Character-based designs are in greater demand than ever, from fashion illustration to designer toys. Nick Spence highlights one trend that's here to stay, and discovers what it takes to create characters that will last a lifetime.
Look around you; it's not difficult to see why character-led design is increasingly popular. From High Street fashion houses to collectable vinyl toys, to the pages of Computer Arts, character-based design is in high demand. Why resort to a model, actor or stock image when you can create a vivid vibrant world full of beautiful people and inventive creatures.
There are also many fundamental reasons why characters stretching back to folklore fairytales and comic books have proven so enduring. As illustrator Gez Fry suggests, "We often see a bit of ourselves or people we know in well-designed characters, and we can then make an emotional connection with the work."
"A well-designed character can appeal to all ages and all people in a way that a photo can't," add design duo Peskimo. "Good characters are so versatile and they also offer a nostalgia factor that takes people straight back to the picture books and kids' cartoons that they once loved as children."
A popular genre
It's these characters that help entice and engage the individual, evoke memories, tell a story, sell products and services and allow them to buy, however fleetingly, into a lifestyle or other world. A recent ad campaign for the less than enthralling Vauxhall Corsa range used a set of five cute characters, the C.M.O.N.S, to help establish the New Corsa as a stylish and fun-to-drive car among urbanite 20-somethings. Conceived and developed by DLKW & Partners with Barcelona-based Boris Hoppek providing his distinctive characters, made from a variety of soft fabrics, the campaign has proved a hit, and not just with dedicated YouTube fans.
Similar campaigns will almost certainly follow - yet another sign that character design is growing in popularity. Tim Biskup, Jon Burgerman, Nicholas Deakin, Pete Fowler, Christopher Lee, James Jarvis, Jeremyville, Nathan Jurevicius, Peskimo and TADO are just a few of the leading talents often grouped together as contemporary character designers under the Pictoplasma banner. Many met up at the recent Pictoplasma conference, a four-day celebration of figurative design, held in Berlin in October.
"The Pictoplasma stuff is crazy at the moment," says Nathan Jurevicius, the creator of ScaryGirl. "I'm writing this in Berlin at the Pictoplasma festival and the people I'm meeting are so interesting and diverse." The just-published Pictoplasma - The Character Encyclopaedia offers a round-up of over 200 international designers, highlighting the latest trends in contemporary character design and art, spanning everything from drawing, design and painting to its use in installations and sculpture.
Alongside character designers, fashion illustration and design also play a major part in the appeal of character-based work. It's hard to miss Jason Brooks' omnipresent beautiful people, typified by the work he did on the Hed Kandi CDs. Patrick Morgan creates equally evocative images while juggling the demands of a busy client list with teaching fashion illustration in Milan. Both offer a way for clients to inject style, glamour and luxury without any of the financial commitment of an exotic photo shoot.
Jacquie O'Neill, another whose trade is in fashion-based illustration, offers a reason why many look towards illustrated characters. "If you hire a 'face' to promote your product and that 'face' misbehaves, it can wind up in a front-page scandal." Illustrations behave themselves, show up on time and never cause a scene."
When creating memorable characters among a potentially disparate group of creatives, covering everything from fashion illustration to designer toys, some common ground is clear. An understanding of anatomy and the way the face and body is put together along with traditional drawing and observation skills are solid foundations for producing your own winning characters.
Of those questioned for this feature, most designers agreed that these fundamentals played their part. "If it weren't for a general understanding of traditional skills, such as anatomy, proportion, depth and everything else that makes drawings drawings, I can honestly say that I would not be where I am today," says Matthew Woodson, whose own illustration work effectively showcases his masterly skills.
"Having traditional drawing skills and a knowledge of anatomy will always help you to make more sophisticated characters," says illustrator Allan Sanders. "Even if you are reducing things to simple shapes, your experience in drawing and anatomy will inform what you do."
"All skills are important, and everything is connected," says fellow illustrator Dave Curd. "You can never have too much technical or academic skill. A good artistic background will reinforce your concepts." However, according to Brazil-based illustrator Elisa Sassi: "The most important thing is not to let the school or the techniques dominate your creativity and your essence."
Starting from scratch
The next step is to find inspiration. "We will generally start with a blank piece of paper and an idea. We usually know what the character will do, but his own persona is very much undecided," say Jodie and David, character creators at Peskimo. "The process is organic and can change on paper and again on screen. Many of our mistakes and experiments have resulted in better characters."
Another duo, Mike and Katie at TADO, find inspiration everywhere. "We just keep our eyes open all the time. We don't have any tried-and-tested ways of getting instant inspiration, but we're always finding cool new things we enjoy looking at."
"We just absorb stuff without really knowing about it," they say. "Then later on it'll just plop out somewhere. We always take plenty of inspiration from the friendships we have with other like-minded people."
Initially many may find inspiration from the work of others, although there is a fine line between homage and copying. "I think copying can sometimes be a healthy stepping stone to developing your own voice, but only if you move on from that stage pretty quickly, and if you keep it to yourself in your own sketchbook," says Jeremyville.
"If you're really going to produce characters that are different, it's key to develop your own style, which should be happening anyway if you're working hard," insists Nick Deakin, whose own distinctive style has seen him included in the latest Pictoplasma collection. Hard work and experimentation can combine to create originality, as Deakin suggests: "Only in the last few years have I worked harder on nurturing the characters, and I suppose that's why they have developed faster during the last couple of years."
Creating characters can set unique challenges that other projects do not. "Creating characters is different from 'normal' design work in that you are instantly creating something that is 'living'," say TADO. "Even the most simple characters have elements of personality, which is what makes them popular to people who can easily identify with them."
A whole new world
This issue's cover illustrator, James Jarvis, suggests breathing life into your creations by visualising their world: "Think about exactly who or what they are, where they live and how they exist," he says. Equally, Jarvis warns against creating characters simply for the sake of it. "Toys as an expression of someone's ideas can be interesting. But there are a lot of 'designer' toys being made purely for the sake of making a toy."
Once you start creating your own style it's really important that you avoid repetition, especially if you intend to create a whole army of characters. "We always try and produce a new set of characters for each piece we do," say TADO. "We do have some that we use more frequently, but generally we try to push ourselves to do something new each time."
Maintain a style
Equally, as TADO suggests, you need to include enough characteristics within each character for you to maintain a recognisable and saleable distinct style. It's a fine balancing act that Jeremyville, with numerous creations to his credit, is aware of. "My characters might now have evolved a generally similar look about them - maybe the eyes, or the nose," he admits. "So I try and imbue each with their own characteristics and traits, but of course they're all members of the broader Jeremyville community, and will therefore have a certain similarity or vibe."
"Sometimes I'll intentionally repeat themes within my work if the characters are from the same narrative," adds Jurevicius, "but like people, we all have unique traits and personalities that make it easy to give individual characteristics."
With fashion-based character design, in particular, it's also important you try and avoid standing still for too long. In an industry that relies on creating a contemporary look, it's important you don't get left behind or rest on a style that's looking dated. "There probably is a danger of it falling out of fashion at some point. Everything is swings and roundabouts in the end," says O'Neill. "But I hope I can keep coming up with new subjects, ideas and approaches to keep my work fresh and in demand."
Being fashionable in any field also means you attract your fair share of imitators. If you start seeing work you don't remember doing, it's probably time you started moving on creatively and adjusting your style.
There are also practical concerns to consider when creating characters for commercial commissions. It might be difficult to convince clients of the need to replace something more traditional with a three-headed four-armed creature just because it looks good. "It's inevitable that you have to compromise to suit a client's brief sometimes," says young illustrator Allan Sanders. "It's important to fight for your own artistic 'vision', but it's also increasingly important to listen to what a client is saying. I don't think illustration or character design is the right business for an artistic prima donna." Be realistic and save your more outrageous characters for your self-initiated projects.
"Despite the fashion, people will always identify themselves with the characters you create, either physically or psychologically," says Sassi. Creating a character with a durable personality is important for illustrators, and Fry agrees: "The best things your characters can have are real life and personality. The absolute worst thing a character can be is boring and unoriginal. This may sound obvious, but something that looks fresh and has had some thought invested in it will always make more of a connection with the person looking at it."