Character art by Max Grecke
Artwork created by Max Grecke

What is Character Design? (And What Does A Character Designer Do?)

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A character designer(or character artist) creates the entire concept, style, and artwork of a character from scratch. This often includes a deep look into the character’s personality to develop a visual idea of the character’s physical features.

Creating an entire character from scratch(human or otherwise) takes a lot of creative energy.

That’s why the process of character design is very complex and is often one of the most sought-after careers for aspiring entertainment artists.

Every artist has their own creative process so there is no “right way” to create a character.

But typically the character design process starts with a briefing of the character. The character could be a mutant turtle with ninja-like abilities, or just some person who lives a simple workaday lifestyle.

With this briefing there’s often a series of suggested traits be they physical or emotional, and the character designer uses those notes to start thumbnailing ideas. Rough thumbnails help to flesh out the many directions that the designer could take.

Girl sketch illustration @ coffee shop
Image source created by @mikecartoons

Once the artist chooses one(or a couple) thumbnail styles they’ll often paint more details and bring those thumbnails to life. This can include trying different clothes, different hair styles, facial styles, and maybe different weapons or props if applicable.

Then a final design is chosen and once the character is signed off the artist will create many different views of the character as reference materials. In animation this often turns into a model sheet for other artists to reference in their drawings.

The idea of character design is to go on a creative dive into the unknown, and from that abyss pull out the best design that matches the character description.

We recently reviewed a book called Creating Stylized Characters and it’s probably one of the best introductions to character design. Our review covers the title in detail but to summarize: it’s a series of start-to-finish character designs from totally different briefs showing how different artists approach the creative process.

A great book to check out if you’re interested in this process.

Master Weed Puller character
Image source created by @ayejay_make_art

Watching a character designer work is truly magical and it’s easy to see why artists love this kind of work.

Character art is super fun to do even for your own personal projects.

Many artists who have created their own webcomics designed the characters for them. Same goes for illustrators with their own books, and same for lone animators or game designers.

This is a task that you can practice on your own and quickly develop if you keep pushing yourself with challenging new character ideas.

There is a tremendous demand for great character artists in every facet of entertainment.

Master Weed Puller finished illustration
Image source created by @ayejay_make_art

Movies, TV shows, video games, every piece of entertainment needs great characters. And those characters don’t just appear from thin air.

The best way to start practicing character design is to draw a lot of people. This helps build a visual library of references like clothing, accessories, hair styles, glasses, shoes, and similar features that you can put into your work.

But character designing also goes far beyond people. Think of a show like Adventure Time where characters often look pretty “out there”. It takes a special kind of artist with an imaginative mind to design characters that break the mold.

This is also where style comes into play quite a bit. A good character designer should develop their own style through practice. But they should also be able to adapt to any style as needed.

A big part of the job is matching your style with the production you work on. Designing characters for a new Halo game will be very different than designing characters for The Simpsons or SpongeBob.

Those who practice a lot of different styles have no trouble switching around.

Most character artists work in pre-production where ideas are designed first, then put into production. Once the design is completed and approved by the art director it’ll follow a different track depending on the creative pipeline.

For 3D movies and games the character might go to 3D artists for modeling and rigging. Or if the project is a 2D animation the character design might go to storyboard artists for practice, or to visual development artists who might create more details for that character(their home, car, etc).

miss_bellbell illustration model artwork
Image source created by Raymond Sebastien

There’s no denying that character design is hard work and very complicated. It takes years of practice just to become a good artist, and from there even more time practicing characters to get comfortable designing anything.

Yet it’s one of the most rewarding creative fields for entertainment artists because character design offers so much freedom for improvisation.

And think about this: every single character you’ve ever seen on TV or played in a video game was designed by someone.