20 top character design tips

Leading illustrator Jon Burgerman drums up 20 tips for creating fantastic character designs.

Character design can be a tricky beast to tackle, because although many of the classic characters familiar to us all through cartoons, movies and advertising look simple, that simplicity usually belies the many hours of work that have gone into their development.

From Mickey Mouse's famous three-fingered hands – drawn to save production time when he was first developed for animations in the 1920s – to the elegant simplicity of Homer Simpson, character design has always been about keeping it simple.

But aside from clean lines and easily readable features, what else are you going to need to know about character design? There's knowing what to exaggerate and what to play down, what to add to give a hint of background and depth, and what to do to develop personality. Getting started can be the trickiest part in any character design project, but once you've got some ideas these tips will help you breath life into your creation.

01. Decide who it's aimed at

Character design: MacDonald's characters

Deciding who the character is aimed at should be one of the first steps in your design process

Think about your audience. Character design aimed at young children, for example, are typically designed around basic shapes and bright colours. If you're working for a client, the character's target audience is usually predetermined, as Aussie artist Nathan Jurevicius explains.

"Commissioned character designs are usually more restrictive but no less creative. Clients have specific needs but also want me to do my 'thing'. Usually, I'll break down the core features and personality. For example, if the eyes are important then I'll focus the whole design around the face, making this the key feature that stands out."

02. Decide where it will appear

Where will the character design be seen and in what medium? This will have a direct bearing on how you go about your character design. For example, if it's for a mobile-phone screen, there's no point designing it to have a lot of intricate details and features.

Nathan Jurevicius says that regardless of the format: "The process of thinking up concepts always starts the same: paper, pencil, green tea... lots of thumbnails, written ideas, scratches and sketches over sketches."

03. Research other designs

It can be helpful to try and deconstruct why certain character designs work and why some don't. There's no shortage of research material to be found, with illustrated characters appearing everywhere: on TV commercials, cereal boxes, shop signs, stickers on fruit, animations on mobile phones, and more. Study these character designs and think about what makes some successful and what in particular you like about them.

04. Make your character distinctive

Character design: The Simpsons

Matt Groening used yellow to make The Simpsons characters stand out from the crowd

Whether you're creating a monkey, robot or monster, you can guarantee there are going to be a hundred other similar creations out there. Your character design needs to be strong and interesting in a visual sense to get people's attention.

When devising The Simpsons, Matt Groening knew he had to offer the viewers something different. He reckoned that when viewers were flicking through TV channels and came across the show, the characters' unusually bright yellow skin colour would grab their attention.

05. Use line qualities and styles to describe your character

The drawn lines of which your character design is composed can go some way to describing it. Thick, even, soft and round lines may suggest an approachable, cute character, whereas sharp, scratchy and uneven lines might point to an uneasy and erratic character.

Sune Ehlers characters are bold and seem to dance on the page, which echoes his approach to drawing them. He explains: "Drawing a doodle is about decisive pen-manoeuvring. A strong line for me comes from strength and rhythm."

06. Use exaggerated characteristics

Exaggerating the defining features of your character design will help it appear larger than life. Exaggerated features will also help viewers to identif y the character's key qualities. Exaggeration is key in cartoon caricatures and helps emphasise certain personality traits. If your character is strong, don't just give it normal-sized bulging arms, soup them up so that they're five times as big as they should be!

07. Choose colours carefully

Colours can help communicate a character's personality. Typically, dark colours such as black, purples and greys depict baddies with malevolent intentions. Light colours such as white, blues, pinks and yellows express innocence, good and purity. Comic-book reds, yellows and blues might go some way to giving hero qualities to a character design.

08. Add accessories

Character design: TADO

Once you give your character things to wear and interact with, it starts to come to life. Image: Piggle, a vinyl toy design by TADO: www.tado.com

Props and clothing can help to emphasise character traits and their background. For example, scruffy clothes can be used for poor characters, and lots of diamonds and bling for tasteless rich ones. Accessories can also be more literal extensions of your character's personality, such as a parrot on a pirate's shoulder or a maggot in a ghoul's skull.

09. 2D or 3D?

Depending on what you have planned for your character design, you might need to work out what it will look like from all angles. A seemingly flat character can take on a whole new persona when seen from the side if, for example, it has a massive beer belly. If your character is going to exist within a 3D world, as an animation or even as a toy, working out its height, weight and physical shape is all important.

10. Give your character personality

Interesting looks alone do not necessarily make for a good character design; its personality is key as well. A character's personality can be revealed through comic strips and animations, where we see how it reacts to certain situations. The personality of your character doesn't have to be particularly agreeable, but it does need to be interesting (unless your characters is purposely dull). Personality can also be expressed simply in how the character has been drawn.

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