Character Design Process [Tutorial, Tips, and Best Practices]

What makes a character design good? In this article I fully explain my character design process with examples and concept art.
Character Design Process

Have you ever designed a character just to end up feeling like this? As SpongeBob quickly figured out, the character design process is challenging – in more ways than one.. 

Spongebob's Character Design Process

The good news is, there are things you can do to drastically help any character design. These are tactics I’ve learned over the years, and in this article I’m going to share them with you! But for those that aren’t looking to read something… this long… I’ve compiled all of this into an easy to digest video tutorial as well!

Enjoy.

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    Character Design Process Tip #1:

    How I Pick Out the Right Features

    Let’s start this off with a question – what do you guys think comes first? The character’s look, or their personality, backstory, hobbies, favorite food / color / tv show, etc. ? Well.. it depends on what you prefer.

    That said, I’m a strong advocate for figuring out WHO the character is first, and then designing their appearance. Why? Well, every time I jump into drawing first the result is a character design that lacks any rhyme or reason. The design just.. Falls flat. 

    But, when I start with an idea – and it doesn’t have to be deep! – the design creates itself. Any work done at that point is very easy and fluid. Maybe that’s just me. 

    Ever heard of this? —

    Write great characters and they’ll write the story for you.

    Designing characters follows that same idea. It’s like I’m having a conversation with someone about what they’re going to wear today, how they’re planning on styling their hair, and what their favorite color is. All these things are directly related to how they are going to look, and in turn the design elements actually SAY something meaningful about the character. 

    That said, plenty of artists do this in reverse – draw something really cool and then generate more information about the character from that. And that’s fine! I’ve just never been able to do that without getting art-block.

    So if you struggle with this – like me – flip the steps on their head and learn more about your character before picking up a pencil.

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    Character Design Process Tip #2:

    Use Shape Language

    Let’s chat about shape language next.

    When I think of good shape language for character design, I instantly think of Cruella Devil. And I’m not talking about the new movie that came out in 2021, I’m talking about the animated 101 Dalmatians movie that came out in 1961.

    Cruella Shape Language

    Cruella is a selfish, puppy-murdering, fashionista that takes what she wants and doesn’t lose sleep at night over it. Her design compliments every aspect of her so well through shapes alone. She’s pointy and rigid, and you probably wouldn’t want to cuddle with her.

    Her shape gives you a decent idea of who she is as a person. And while they do shape language really well with Cruella, I absolutely LOVE it when characters go against their own shape language too.

    Ursula Shape Language

    Like in The Little Mermaid. The antagonist of that movie was Ursula, an octopus lady that yearned for power and revenge against Ariel’s dad. But her shape language was SO PERFECT for her character – because (to Ariel) she came off as this sweet lady that helps people when they lose their way. Her body consists of big circles and soft edges. She was designed to fool Ariel into trusting her. 

    A wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you will. 

    Okay, enough of me nerding out over Disney shape language. When I first walked down this path of shapes playing a huge part in character design I had questions like:

    “Which shape works best with my character?”
    “What do shapes mean?”
    “Can I use more than one?”
    “Why does it even matter?” 
    “Where do you put them?”
    “How do you use them?”

    Thanks to Disney’s shape language tactics (and other animated media that follow the same methods,) we’re preconditioned to making first impressions based on shape alone. And each shape is jam-packed with different meanings. Luckily, there are only three, so I made a little chart.

    Character Design Shape Language Chart

    Using shape language effectively is all about subtlety. Unless you’re going for a Phineas and Ferb vibe which has 0 subtlety at all. It isn’t bad, it’s just a style preference, so do it if you like it!

    Phineas and Ferb Shape Language

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    Character Design Process Tip #3:

    Use Silhouettes to Improve the Design

    Since we’re neck deep into character design, I feel compelled to bring this up. I have to admit I don’t do this every time I’m designing a new character – though if I did, my characters would probably turn out better.

    Say you have a character design you’re starting to like, but there’s something about it you just aren’t a fan of. If you’re like me, you may be focusing too much on the details. Try stepping back and looking at only the outline. 

    You can do this by filling your character in with black and just looking at the silhouette. (Pro-tip: do this on a new layer so you don’t ruin your original sketch) If you can make your character recognizable like this, you’re doing something right. 

    For example – can you tell who these peeps are? You probably can.

    Character Design Silhouettes

    If your silhouette looks like an unrecognizable blob, this is your chance to make it more distinguishable. Try PUSHING the shape to the extremes. Make skinny characters skinnier, give them more defined hair, make their glasses bigger so they stick out, and so on. 

    The goal is to take away any confusion from your outlines. People should be able to recognize the character with a quick glance because it’s just that awesome.

    Then when you’re finished, make the silhouette semi-transparent so you can see your original lineart underneath. It’s going to look funky but bare with me. Create a new layer on top of the two transparent sketches and redraw your character to fit the outline of your new silhouette.

    When you’re finished, turn the silhouette layer off and move your second sketch to stand next to your original sketch. Which one do you like more? Which one is more dynamic? I’ll leave that up to you.

    Silhouette Character Design Exercise

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    Character Design Process Tip #4:

    My Process for Picking Colors

    Colors are hard. Knowing which colors to use, and why, and where, and how much — it stressed me out like no other part of the creative process!

    So to make things easier – I break the process into 3 simple things to consider (in order from least important to most important.)

    #1 Symbolism

    What colors mean and portray to the audience is, in my opinion – the least important thing to consider. There are so many characters that follow these cultural rules and if used to the extreme, it feels really insensitive. I’m talking about the over-use of black on evil characters, white or light colors on the good guys, pink for girls, blue for boys, and so on.

    If you want to use these colors to portray any of these meanings you definitely can – but personally it feels very overdone. So when I see a big, beefy guy wearing a pink shirt, or our main protagonist sporting their all-black outfit – it’s just more interesting!

    But of course these choices can still be daunting, which leads me into my second point –

    #2 Character’s Choice

    Ask your character what they want to wear! 

    Coloring Characters

    I know this sounds really dumb, but it’s so important, I can’t stress this enough. Like I mentioned earlier, if you already have a character with wants, needs, desires, and so on – they probably have some idea of what colors they like.

    A perfect example of this is him –>

    He LOVES superheroes. So he’s probably going to wear colors that represent that – probably some red, yellow, and blue colors like superman.

    Character Colors

     

    <– Here’s another example.

    This is a business man with a no-nonsense attitude like 90% of the time. He’s more likely to wear neutral-toned outfits to maintain his professional appearance.

     

    #3 Color Combos

    Mixing and matching multiple colors is another level of difficult. In a different life I would open up my little color picker, select a blue I thought was pretty and then rinse and repeat until I produced green and purple wolves that made NO sense whatsoever.  

    I wish I could go back and time and tell Little TK to stop messing around and use a color palette tool. As soon as I tried it I NEVER went back. Now when I try to manually pick out colors it just looks awful. I’m probably colorblind – I don’t know. As for good generators, I use Coolors all the time. Just follow these steps and you’ll be on your way!

    1. Go to https://coolors.co/
    2. Click “Start Generator”
    3. Tap the spacebar to generate new colors
    4. When you see a color you like, click the LOCK and continue hitting spacebar until you have 5 colors you really like
    5. Take a screenshot, and then add it into your drawing software to color pick your palette
    6. Then you can hit the spacebar on your keyboard to generate new palettes.

    PRO-TIP: It’s fine to have one outlandish color – like bright orange or neon green. But it usually looks better when you keep these colors to a minimum and use them as highlights to keep things more grounded.

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    Character Design Process Tip #5:

    Nothing Is Unique

    Do you guys remember my animatic “The Boy, The Wolf, and The Monster?” Yeah, well I realized far too late that the human characters that look PAINFULLY similar to Eren and Armin from Attack on Titan.

    Eren and Armin Design

    This wasn’t even intentional, but when designing the characters I subconsciously gave them similar features. 

    Short Story Lineup Sheet

    Obviously this isn’t an ideal situation – especially after redrawing them a thousand times. So how do you avoid this? Sometimes you can’t. Best case scenario – you can tweak the design. Worst case – you’ll trash the design and start over. And it really depends on how similar they end up looking.

    Unique Character Design Exercise

    BUT, I do have a method that might save you some time. And fun fact: this method works for nearly anything creative – like writing stories, animating scenes, creating backgrounds, and yeah – designing characters too.

    So grab a sheet of paper and write “Character Design” at the top – for no other reason than my own OCD for labeling things – and then list out the design traits we’ve talked about so far – 

    • Features like Clothes/Accessories/Scars/Tattoos
    • Silhouette
    • Shape
    • Color

    and then add one more –

    • Line Value

    which is a fancy way of saying how thick the character’s lineart is. Trust me, it makes a difference in your design.

    Now, think about the character you want to design. Have an idea of their personality and character traits in your mind. And if you’re like me, quickly jot down a character summary on your paper.

    Underneath that, make a list of 5 characters you like that somewhat resembles your character’s personality. This can be characters from movies, tv-shows, and even books (as long as they have a visual design.)

    Next to each character, match the list of values you wrote above. Use each value only once. Mine ended up being:

    Character Design Reference Sheet

    Now with this ref sheet handy, grab a pencil and start sketching a character while implementing the values for the 5 characters you picked out. Here’s a quick picture of the new character I drew with these 5 references.

    Creating Unique Characters

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    Character Design Process Tip #6:

    Ensemble Designs

    Are you trying to create 4 or more characters, but they look way too similar to each other? Or maybe they look totally different! Like there’s no way they would live on the same planet. If you have either of these problems, it may be beneficial to slap all of them onto a character lineup sheet.

    Full Character Lineup Sheet

    When you look at the characters next to each other, it’s easier to see how they vary in height, size, shape, line value, and color. From there you can sketch new ideas to make them all fit together better. Not all people look the same, so differentiating your character designs may make them feel more authentic and unique. 

    Also, this is the perfect setting to view the colors of your characters and how they all look together. Here is my lineup again, but with only the base colors.

    Full Base Color Character Design Lineup Sheet

    Color aside, there is one more thing you can test out in this stage. Most people tend to fall into a “beauty trap” when creating their characters. 

    And what I mean by that, is they allow beauty standards to limit their creative choices. I’m not saying make your characters ugly on purpose – but not everyone has to look like a model with perfect hair and a clear complexion.  

    If the character lineup sheet isn’t working out that well for you, sketch your characters interacting with each other on a day to day basis. Try to include their mood or emotion while they are talking to each other so you can see their dynamic. 

    Even if characters look very similar or extremely different, the look and feel of their dynamic could be the saving grace of your ensemble. 

    Organic Character Design Sketches

    It’s also easier to see what they would actually look like in the story, and this alone will make a lot of problems rise to the surface. More often than not this exercise makes me adjust SOMETHING about the characters. So it’s definitely worth giving a try if something’s wrong with the designs but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is.

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    Character Design Process Tip #7:

    Understand Your Own Intent

    Don’t design a character with 300 spots when they need to be drawn 12-24 times just to show movement for 1 second. Seriously, please don’t do this to yourself. You have so much to live for!

    Instead, simplify the design without getting rid of the impression your character is making on the audience. Granted, there are plenty of animated works with complicated character designs, especially in anime. 

    But most times you can make the same impact with your character and your story with or without a complex design. Not to mention, some of the best designs are simple. Don’t throw rocks at me, this is just my opinion.

    That being said, I’m fully aware that not everyone is an animator. Maybe you just want to draw an Original Character for your profile picture, or maybe you want a complex looking character for your graphic novel. If that’s the case, then by all means! Go nuts.

    Just keep in mind that a complex character doesn’t always mean it has a superior design to a simple character. 

    If your audience can’t even tell what something is on your character because you have thousands of moving pieces, it might be best to tone it down and emphasize the really important bits of your character.

    Conclusion

    That’s all I’ve got for now my lovelies. If you have any questions about character design be sure to leave a comment and I’ll do what I can to help you out. Thanks so much for watching guys, and happy drawing!

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