Commercial character design

Faced with a tight brief from a client, many character illustrators create their best work. We explore the unique challenges involved when clients and characters meet

When creating a character for use in a commercial setting, there are a number of key issues to consider. Depending on the client brief you will need to ask yourself what the purpose of the character is, where it’s going to be used, if there will be a need for further characters to be created around it at a later date and – arguably the most important question of them all – who is the target audience?

Add to this the fact that a character created for use in a commercial context must have impact, should stand up on its own, tell a story and clearly represent the brand or product that it’s been created for, and you have quite a task on your hands. So how do you create a character that meets your client’s needs, appeals to your target audience and has staying power?

Let’s begin with the target audience. Characters designed for use in a commercial context are essentially there to sell a product or service to an audience, and it’s this audience that the character needs to appeal to. Characters act as the face of the brand. To this end, the target market must be able to relate to the character and, through it, to the brand itself.

Illustrator and designer Steve Simpson created a Day of the Dead-inspired character for the Irish chilli sauce brand Mic’s Chilli. The idea was to create a straight-up character with old-fashioned values who always dresses in his finest clothes to attend mass on a Sunday

As Tom Mortimer, co-owner of the London-based animation company 12foot6, explains: “The audience really is everything. They’re more important than you, the client and the money. When you go about creating a character for commercial use it’s really important that you ask yourself who the character that you’re creating is meant to appeal to.”

German illustrator Andreas Krapf, creator of the character used in Tic Tac’s Tilt and Kiss campaign, agrees: “Every character for commercial use has a purpose. Often the purpose is to sell a product, or to create or strengthen a brand image. Because of this, the character needs to work for the target audience. Of course, when the job is done and the character is out there, the opinions of the target audience really come into play – they either buy or they don’t buy; they like or they dislike.”

However as Jason Lowings, creative director of global brand agency venturethree points out, it should be possible to consider the audience without being a slave to their every whim: “Like any creative communication, understanding your target audience is essential when creating a character for use in a commercial context, but it shouldn’t be restrictive,” he insists. “You need to know your audience well enough to judge your character through their eyes.”

These caricatures of Marco Polo, Karl Pilkington and Warwick Davis were created by London-based Beakus for an animated intro to the new An Idiot Abroad television series


Lowings and his team put this theory into practice when they created an animated ad for hmv’s Christmas 2012 campaign. Their brief was to capitalise on the British public’s love of the hmv brand – in particular the company’s iconic logo. “We knew from the outset that we wanted to work with the logo – the world-famous Nipper and gramophone,” he explains. “It’s got a great story behind it and is a much loved and recognisable part of the hmv brand. We felt that if we brought it to life in the right way we could create something that would get people really excited.”

For Steve Smith, of London-based animation studio Beakus, connecting with your target audience is about believability. “The most bizarre, badly drawn, or simplistic character can still be a smash commercially, provided it’s created to be believable within its own world,” he says. “But you need to remember who your audience is. Ultimately they are the ones who will decide if it’s a good character, not you.”

Lowings agrees. “It’s a fine balance. You have to make sure the character relates to the business and isn’t created purely for entertainment alone. At the same time, though, try not to be too commercial, as nobody is going to get excited about a character who is always trying to sell them things. You need to create something that people will love. You have to love it yourself at some level. If it doesn’t do something for you, then the chances are it won’t do anything for anyone else.”

The AudioBear character was created by Bulgarian artist and designer Anton Aladzhov for an online music streaming app

Information about the target audience will most likely be included in the brief from your client, and can be further discussed at the briefing stage. Other details to nail down at this stage are the purpose of the character, where the character is going to be used – print, identity, TV commercials, packaging, advertising and so on – and if it will in fact need to be able to be used across a variety of media, now or in the future.

Some clients will have a very clear idea about what type of character they may want and where it will be used, and will outline that clearly in the brief. Others will be open to ideas and suggestions from the creatives working on the design. Either way, it’s only once the needs of both client and target audience are clear in your mind that the design process can begin.

For many character designers, this process begins with hand-drawn sketches. Pete Fowler famously rose to fame creating vibrant, colourful characters for bands like Super Furry Animals, as well as his own editorial projects, advertising and his World of Monsterism characters. Like many character artists, he straddles the boundary between experimental personal creations and commercial work.

“As with everything I do, the first stage is always a pencil drawing,” he reflects. “I like to get the character to a stage where I’m happy with it, then I scan it into the computer and use that as a basis for a digital illustration. However, I’ve done a lot of painting in recent months to develop the character-based work for my Wales Millennium Centre exhibition, and the iPad has also been a big influence on both my digital and painted artworks.”

This hmv spot by London-based venturethree features animated versions of the iconic Nipper the dog and gramophone logo. The designers at venturethree wanted to keep the characters as close to the original hmv logo as possible

Fowler very much believes that the creator should get into the mind of the character: “When I’m creating a new character I like to imagine who the character is to get an idea of how they would look and behave – it helps a lot with the creative process. I often pull faces when I’m creating my characters, so maybe a bit of character acting is important too.”

Once initial drawings are completed, these are usually sent to the client to get feedback before taking the sketches into Photoshop or Illustrator and creating digital versions of them. From a production point of view, if a character is going to be animated you need to know at the design stage how it’ll be done, as Beakus’ Steve Smith explains: “It’s important to know how a particular character will be animated technically and, as producers, we need to know about its personality and the types of movements it will make. Of course, everyone we work with here at Beakus designs specifically for animation purposes, but still, to believe in a character it needs to move authentically to its original design,” he continues.

The emotions of a given character are also an important consideration. FX Goby, director at Nexus, London, worked on the hmv ads with venturethree. He believes the key to successfully creating a character for commercial use lies in the way you’re able to get across its state of mind: “It’s really important to consider how the character is going to be able to convey the emotions and stories that you want him or her to tell,” he explains. “Comedic characters tend to be very well received in general, but if you have a character with emotion, a smile, a little tear – anything that makes you react – then I’d say this is a successful character. With Nipper the dog and his friend the gramophone, the concept and sketches I was given for venturethree were really funny and sweet. My job was to keep the animation style simple, create an elegant silhouette that would catch the light nicely, and find a way to make the characters expressive yet simple.”

Created by McCann Melbourne for Metro trains, this character-led Dumb Ways To Die campaign featured a hugely successful musical viral (almost 34 million YouTube views as we go to press), and a series of posters. A procession of characters meet their maker in increasingly absurd and comic ways, ending with a serious message about rail safety – “quite possibly the dumbest way to die.”

For Fowler, capturing the emotion of a character is all about immersing yourself into the mind of the character you’re creating. “Getting into the idea of how a character would behave enables me to give the character more depth and personality,” he explains. “It’s also important if the character needs to have an interactive element to it, in terms of posing, animation, selling a product or fronting a campaign. I think my most successful character creations are the ones where they have tickled people’s imaginations; characters that they can project their own interpretations onto, and engage with to a certain degree.”

Using characters to connect with consumers is popular with marketers, as it gives a brand a human feel, as David Milson, brand strategist at venturethree, points out: “Many brands today recognise the need to actively engage with their audiences, as well as just talking at them. Characters are a great way of doing this, especially in the digital space.”

A good example of this is Aleksandr Orlov, the meerkat that’s proved hugely successful for the Compare The Market website. The client worked with London-based design practice SomeOne and VCCP to create the character, which propelled the brand to the top of its market. “Social connectivity seems to be a really exciting and powerful element now,” explains Simon Manchipp, co-founder of SomeOne. “Together with VCCP we created the branding for Compare The Market. That meerkat not only helped move the brand from being at the bottom of its market to market leader, but the character’s autobiography, A Simples Life, outsold many bestsellers last Christmas.”

As the meerkat example demonstrates, consideration of a character’s environment is as important as the character itself, as Mortimer explains: “People think a character is a representation of a person, which is true, so with that in mind you have to consider not just the person, but that person’s environment too.” At Tom Mortimer’s animation company, 12foot6, they create characters for a range of different clients, including Virgin Mobile, Marmite, the RSPCA and, most recently, Dara O’Briain’s Science Club. “We always try to think a few steps ahead when creating characters for our clients,” he adds. “We ask ourselves where will it appear, what will it be doing, whether it has family, friends, props and so on.”

Creating a character or ‘spokescreature’ for a brand can have a huge advantage over real people: they’re more adaptable, and often easier to use across multiple channels. As a large percentage of commercial characters need to work across a variety of media, flexibility is key if they’re to have staying power. They need to adapt to use in everything from TV ads, to print, toys, books and, increasingly, apps.

This was the case with the characters that Krapt created for Tic Tac’s Shake it Up campaign. He was commissioned to create eight different characters with six different expressions for use in an interactive app called Tilt and Kiss, as he explains: “The idea is that people see an ad that says, ‘74% of people tilt their heads to the right when they kiss, shake it up!’ A screen appears from which they can choose a character then they tilt their head to the left and their phone to the right and the character on the screen will pucker up, and when the user makes contact with their lips the phone vibrates. If they tilt the wrong way they are greeted with other expressions.”

Similarly, when Bulgarian graphic artist Anton Aladzhov was asked to create a character for music streaming web app AudioBear, usability was important. “I was asked to create a youthful, music-loving, friendly bear that could be used as a corporate identity, as well as appear on AudioBear’s website, app and some printed materials,” he says. “It’s always good to know upfront where a character is going to be used.”

Created by London-based design practice SomeOne, Fastjet’s parrot character had to work across a wide range of media, including print, TV, stationery and banners, not to mention on the aeroplanes themselves

For a character to be flexible, planning ahead is important. If your character is going to be turned into a 3D animated model, then you’ll need to plan for that from the beginning by considering how the character will look and move from different angles and directions. And while character designers need to be sympathetic to the given medium for which they’re creating a character, adaptability is key so as to make the application of the character consistent across all relevant media. As Manchipp concludes: “Branding never stands still. It’s constantly changing and adapting to new commercial and social contexts, so any character designed for commercial use needs to be sufficiently flexible to accommodate this change.”

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