What Is It That Toonstop Does?
Character design. Sounds nifty, doesn’t it?
Let’s start with a definition.
Commercial Character Design:
n. The Process of creating a character and utilizing it to enhance or publicize a commercial entity through design.
That’s the way Wikipedia puts it, and at a very basic professional level, this is a fairly clear, concise way to put it. (I know just citing Wikipedia is normally unscholarly, but roll with me here.) They go on to reference the Walt Disney Company as a well-known character design company. And they’re certainly not wrong. But the specific article is short, and a little unhelpful for someone who wants to get some information about the field, especially if they’re specifically interested in the process of character design.
Character design, for purposes of the designer rather than the consumer, could be better understood as the purposeful application of the concept of characterization.
A definition again:
n. The representation of persons in narrative and dramatic works of art.
And there you have it. We have a springboard. Character designers create representations of persons in narrative and dramatic works of art.
Now comes the question of how Toonstop approaches this discipline. The remainder of this page talks about how the professional process takes place, and what your responsibilities and mine are when you contact me for work. We want clear expectations about what happens (and a little peek behind the scenes) so you and I are on the same page about serving your character design goals.
When You Send a Request…
You Fill Out The Questionnaire.
The questionnaire is for your benefit. When you choose me to work for you, the success of your project and the thereby the success of your company, is my focus.
I want to create valuable work for your company, and thereby connect you with your target audience effectively.
I want to know who you are, what you need, what goals you have, what success looks like for your project, and who your project is for. Getting this all out on the open through the questionnaire sets us on the right foot in talking about the work we’ll be doing together.
I Review Your Submission.
Once you’ve sent in your questionnaire, I take a good, careful look at it to see what kind group I’m dealing with.
I check for clarity of goals, passion about the project, and what it is about me that sets me apart as the right designer for your job. Knowing these things helps us to work together better.
If, after review, you and I look like a good fit, we’ll start talking so we can really get into what your project is all about.
Trust, Roles, Responsibility.
Expectations Must Be Clearly Set.
You and I have a part to play in making your success a reality. That means we need to work in an environment of mutual trust.
You should ideally be able to trust me to execute on your design needs in order to help you achieve your goals, but I need to be able to trust you to provide those goals cleanly and clearly.
You’re the expert in your field. You know your target audience and your marketplace better than anyone. As a result, I’ll be looking to you for the content of your character design and the goals they’re going to serve.
As your designer, I will take on the responsibility of delivering a design solution that matches the established goals.
We Must Find The Goal Post.
The intersection of the reasons behind your project needs and the skills I want to serve you with are where we can find the goal that best reflects what success looks like for your project.
We’ll be talking thoroughly through your goals, and we’re gonna dig up every piece of information we need that will let me deliver the solution that hits all of the notes that success sounds like for you.
We Must Communicate. Clearly.
I want to solve your problems. The way that this happens is that you and I communicate upfront, openly, and frankly about the project and your company.
If either of us fails to ask questions or get clarification, a void is left that’s going to be filled with either assumptions, miscommunication, or under-defined goals.
We don’t want that.
The Price Tag.
You may notice that I don’t ask about money on my questionnaire. There’s a reason for that.
The responsibility of the designer is to understand the needs of a client and the value of the solution to those needs before discussing price.
Because I know my craft, I may be able to quote a price based on the information in the questionnaire, but I want to understand what the best route to success is for you before boxing it in with a number.
When you engage my services, I choose not to charge hourly because that creates uncertainty on the part of you, my client, and it creates a distraction on my part that prevents me from focusing on your success and what design decisions ought to happen in service of that. Designers, by nature of their craft, are always thinking about their work at their desk and away from it, and quantifying all of that time is extremely difficult.
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 finally happens from this point forward…
It starts with a concept.
This concept can come from idle inspiration, in the case of more free-form character design, or it can come from an established framework of ideas as defined by a greater narrative, or as defined by the needs and vision of a brand, in the case of client work.
The concept can be as simple as a single word or sentence (Adventurous, Courageous, Fun), or it can be a set of ideas focused into a single point. (A starry-eyed explorer. A penitent, lonely hero. Caretaker and Protector.)
Our exhaustive meetings have established the concept we’re working with, so we can spring from the concept right into the work.
The Basic Order of Things
Every work of design has an order by which the labor must be done.
Big > Medium > Small.
Foundational ideas and design decisions (Big), followed by the deeper definition of the individual parts of the initial foundation (Medium), followed by the adornment of the entirety of the figure with appropriate details (Small). The more focused stages each build upon the rougher stages that precede them, and the foundational work starts with the inspired idea provided by the client.
Stage 1: Initial Development
The work of the design process starts with sketches. These sketches use the goals and concept established in our meetings as a point of departure and expand from there using design elements that are suitable for the visual development of the character.
This is the crucial stage of establishing what will be passed along in the visual storytelling. Every decision counts into the ideas that will be communicated to the end consumer through this design.
The essential shapes of the character are the first eye-catches to the audience. Size, proportion, curves, angles, these individual elements of just the silhouette begin telling things to the audience in a matter of three seconds. This is actually called the “three second rule”, and it is a well-known standard of design in commercial art fields.
Any iconic character you can think of follows the three-second rule, and the end user experience determines how well that rule was executed on.
Once we develop a fairly strong silhouette, we can move into designing some of the details.
This initial sketching, though still very loose and not yet highly defined, is critical to the end success of your design. With the silhouette figured out, it’s time to start working through the shape design of individual elements into the 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.
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, the texture of their hair beyond the major shape, these are all decisions I begin to make at this point informed both by the needs your brief sets forth and by my expertise in my field. Additionally, iterative changes are made, if necessary, based on of the silhouette in order to advance the shape design into something great.
The face is the point of relational connection between people. When I design your character, I take care to ensure that not only the figure addresses the needs you set forth, but the face of your character too. The structure of the face, as well as any adornments or unique features are given as much care and attention as the rest of the whole body across this process. Your character is going to connect with a whole world around him or her, and the face needs to say the right things. As the silhouette and dress do their communicative job, we make sure that the face properly fills the rest of the relational picture.
Once I’ve arrived at a satisfying iteration, then I begin to refine the sketches to better serve the project goals. The sketch is now addressed with an eye toward the fine detail of the figure, clothing, and any work on the face that has not already been done. As major shape design choices are being made, careful sculpting happens across the design so that the various elements of our design communicate the right things to your audience. This stage is going to deal largely with accessories, mechanical detail, hair detail, many minute things that just finish out a design nicely. Because great sketches are crucial to great rendering (and generally make rendering work easier), sketch refinement will happen using multiple passes before moving forward.
This refinement concludes the major initial development stage, but we’re gonna step back and look at another crucial process that takes place across the whole process.
As we develop some designs, certain things may not be constructed quite right at first. In design, regardless of the specific field of focus, it’s not very common to hit each and every note just right on the first pass through a set of steps. It’s more common to get it right earlier in the process the longer a creative professional has been in their field, but professionals don’t leave great possibilities unexplored.
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 the needs of the client. For our hypothetical case here, let’s focus on the armor on our knight, and some of the armor and holsters on our 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 explore the overall idea of your character again by trying different things that may represent your vision even more precisely than the first attempt. Minor, but critical and intentional changes to gesture, figure shape, face structure, ornamentation, or cut of the clothing may provide just the right answer to your design needs, rather than just a good answer.
In the specific case of our process demo image, you’ll notice that the armor was changed on our knight, from a pointed kind of dome into a flat, bevelled plate; and a few adjustments were made to armor and holsters on our 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
Ink Line Art
(Optional according to the stylistic needs of a contract)
Ink Line Art is a kind of finishing stage of art where certain hard decisions are made about the art prior to the value, color, and rendering decisions. Line art may not be required by the dictates of certain projects, but the principles of this particular artistic process still provide a framework for great, polished design.
“Value” as used in the artistic technical sense, basically means the level of light an object has at specific points along its surface. There are several categories of light, and the way value works will depend upon which category of light used, as well as design properties such as material, form, and how much an object reflects light, absorbs light, or produces light.
A deep use of this particular property may not always happen in the context of reference material or developmental art, but the design principle at play here is still 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 artistic process first handles “native value”, that is, the base level of light a material displays without any special effect of shadow or reflection. This is used first to break apart the overall tone of the figure and demarcate the internal forms of a figure. 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 native value has been selected and designed, we continue the value design and enhance our three-dimensional form by blocking in some light and shadow across the figures.
To accomplish this, first the direction of light is established. 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, the sources and direction of light must be determined and established so we know how to render out our forms.
This particular step produces an extremely long jump within the value design stage as we approach the end of it. Once the light and shadow are blocked in, a nearly full render strictly dealing with monochromatic light and shadow happens. As complicated as this particular step appears, we are still basically repeating a previous step of native value design in that we are taking the individual elements of the form and breaking them apart further by designing additional points of value into them. This creates additional visual texture and really sells the solid form of our characters. This deeper value design is applied across the whole of our illustrated figures until a complete treatment of the figure has been accomplished.
Iterative changes are still allowed even at this point, so long as those changes ultimately effectively serve the goals of the client. We don’t shy away from making those choices, either.
Some iterative choices may actually happen more easily at later stages because of what a design stage requires. Because rendering is a painting mode rather than a drawing mode, a new perspective of design is enabled here that, in this case, allowed the changes to our cyborg and to some smaller elements of other characters.
Color Selection will happen once value design and render has been completed. This process will always happen objectively on my part, but I will always make the considerations established in the brief by you, the client. If you require a certain color, it will be used. If a certain color must not be used, it will not be used.
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.
Colors selected will be chosen first with consideration to any branding or narrative requirements as established by the client, then with consideration given to the essence of the character in order to bring out the right relational response from your audience. There’s a lot of heavy lifting necessary when it comes to the effective use of color theory.
A preliminary design of color will occur using a careful exploration of hue and saturation applied to the already existing value that we’ve constructed so far. At this stage, we will also see any faults that occur between the design of the value and the design of the color. Very minor corrections to value happen during this stage in order to preserve the dimension of the form as seen in the illustration. Though we aim to get as close as possible, we don’t worry about getting the color perfect at this part of the color design process.
Once we have completed the first pass of the color design, a refined adjustment of the color will take place in order to produce the most effective final rendering as shown above. The colors being used are tested through color balancing, and if something we are trying to use does not effectively serve the design, it is changed.
Final Render/Finishing Touches
The final render is the finishing stage of an illustrative work of art. This is the point where every piece of foundational work is examined and then refined into a final piece that fully reflects the stylistic needs of your job. Whatever rendering work that hasn’t already been done in the developmental sketching stage, the line art stage, the value construction stage, or the color design stage, is tied up at this final point. The work of this stage will happen with any piece of artistic work that you’ve contracted with me to do.
At this stage, we are careful to ensure that enough of the necessary details are present to represent the concept that stands behind your design. Corrections and refinements happen as necessary to give the design as full of a polish as possible. This includes any necessary iterative changes to a design that really perfect it. (Like changing our knight’s sabatons into sensible and stylish boots with armor plating!)
Stage 3: Presentation
Once the design and/or illustrative work is complete, you will be contacted to view a presentation of the work you requested. The page you find will contain a case study of the work performed and an explanation of certain design decisions made along the way to produce the best solution possible.
Deliverables are available for preview on the presentation page. The preview items on this page will be flattened image files containing a branded watermark.
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. Exported files are also provided according to established needs of a project.
It is a privilege to do what I love for great clients. Once I’ve completed your job, I will display a case study of the job performed on my website. This is mutually beneficial as it grants new potential clients to see problems I’ve solved and how I’ve solved them, and the case study will serve as a point of free advertising for your brand or product. In addition, case studies serve as resources of education for new creative professionals on effective design processes as well as professional conduct and presentation.
And now the decision comes. You’ve seen my process now. Your character design solution could be just a click away.
Are you ready for your great character? Are you ready to give a face to your story, brand, or product and share it with the world?
If your answer was “yes”, then let’s work together to make something great.