Lisa Has­sell talks to in­flu­en­tial artists and dis­cov­ers their ap­proach to craft­ing char­ac­ters

Computer Arts - - Contents - TY­POG­RA­PHY: Hat­tie Ste­wart www.hat­ti­estew­

Lisa Has­sell talks to in­flu­en­tial artists and dis­cov­ers their se­crets for bring­ing char­ac­ters to life – from con­cept to fi­nal de­sign

Whether de­sign­ing for 2D, editorial, ad cam­paigns or game de­sign, adopt­ing a mind­ful ap­proach to char­ac­ter de­sign is es­sen­tial to fit with the chang­ing times we live in. Un­der­stand­ing your au­di­ence, craft­ing a com­pelling story and know­ing the lim­i­ta­tions and pos­si­bil­i­ties of the di­verse range of me­dia plat­forms avail­able can only open up the scope of pos­si­bil­i­ties for to­day’s char­ac­ter de­sign­ers. De­pend­ing on the vari­ables, such as the in­tended au­di­ence, the pur­pose of the work and where it’s likely to live – as well as whether you’re a vis­ual de­signer, il­lus­tra­tor or game de­vel­oper – fig­ur­ing out a ba­sic frame­work early on in the process will help in­form your char­ac­ters and add an­other layer of depth to their pur­pose.

Char­ac­ters are fre­quently rep­re­sen­ta­tive of their creators, ob­serves Craig Red­man, one half of de­sign stu­dio Craig & Karl, through both the vis­ual style as well as how their per­son­al­ity shines through.“For us it’s the re­la­tion­ship to the cre­ator that makes it in­ter­est­ing. We tend to think of Craig & Karl as a con­ver­sa­tion or con­tin­ual back and forth be­tween the two of us, which is how we op­er­ate day-to-day too,” adds Karl Maier (the other half of the cre­ative duo). “As it’s only the two of us, our per­son­al­i­ties, back­grounds and in­ter­ests all feed into the work we make. And as much as there’s a vis­ual style, we aim to bring our per­spec­tive to things so there’s a con­sis­tent tone or ap­proach, even if the form varies.”


Liv­ing in dif­fer­ent parts of the world but col­lab­o­rat­ing daily to cre­ate bold work that is filled with sim­ple mes­sages ex­e­cuted in a thought­ful and of­ten hu­mor­ous way, Craig & Karl cre­ate dis­tinc­tive graphic vi­su­als for mu­rals, type­faces, set de­sign, pack­ag­ing and editorial il­lus­tra­tions for a whole host of high-end clients, pub­li­ca­tions and brands, though it is the dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter por­traits for which they are widely recog­nised.

“Con­cept is key, it’s the foun­da­tion for what we’ll build an idea of nar­ra­tive around.” says Maier. “All of our projects be­gin by hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion to fig­ure out the ba­sic frame­work for what we want to say and how we’d like to do it. Sketch­ing plays a role too, but usu­ally, it’s more like a note-tak­ing process that lets us get ideas down quickly and al­low things to ges­tate, as op­posed to a blue­print that we’ll then work over to cre­ate the fi­nal piece. We do like to get a rel­a­tively clear no­tion of what we want the out­come to be be­fore div­ing in,” con­tin­ues Maier. “From there, it’s all about the do­ing and mak­ing, trial and er­ror, love and loathe, back and forth process that we go through.”


Char­ac­ter de­sign is fre­quently driven by story, and that re­mains true no mat­ter which plat­form char­ac­ters are in­tended for. Whether craft­ing char­ac­ters for print me­dia, ad­ver­tis­ing cam­paigns or an­i­ma­tion, giv­ing your char­ac­ters a pur­pose strength­ens their rea­son for be­ing.

Aus­tralian born, Ber­lin-based il­lus­tra­tor Rilla Alexan­der ex­plains. “When I am il­lus­trat­ing a book that some­one else wrote, I see the char­ac­ters as ac­tors on a stage who have to get into char­ac­ter, whereas when I am work­ing on my own sto­ries, I see the char­ac­ters as em­body­ing their own emo­tions. You shouldn’t be con­scious that a good ac­tor is act­ing and so I would hope that dis­tinc­tion is not ob­vi­ous to any­one else… but it’s what is go­ing on in my head.”

Il­lus­tra­tor Jim Stoten agrees; “You can ap­peal to per­son­al­ity traits that ex­ist within an au­di­ence. I re­ally like how ex­pres­sive hands are. You can com­mu­ni­cate a lot about a char­ac­ter by how they hold a glass or the way they sit. It’s a way of show­ing a char­ac­ter’s per­son­al­ity.”


Stoten, whose vast, in­tri­cate land­scapes are filled with tubaplay­ing ele­phants, danc­ing ro­bots and croc­o­diles eat­ing ice cream, has an in­ter­est­ing view of his char­ac­ters; “I think to a cer­tain ex­tent char­ac­ters that I cre­ate are self por­traits,” he ex­plains. “Ei­ther they have man­ner­isms or traits of mine, or have things about other peo­ple that I ad­mire built into them.”

With com­mis­sions for an im­pres­sive list of clients in­clud­ing MTV, Habi­tat, Levi’s, Ur­ban Out­fit­ters and The Guardian, Stoten fre­quently ex­hibits his work in gal­leries around the globe. “Per­son­ally, I like char­ac­ters that

have el­e­ments of their per­son­al­i­ties vi­su­alised in their phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance some­how,” he says. “Mr. Tweed, my chil­dren’s book char­ac­ter, was based almost en­tirely on Peter Usti­nov. I watch a lot of old talk shows while I am work­ing, and Peter Usti­nov was such an amaz­ing char­ac­ter, both phys­i­cally and in the way he con­ducted him­self.”

A sense of hu­mour is key, adds Maier. “I think that re­gard­less of the form a char­ac­ter takes, there’s in­evitably some­thing hu­man, some­thing of us in them. It’s a little like hold­ing a com­i­cal mir­ror up that high­lights the hu­mour, ab­sur­dity or dif­fi­cul­ties of our lives,” he says, “and be­cause they tend to be cute or ex­ag­ger­ated vis­ually, they can tackle ideas or sit­u­a­tions with a light­ness that might be harder oth­er­wise.


The im­por­tance of com­edy is es­pe­cially true of in­ter­ac­tive work, whether you’re play­ing with the char­ac­ters, tak­ing con­trol of the char­ac­ter or fol­low­ing them around. Nexus Stu­dios de­signed the look and feel of HotStep­per, the world’s first aug­mented re­al­ity char­ac­ter-based wayfind­ing app, cen­tred around an irrepressible char­ac­ter in­spired by in­ter­net cul­ture, Friedrich Liecht­en­stein’s ‘Su­pergeil’ and Napoleon Dy­na­mite’s in­fa­mous dance moves, synth pop vibes, and Bri­tish ec­cen­tric­ity.

“An enig­matic char­ac­ter is hugely im­por­tant if they are the pro­tag­o­nist in your nar­ra­tive,” ad­vises Alex Jenk­ins, a di­rec­tor at Los An­ge­les and Lon­don-based Nexus Stu­dios. “You want the au­di­ence to root for the char­ac­ters you’ve breathed life into, make an emo­tional con­nec­tion and par­tic­i­pate. With in­ter­ac­tive work you have to pro­voke the au­di­ence to get in­volved, you can’t pas­sively watch it un­fold like in film.”

Speaking on stage at OFF­SET Dublin, ustwo games head of stu­dio Dan Gray shared this view. Re­flect­ing on the chal­lenges faced dur­ing pre-pro­duc­tion for mo­bile game Mon­u­ment Val­ley 2, he spoke about craft­ing a story in­spired by univer­sal themes. “A chal­lenge we have in the mo­bile space [is that] it’s very dif­fi­cult to keep peo­ple’s at­ten­tion. They’re open­ing a game for 30 secs or a minute at a time be­fore mov­ing on to the next thing. So it was very im­por­tant to us that we sur­prised peo­ple at ev­ery turn.”

An in­de­pen­dent mo­bile games stu­dio with a strong fo­cus on in­ter­ac­tive en­ter­tain­ment, user ex­pe­ri­ence and ex­cep­tional vis­ual de­sign, ustwo games de­mands a deeper level of en­gage­ment from play­ers. As the team be­hind the award-win­ning puz­zle game for iOS and An­droid that’s been down­loaded and played more than 30 mil­lion times, the se­quel to Mon­u­ment Val­ley fol­lows a mother-child nar­ra­tive, as they em­bark on a jour­ney of dis­cov­ery through a stun­ning and im­pos­si­ble world.

“It’s a very rare duo to see in gam­ing these days” says Gray, dis­till­ing video games into some­thing that can be played by a mass au­di­ence and di­ver­sify our ap­proach to un­com­mon sto­ries. “We didn’t want the mother to seem over­bear­ing or a bur­den; but em­power her. We pur­pose­fully didn’t de­fine the gen­der of these char­ac­ters.” Mak­ing a mother the cen­tral pro­tag­o­nist in a game is a re­ally unique and strik­ing ap­proach to game de­sign. “We must have gone through over 200 char­ac­ters try­ing to get the feel­ing right,” Gray ad­mits.


Vis­ually, the pro­por­tions of a char­ac­ter can also make a no­table dif­fer­ence. Alex Jenk­ins, a di­rec­tor whose tal­ents have been recog­nised at Cannes Lions and The Art Direc­tors Club, says, “I’ve al­ways been a fan of the Japanese ap­proach to char­ac­ters. I love the sim­plic­ity of how they cap­ture re­ally strong emo­tion with quite min­i­mal de­tail, just well-placed eyes and mouths and the use of ex­ag­ger­a­tion.” Jenk­ins thinks that if you have a char­ac­ter with little ex­pres­sion, mov­ing it into the body is the best way to “carry the per­son­al­ity and ex­press emo­tion.”

It’s a sen­ti­ment shared by Alexan­der, who be­lieves that ev­ery char­ac­ter should have one dis­tinc­tive char­ac­ter­is­tic that is cru­cial to their very be­ing. “You

“You have to pro­voke the au­di­ence to get in­volved, you can’t pas­sively watch it un­fold like in film” DAN GRAY, HEAD OF STU­DIO USTWO

should be able to grad­u­ally re­move each fea­ture one by one un­til you are left with one or two fea­tures that you can still clearly recog­nise them by,” she says. “Miffy is a very good ex­am­ple of this – you can re­duce her down to her eyes and that dis­tinc­tive cross nose and still know it is her. You don’t even need her rab­bit ears!”

An es­tab­lished il­lus­tra­tor, Alexan­der’s char­ac­ters adorn Museo del Prado’s ce­ram­ics and sta­tionery, pop­u­late Swiss Credit Cards and sleep on the walls of a Copen­hagen ho­tel (she re­placed the bed with a tent). She has ex­hib­ited, spo­ken at con­fer­ences, and led work­shops all over the world in­clud­ing the Pic­to­plasma Academy in Ber­lin, where she de­liv­ers a char­ac­ter de­sign mas­ter­class ev­ery year.

“There are a lot of ba­sic de­sign prin­ci­ples re­gard­ing com­po­si­tion and pro­por­tion that ap­ply to char­ac­ter de­sign,” says Alexan­der. “It might seem ob­vi­ous, but the more cute and round a char­ac­ter, the more ap­proach­able and naive they seem. The more an­gu­lar a char­ac­ter, the smarter they ap­pear. All of these things are at play when I am work­ing, whether I am con­scious of them or not.”


For Alexan­der, giv­ing life to new char­ac­ters can be an in­tu­itive process, and one that has been honed and de­vel­oped through her nu­mer­ous pro­fes­sional and per­sonal projects. Her al­ter-ego Sozi stars in her self-au­thored pic­ture books Her Idea (2010) and The Best Book in the World (2014), ti­tles pub­lished by Fly­ing Eye Books. “Sozi is a way for me to ex­press what are some­times quite com­plex emo­tions in a sim­pli­fied way,” she re­veals. “When I was pro­cras­ti­nat­ing about my first book, it was Sozi and her strug­gle to fin­ish her ideas that I wrote about. Look­ing back I can see it was the book I had to do, be­fore I could get over that men­tal hur­dle and start mak­ing books about other things.

“Char­ac­ters might come to me as a clear vis­ual but I have to dig to fig­ure out who they are,” she con­tin­ues. “There are oth­ers that I only ini­tially know from the in­side – their per­son­al­ity or their story – and then the chal­lenge is to work out what that char­ac­ter should look like from the out­side. I nearly al­ways find that the char­ac­ter’s per­son­al­ity or looks re­mind me of an as­pect of some­one I know. That moment of con­nec­tion is the very thing that makes me want to keep draw­ing or writ­ing and to dis­cover more.”

Bal­anc­ing el­e­ments and defin­ing the char­ac­ter­is­tics is es­pe­cially rel­e­vant in pub­lish­ing, where editorial il­lus­tra­tors must ad­here to strict dead­lines – a cou­ple of hours in some cases. For Brighton-based il­lus­tra­tor Leon Edler, craft­ing gen­uine char­ac­ters is a skill in it­self. “When I started out, art direc­tors would ask me to make the char­ac­ters in my fi­nals closer to the orig­i­nal sketch. When I’d done the orig­i­nal sketch, all I was think­ing about was that char­ac­ter and the con­cept,” he says. It’s im­por­tant to make sure that the fi­nal art­work isn’t too pol­ished, as there is a risk that the char­ac­ters will be less en­gag­ing. “I think if the char­ac­ters are re­lat­able, peo­ple will of­ten look past the style of the work more than they do with tra­di­tional illustration,” he con­cludes.

If your char­ac­ters come from an hon­est, real place they will be more re­lat­able to your in­tended au­di­ence, says Lon­don-based il­lus­tra­tor Hat­tie Ste­wart. “In­evitably your work re­flects some part of your char­ac­ter, so yes my char­ac­ters are a re­flec­tion of my­self, or at least how I would hope my­self to be.”


Best known for ‘doo­dle­bomb­ing’ over in­flu­en­tial mag­a­zines, Ste­wart’s tongue-in-cheek art­work moves flu­idly be­tween many cre­ative fields, in­clud­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with fash­ion brand Henry Hol­land. “I like to think my work is some­thing

ev­ery gen­er­a­tion can en­joy,” she says. “It evokes child­hood feel­ings with its car­toon­ish style, but also has themes that are more adult in na­ture. It’s play­ful, it’s en­gag­ing, it doesn’t take it­self too se­ri­ously and it’s adapt­able.”

Her brightly coloured Posca pen cre­ations first gained no­to­ri­ety when she be­gan mix­ing her draw­ings with pho­tog­ra­phy and they have been fea­tured by the in­dus­try’s big­gest names. She is a tes­ta­ment to the power of DIY cul­ture, hav­ing cre­ated her own niche through sheer hard work, prac­tice and gutsy per­sonal projects. “I’m lucky that be­cause I fo­cus solely on my own work peo­ple tend to come to me for that, so I rarely feel pushed in di­rec­tions I feel un­com­fort­able work­ing in,” she ex­plains. Ap­proach­ing each brief with her sketch­book to hand, her start­ing place is of­ten dec­o­ra­tive mo­tifs and sym­bol­ism that cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion, com­bined with a highly ex­pres­sive face. “I’ll play around with dif­fer­ent themes and con­cepts. I’ll go back to my sketch for un­der­de­vel­oped ideas that may work in the present. It all comes nat­u­rally, and when it works, it works!” KEEP DI­VER­SITY IN MIND In­creas­ingly, to­day’s cre­atives are faced with chal­lenges around cul­ture and di­ver­sity, be­cause the pub­lic quite rightly ex­pect brands and me­dia to recog­nise the need for in­clu­siv­ity, and adapt their ad­ver­tis­ing ac­cord­ingly. Yet, to do so with­out re­sort­ing to stereo­typ­ing can be sur­pris­ingly dif­fi­cult. “It’s im­por­tant to re­flect the times we are liv­ing in,” says Span­ish il­lus­tra­tor Jose Men­dez. “Il­lus­tra­tors should fo­cus on cre­at­ing char­ac­ters that rep­re­sent peo­ple, tribes, an­i­mals that peo­ple can re­late to.”

Known for his vi­brant, en­er­getic and fluid art­work with a mostly red, blue and black colour pal­ette that has be­come syn­ony­mous with his work, a re­cent com­mis­sion for Spo­tify turned this ap­proach on its head. De­sign­ing a large mu­ral to vi­su­alise the au­di­ence who use Spo­tify, Men­dez re­sponded to the brief by work­ing on a se­ries of char­ac­ters that tell the story – from fit­ness en­thu­si­asts to fes­ti­val go­ers, millennials and com­muters. Set in two dif­fer­ent lo­ca­tions, the first mu­ral was painted dur­ing Cannes Lions International Fes­ti­val of Cre­ativ­ity, fol­lowed by Dmexco where a large-scale dig­i­tal hoard­ing was in­stalled in an ex­hi­bi­tion space. “Some­times I take in­spi­ra­tion from my own ex­pe­ri­ences, but also street cul­ture,” Men­dez says. “Cap­tur­ing the en­ergy, through move­ment, shapes, com­po­si­tion, play­ful­ness and ex­pres­sion, makes a char­ac­ter more ap­peal­ing to peo­ple,” he adds.

It’s an ap­proach cham­pi­oned by Nexus Stu­dios, a com­pany that prides it­self on cre­at­ing heart­felt sto­ries and ex­pe­ri­ences that engage au­di­ences through the power of en­ter­tain­ment and cul­ture. “We need more di­ver­sity and in­clu­sive­ness,” stresses Jenk­ins. “It has to reach a point where it’s not a ‘thing’ to be mind­ful of, it’s just life.” And he has a firm idea of how this can be achieved. “To break stereo­types, di­verse char­ac­ters must not be to­ken team mem­bers, they should be in the plot be­cause they mat­ter, have a valid role, are vi­tal to the plot, so why not start from there? Be­ing of mixed her­itage I do feel aware and have no­ticed the some­what ar­bi­trary way some pro­duc­tions have plugged-in di­ver­sity. Yet I think even if han­dled awk­wardly it can be pos­i­tive, be­cause it brings the is­sue into fo­cus and helps us over­come bi­ases.” AVOID STEREO­TYPES For Craig & Karl, it’s an is­sue to be acutely aware of. “We are very mind­ful of di­ver­sity in our work and al­ways cre­ate a good balance of the sexes and back­grounds in our por­trai­ture. Clients are su­per aware of the im­por­tance too and mostly re­quest it, which is great. We’re do­ing a project at the moment that in­volves cre­at­ing a char­ac­ter for dif­fer­ent cities around the world, so when it comes to draw­ing a girl from Paris (for ex­am­ple) it’s not about draw­ing Eif­fel Tower ear­rings and giv­ing her a beret, it’s far more

“Cap­tur­ing the en­ergy, shapes, com­po­si­tion, play­ful­ness and ex­pres­sion makes a char­ac­ter more ap­peal­ing to peo­ple” JOSE MEN­DEZ

in­ter­est­ing and chal­leng­ing to cap­ture the essence of a real Parisian, some­one look­ing awesome go­ing about their ev­ery­day ac­tiv­i­ties. No one wants corny rep­re­sen­ta­tions of gen­der, race or sex­u­al­ity… it’s all about cre­at­ing an over­all vibe.”

“Di­ver­sity is in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to me,” en­thuses Ste­wart. “I’ve al­ways said my char­ac­ters have no as­cended gen­der or race; I want them to be univer­sal but still unique and in­clu­sive. I couldn’t imag­ine mak­ing char­ac­ters this fun and cheeky and them not be­ing di­verse.”

For Edler, strik­ing a balance is es­sen­tial. “I had to rep­re­sent 16 dif­fer­ent de­mo­graph­ics for the Guardian’s bud­get cov­er­age last year, so there might have been a ten­dency to take in­spi­ra­tion from stereo­types, but at the same time we have to be re­spon­si­ble – you don’t want to be re­duc­tive.” Work­ing almost ex­clu­sively in editorial illustration for lead­ing pub­li­ca­tions, Edler ad­mits that it can still be tricky some­times. “When I started, I nearly al­ways sketched white men in my con­cepts, and I would be asked to make sure I in­cluded women and peo­ple of colour in the fi­nals. As I’ve de­vel­oped and my ca­reer has pro­gressed, I’m a lot more mind­ful at the sketch stage to mix up the char­ac­ters and rep­re­sent a big­ger range of peo­ple.

“If you draw a group of char­ac­ters to­gether, I like to make sure that their per­son­al­i­ties interact to cre­ate some sort of nar­ra­tive or con­flict, rather than just peo­ple drawn separately and plonked on the page,” Edler con­tin­ues. “I do have cer­tain char­ac­ter types that I go back to a lot.” Edler also agrees that ob­ser­va­tion of real-life sce­nar­ios and sur­round­ings can be an in­valu­able re­source to in­form char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment. “I of­ten draw an over­bear­ing posh older lady, a haughty, Vogue-es­que woman smok­ing, grubby little kids, a French man suf­fer­ing with en­nui, a thug, a sneer­ing waiter char­ac­ter, some­one vaguely pleas­ant and some­one who is bliss­fully un­aware of their sur­round­ings. These are just char­ac­ters that make me laugh and that fit well to­gether in a scene.” EX­PER­I­MENT WITH NEW AP­PROACHES Re­duc­ing the char­ac­ters into sim­ple forms and ex­ag­ger­at­ing the fea­tures gives you more scope to be able to adapt the char­ac­ter into any sit­u­a­tion, whether it’s 2D or in the real world through sculp­ture or prod­ucts, ob­serves Red­man. To­gether with his cre­ative part­ner Maier, Craig & Karl has worked on projects for clients in­clud­ing Google, Nike, Ap­ple, Tate Mod­ern and The New York Times. “Vis­ually we’re both drawn to bold shapes and colours com­posed in a high im­pact and sim­pli­fied way,” he ex­plains, “and those ideas are trans­lated into our work with­out us re­ally think­ing about it – it’s in­stinc­tive.”

Adopt­ing the same ap­proach for their por­traits, whether they are draw­ing a pub­lic fig­ure or celebrity, Craig & Karl re­veals it’s all about sin­gling out a fea­ture that is dis­tinc­tive to that per­son. “In the case of Trump it’s pretty easy, that orange wig/face and glum look; when we’re draw­ing friends it might be a beard or a par­tic­u­lar piece of jew­ellery that iden­ti­fies them. What­ever it is, that’s the el­e­ment to high­light and ex­ag­ger­ate, this al­lows the viewer to get a quick read and iden­tify who the sub­ject is.”

Tak­ing the time sim­ply to ex­per­i­ment and try things out gen­er­ally across the board is also an es­sen­tial part of the way the duo work, across dif­fer­ent types of projects.

“There’s a sort of flow of ideas where one thing feeds into an­other all of the time,” re­veals Maier. “What we de­velop as part of one project may spark a thought for a char­ac­ter or vice versa. I guess it acts as a little re­set when we come back to char­ac­ter de­sign, which hope­fully keeps our ap­proach fresh.”

“It’s all about the do­ing and mak­ing, trial and er­ror, love and loathe, back and forth process that we go through” KARL MAIER OF CRAIG & KARL

Below Por­trait of Kanye West for an ex­hi­bi­tion at Slam Jam, Italy by Craig & Karl.

Above Art­work for Where’s My Welly?: The World’s Great­est Mu­sic Fes­ti­val Chal­lenge, il­lus­trated by Jim Stoten

Above Land of Plea­sures by Jose Men­dez. Rep­re­sented by WE ARE GOOD­NESS.

Above Art­work from Ste­wart’s new solo ex­hi­bi­tion I Don’t Have Time For This, run­ning at NOW Gallery, Lon­don, un­til 25 June 2018.

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