At Toonstop, I’m designing characters for commercial purposes. Characters are representations of people and concepts used either for storytelling or connecting brands to people. Bringing these characters to life through design in the context of narrative, dramatic, or brand-focused works of art is at the center of my profession.
The process I’ve developed allows me to create and design characters that meet your business goals. This process involves the steps that I’m taking as a professional and the responsibilities that you and I have before and during the project. Just below you’ll be learning what to expect at each stage of the process. This grants you peace of mind confidence in my abilities, and certainty during our entire time working together.
First, you send me a completed questionnaire
When we choose to work together, your success is my focus, both for your project and your company. Through my process, I’m going to create value for your business that leads to a stronger connection between you and your existing customers and prospects.
To see whether you and I are a good fit, I need to know who you are, what you need, what your business goals are, what success looks like for your project, and who your project is for. The questionnaire is part of building that foundation, so it’s crucial to your best interest that you fill out the form properly. A successful Q & A process sets us on the right foot in talking about the work we’ll be doing together.
Next, I Review Your Submission
I take a look at your answers. I’m checking for clarity of goals, passion about the project, and why you consider me to be the right designer for your job. Knowing these things helps us to work together better.
If, after my review, you and I look like a good fit, we’ll start talking and really get into what your project is all about. Knowing all details related to your business objectives helps us achieve a better result.
Planning for success
Success requires us to operate in an environment of mutual trust. If you do not have confidence in my abilities as a designer, we aren’t a good match. If I do not believe you are presenting truthful statements and numbers, there is no foundation on which to build you the right design solution.
You are the expert in your field. I am the professional in my field. My role is to solve your problems and help you achieve your goals. Your role is to provide the parameters for your goals through accurate data about your marketplace and audience. I’m trusting you to communicate your goals cleanly and clearly, and to provide all relevant content pertaining to your character design.
As your design professional, I’ll take care of the responsibility of delivering a solution tailor-made to your communicated goals.
Communication is key. We’ll be talking through your goals thoroughly, and we’re going to dig up every piece of information we need for me to deliver the best solution.
I want to solve your problems! But that can only happen when you and I communicate upfront, openly, and frankly about your project and your company. Failure on either of our parts to ask question or get clarification results in a void that will only be filled with assumptions, miscommunication, or poorly defined goals.We don’t want that.
Goals set the course, not money
You may notice that I don’t ask about money on my questionnaire. There’s a reason for that.
My responsibility as a designer is to understand your needs and the value of the solution to those needs before discussing price. I want to understand what the best route is for your success before quoting a price
I choose not to charge hourly because it creates worry and uncertainty for you about the final price, and it distracts me from making well-informed design decisions in the service of your success. Additionally, as a designer I am always thinking about my work, both at and away from my desk. Quantifying all of that time is extremely difficult and unfair to producing the best results for a project. Hourly pricing is a distraction and serves neither of our needs.
The Line That is Dotted.
Once we’ve had all of the talks we need to and have a clear understanding of the project, you will receive a letter containing the agreed project goals and the terms of our professional agreement. The magic starts happening from this point forward…
I work in three stages
I start with a concept based on all of our meetings up to this point. For client projects, this is always defined by the needs and vision of your brand. This concept can come single words (Adventurous, Courageous, Fun), or a set of ideas focused into a single point. (A starry-eyed explorer. A penitent, lonely hero. Caretaker and Protector.)
The concept is the springboard for everything else forward.
From big to medium to small
I make the big decisions first to stake down the foundation. Foundational decisions are based on the information you provided. Then I begin defining individual parts of the foundation (the medium details), followed by polisiong the figure with appropriate and goal-oriented details (the small details). Every design stage builds on the one before it.
Stage 1: Foundations
In this stage, I handle initial development of the character design. This consists essentially of 5 sub-stages:
- Refined Sketching
Step 1/5: Silhouette
My design process begins with loose silhouettes and sketches. I’m using the business goals and the concept that we established in our meetings as the point of departure and expand from there using design elements that are suitable for the visual development of the character.
At this stage I’m establishing what will be passed along in the visual storytelling and eventually be communicated to the end customer. The essential shape of the character are the first eye-catches to the customer: Size, proportion, curves, angles, everything about the silhouette begin telling things to the customer in the blink of an eye. In commercial design, this is called the “Three-Second Rule,” which basically dictates that your design has three seconds to make the right first impression on the viewer.
Any iconic character you can think of follows the three second rule, and it is the customer that determines how well your execution went over.
With a strong silhouette in place, I move into designing some of the details
Step 2/5: Sketching
With the silhouette constructed, I begin working through the shapes of individual elements in order to produce a greater whole. At this time, merely outlining shapes does not properly describe what is happening here. We are also designing the whole area into blocks of value that will break apart the overall flat shape once we move away from simple line art.
It’s at this stage that I’m making the first important design decisions, such as:
- Where the garments of a character begin and end,
- any unique blemishes or features of the skin that set them apart,
- the condition of the character’s clothing, and
- the texture of their hair beyond the major shape.
These are all decisions I begin to make at this point informed by your goals, the needs your brief sets forth, and by my design expertise.
If necessary, I will make iterative changes are made based on the silhouette in order to advance the shape design into something great.
Step 3/5 The Face
The face is the point of connection between the character and your customer. When I design your character, I ensure that the figure, and the face of your character address your defined needs.
Your character is going to connect with a whole world around him or her, and the face needs to say the right things. Every aspect of your character communicates something. That’s why I give as much care to the structure of the face as I do with any adornments or unique features found across the body of your character.
Step 4/5: Refined Sketching
By way of internal iterations I refine these sketches through both an aesthetic lens and through the lens of solving problems and achieving your project’s goals.
At this stage I’m addressing the finer details of the figure, clothing, and any detail work on the face that I haven’t taken care of yet. Accordingly, in this stage I will deal largely with accessories, mechanical detail, hair detail, many minute things that just finish out a design. Great sketches are crucial to great rendering, and generally make rendering work easier. Because of this, I will refine the sketches with multiple passes before moving forward.
This refinement concludes the major initial development stage, but we’re going to step back just a bit here to talk about one other step that can happen across the whole design process.
The permanent (5th) step: Iteration
In professional design, great iteration happens completely behind the scenes, and it can happen at any stage of the process. A design can reach what would normally be the end of the development stage and elements may not all be completely harmonized, either to each other or to your needs
To illustrate my point, I want you to focus on the armor on the shown knight, and some of the armor and holsters on the warrior girl. That’s where you’ll notice the most drastic changes for right now.
Using the work we’ve done so far as a point of departure for this stage, I now explore the overall idea of your character again by trying different things that may represent your vision even more precisely than in earlier revisions. Minor intentional changes can be critical in providing the right answer to achieve your goals, like amendments to gesture, figure shape, face structure, ornamentation, or cut of the clothing.
In the specific case of the artwork I’ve been walking you through, you may have noticed that the armor was changed on our knight, from pointed shell-like plates into flat, bevelled plates. I also made a few adjustments to the armor and fur cloak on the warrior girl, in order to more clearly communicate the fact that she is left-handed. These changes happened in service of certain narrative properties of the characters in question, and to present a more visually appealing design.
Stage 2: Polishing
This stage deals with medium-level details and then terminates in the small details that make a piece shine. This stage also consists of five sub-stages:
- Ink line art
- Value construction
- Monochrome render
- Color design
- Final render + finishing touches
Step 1/5: Ink Line Art
Ink Line Art is a kind of finishing stage of art where I make certain hard decisions about the art prior to the followiing value, color, and rendering decisions. Line art may not be required by certain projects, but the inherent principles of line art provide a framework for great, polished design.
Step 2/5: Value Construction
“Value”, as used in this study, basically means the level of light an object has at specific points along its surface. Value depends on the category of light being applied, as well as design properties such as material, form, and how much an object reflects, absorbs, or produces light.
The deep application of value can be optional when it comes to reference material or developmental art, but it is absolutely crucial to the proper development of both universal material properties (skin/hair/eyes) as well as material properties unique to your character (clothing/accessories/machinery, if applicable).
My design process first handles “native value”, that is, the base level of light a material displays without any special effect of shadow or reflection. I’m using this to first break apart the overall tone of the figure and demarcate its internal forms. This is similar to designing good writing in that some visual texture is being added to the design to lead the eye and give it resting points throughout the design.
Once I select and design the native value, I continue the value design and enhance the three-dimensional form by blocking in some light and shadow across the figures. To accomplish this, I establish the direction of light first: I examine the artwork and determine where light is emitted from. This can be a large primary source of light, most commonly, or it can be smaller points of light emitted from the elements of a character design. Both cases can be used at once, but whether one point or multiple points of light are used, I must determine and establish the sources and direction of light to know ow to render out the forms.
Step 3/5: Monochrome Render
Once the light and shadow are blocked in, I’m making a nearly full render strictly dealing with monochromatic light and shadow. As complicated as this particular step can appear to you, it’s no more than repeating the previous step (native value design) in that I’m taking the individual elements of the form and breaking them apart further by designing additional points of value into them. This creates more visual texture and really sells the solid form of our characters. This deeper value design is applied across the whole of the illustrated figures until I have accomplished a complete treatment of them.
I’m still permitting myself to make iterative changes even at this point, as long as those changes effectively serve your goals. These choices can be hard, but I make them for the sake of your success.
Some iterative choices may actually happen more easily at later stages because of what a design stage requires. Because rendering is a painting mode (more like building with clay) rather than a drawing mode (more like building with wires), a new perspective of design is enabled here that, in this case, allowed the changes to our cyborg (which is the focus of this particular example) and to some smaller elements of other characters.
Step 4/5: Color Design
At this stage I’m doing the color selection once the value design and rendering has been completed. It’s an objective process based on your brief and goals. If you require a certain color (due to branding, narrative requirements, or corporate guidelines), I’ll use it. If I need to exclude a color, I won’t use it.
Great colors will always build on the construction of great value. Color, after all, is a property of light, but the behavior of color will always be a subcategory of the behavior of value. There’s a lot of heavy lifting necessary when it comes to the effective use of color theory.
Once all of your color requirements are met, I will colorize with respect to the essence of the character so that I can bring out the right relational response from your audience.
I’ll then carefully explore hue and saturation with respect to the value that I’ve constructed so far. At this stage, I’ll be able to see any faults that occur between the design of the value and the design of the color. Accordingly, I’m making minor corrections to value in order to preserve the dimension of the form as seen in the illustration. Though I’m aiming to get as close as possible, I don’t worry about color perfection at this part of the color design process.
Once I completed the first pass of the color design, I’ll use color adjustment to produce the most effective final rendering as shown in the artwork. I achieve those colors through tests of color balancing. If something I tried to use does not effectively serve the design, I change it.
Step 5/5: Final render + finishing touches
The final render is the finishing stage of my illustrative work. This is the point where I examine every piece of foundational work and then refined into a final piece that fully reflects the stylistic needs of your job and meets your goals.
If some rendering work that hasn’t already been done during the sketching, line art, value construction stage, or color design stage, it’s now tied up at this final point. This final stage reflects the level of finish you can expect in any contract work.
I’m making sure all details we agreed on are present and that the final design reflects the concept. I’m addressing corrections and refinements as necessary to give the design excellent polish – like changing the knight’s sabatons (covering the feet) into sensible and stylish boots with armor plating.
Stage 3: Presentation
Once my work is complete, I’ll invite you to a presentation page showing the result. On the page, you’ll see a case study of the work and an explanation of certain design decisions I made along the way to produce the best solution.
I make deliverables available for preview on the presentation page. The preview items on this page will be flattened low-resolution image files.
At the end of the presentation page you will be given a link to pay the final invoice for the work and receive your deliverables, most commonly a set of layered work files at full working size containing everything you need to export new image files for purposes of web or print. I will also provide exported files according to the established needs of your project.
Let’s get to work!
I love my work and working with you. Each project I finish successfully (including yours) serves as a case study on my website. This is beneficial for you and me: A case study grants potential clients opportunity to see the problems I’ve solved and how I’ve solved them, and the case study serves as a point of free advertising for your brand or product. In addition, a case study is a free resource of education for creative professionals on how to effectively design, work as a professional and run a presentation.
And now the decision comes. You’ve seen my process now. Your character design solution could be just a click away.
You’ve seen my process, learned how I worked and got to know me a little bit. Now, I want to get to you. What’s your company about? Why does your product matter?
Give a face to your brand and start telling your story with a character that is relatable and instantly connects to your customers.