeared for the first time and became an instant hit. Earlier, Shigeru Miyamoto, a Japanese games developer working at Nintendo, had created two iconic characters that were to become central mascots for Nintendo when introduced to gamers through Donkey Kong. It's hard to imagine a focus group today getting to grips with two overweight, badly dressed plumbers with ridiculous moustaches and over-sized red hats, let alone giving them the green light, but the Mario brothers - Mario and Luigi - were to take the world by storm. At the height of their popularity, a 1991 poll found that more children could identify a picture of Mario than Mickey Mouse.
Nintendo's vice-like grip on the gaming industry was to be put to the test. Sega recognised that alongside hardware and software developments they needed to develop a company mascot to rival Mario. Yuji Naka and Naoto Ohshima, two artists at Sega, were charged with the daunting task of wrestling gamers away from Nintendo with an icon that was instantly likeable. Sega's response: Sonic was born - an ultra-fast, spiky-backed, finger-waving blue hedgehog with a good dose of attitude had been unleashed and was to rival Mario for cult status.
The designer toy
With gaming being such big business, even beating Hollywood in terms of revenue, digital lifestyles appeared to be very much the way forward in terms of character-based entertainment. And then something new bucked the trend. The desire for toys, designer toys at that, emerged as a growing trend from Hong Kong and Japan. Of course, collectable toy figures had been around a while - Tintin, Astro Boy, Asterix and many others were already changing hands for considerable sums of cash. What was happening in Japan, alongside the growth of three-dimensional toy figures replicated from popular manga comics, was the startup process of figures being created that knew no other cultural life, were not appearing in a video game, comic, animation or movie. The designer toy 'genre' had arrived.
While youth culture, hip-hop, skate fashions and street-art combined, blended and merged and Keith Haring took to the New York subways with his own brand of poster art and Futura 2000 customised box-fresh Nikes, a new interest in creating plastic toys and figures was germinating. A growing, but seemingly never-ageing, army of punters would start to queue around the block for the first toy figures as they hit the stores.
According to Jeremy of Jeremyville in Sydney, in his book Vinyl Will Kill!, the cultural phenomenon of designer toys began when Hong Kong-based artist Michael Lau arrived at a local toy show with some customised GI Joe figures. He'd reworked them "into urban hip-hop characters, wearing cool streetwear labels and accessories," says Jeremy. Initially known as 'urban vinyl' the accepted term soon morphed into 'designer toys'.
The market for these toys grew, as artists globally joined a network of those interested in creating 'cool' products. Companies such as Critterbox Toys, Kidrobot and Kubrick sprang up to design, create, produce and market designer toys aimed predominately at big kids - those that had a real interest in displaying these artforms in their ultra-cool urban live-work spaces in places like Hoxton or the Lower East Side in New York.
From BMX to KIA
Pete Fowler was in it from the start. Fowler grew up in Cardiff, Wales, in the 80s and rode for a BMX team, skateboarded and was heavily into music. At the end of the decade, he left Cardiff to study fine art in Cornwall emerging quietly at first, only to be catapulted into the limelight with his work for seminal band Super Furry Animals. Fowler picks up the story from there: "I was interested in sculpture and, to a certain extent, toys, since I was at art school. I'd drawn several characters that I thought of as 3D objects and started to sculpt them. I got a studio and made six or so large sculptures. I showed these at an exhibition in Japan, and Sony Creative Products offered me the opportunity to design a range of toy figures."
From a right-place, right-time starting point, Fowler's own website, Monsterism, launched followed by his own company, PlayBeast. Fowler describes it as "a small independent company with big ideas" - it handles the manufacturing, marketing and distribution of his creative toy output. So far, nearly 40 collectable figures have been designed, manufactured and made available to purchase.
Fowler explores his working methods: "Quite often the characters will come to life directly from sketches regardless of the toys. I draw and redraw the characters until I'm happy with them and they're suitable for sculpting. I like to make something new each time and I try to communicate a parallel fantasy world in which my creatures exist." He continues: "I like to engage people's imagination in the characters and the stories surrounding them. I do think that people's imagination is being deadened by worthless rubbish on TV."
Despite Fowler's views on TV programming, it is on your TV set where you can view his most recent and high-profile commercial work, with a range of characters created solely for four animated commercials for KIA cars. Fowler worked with Passion Pictures, using CGI 3D techniques as well as stop motion animation, to create the ads and was pleased with the results that came about from a previous working relationship with Passion - they had both been involved in working on a Super Furry Animals promo.
A degree in architecture from Sydney University gave Jeremy of Jeremyville a start in 3D character design that most would envy. "I like the beauty of systems and methodology in design and studying the process. For me, the process and system by which an idea manifests itself is as much an artform as the final result - with the correct system in place, so much is possible," says Jeremy. No wonder that he cites Le Corbusier, Gropius, Duchamp and Warhol among his art and design heroes.
Jeremy has been following the 3D toy genre from its initial start, producing his first 3D toy, an inflatable vinyl Space Puppy in 1994. Known simply as Jeremy, it sold over 10,000 units mainly through Jeremy's own clothing label. He now has around ten toy designs currently available, and says: "Quite a few more are coming out in 2006 - a lot of toy projects are in the works but it is a slow process, taking anywhere from four to six months."
Jeremy works hard: "I draw every day in my sketchbook, I clear my mind and open it up to anything that comes through. You just can't beat a pen and a blank sketchbook as a starting point. A toy idea needs to be a new concept, something different to what's already out there." It's exactly this type of freshness that has paid off - Jeremy has worked with a range of companies that include Strangeco in San Francisco, Play Imaginative from Singapore, Flying-Cat out of Hong Kong, Span of Sunset in LA and Kidrobot in NYC.
There are a number of spin-off mainstream projects that excite Jeremy too. "MTV Latin America, based out of Miami, recently commissioned me to design a huge series of animations based on my 3D characters and drawings," he explains. "The project took about three months altogether, and involved a lot of late nights and hundreds of sketches." 2006 looks to continue to be a fruitful year for Jeremy. A poster for Don't Panic, another animation project for MTV, this time MTV Australia, and some toy-based art shows will keep the studio busy, but Jeremy will still make time for his everyday sketchbook doodlings.
TADO and JAKe designs
Mainstream commercial projects have kept Sheffield-based design duo Tado busy in recent months too. Designing a special edition Smart Car for Daimler Chrysler in Taiwan was an excellent departure for the pair - characters adorn the model, but sadly it may never see the light of day in the UK. "It would be amazing if stuff got to the next level here as it is in Asia - where every product, it seems, has a character," the Tado team says.
Still, the company remains busy with projects in the UK: mascots for British Airways, branding for MTV International, as well as numerous character/toy projects including its own toy line called Fortune Pork, for Japanese toy manufacturer Flying- Cat. The line currently stands at 13 unique figures with Ryoko and the Sissyfits, five band members, in development and due for release later in the year. "We do think that the future is very exciting at the moment for smaller companies and freelancers who are now able to apply their distinct styles and approaches to bigger commercial projects," the pair predicts.
Colette - the Paris-based too-cool-for-school, lifestyle gallery-meets-shop whose own motto reads 'styledesignartfood' - showed London-based illustrator JAKe's first break into 3D character design for adFunture. "That first figure was part of a show at Colette and they saw that first prototype version and asked me to create a special edition in their own Pantone colours," JAKe explains.
"Every character that has been made into a 3D form" - and that includes projects such as the JAKe Ape and BADjUjU toys - "has started life as images that have evolved out of my sketchbook, characters that I, or in some cases other people, keep coming back to," he says. "Many have been used elsewhere, for instance on T-shirts, which means that they are recognisable by the time they become a 3D product." JAKe continues to work with adFunture, based in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and Comme Des Garcons from Tokyo, and when asked where he sees his craft heading he's quick to quip, "Onwards and upwards, or charity shops and bargain bins!"
The future for character design
Character design remains an intrinsic aspect of modern graphic design - it's hard to ignore, yet harder still to quantify the impact that it has had on commerce and entertainment. Gazing into a crystal ball might reveal what the future holds, but this group of global artists has its own opinions. "I'd like to see a greater use of the ornamental combined with the functional," admits Pete Fowler, while Jeremy offers a warning: "The designer toy genre needs to diversify, spread out and to always keep fresh - it needs to re-invent itself with new directions based on art and ideas and not just commerce." It would appear that the future of character design rests with artists and their sketchbooks!