What Makes Good Character Design?

That’s a big question with an even bigger answer. And it’s certainly not an easy answer by any stretch of the imagination. We discussed this question with some of our leading art experts, foremost veterans of the games’ industry with a staggering amount of experience collected over the past three decades.

Ultimately, that’s a question they would like to answer – but it requires multiple parts. It would be better to discuss the key elements that are critical to the development of the final piece. Whether you’re working on 2D or 3D character art, always start with the basics. If we’re talking about the difference between good character design and bad character design, there’s no better place to start than the fundamentals.

Vampire hunter exploration 30003

Character Artists and Designers

Quickly, before jumping into the question, let’s describe the job of a character concept artist or character designer. For those who don’t know, these are the people behind every character you’ve seen. Whether comics, movies, games, or even theatre, any visual medium you can think of has a character concept artist or character designer working behind the scenes.

These people work from maybe an idea or an initial thought, sometimes even just a single line or description of what the project wants or needs. They create the beginning of what will become a moving and talking character. In games, which we’ll be focusing on, they start with the concept art and design. Once confirmed, likely after several drafts and iterations, this would be passed down the line. Next up is a 3D modeler, who then hands it off to a rigger, and then an animator.

This workflow is key, our experts said, in understanding why collaboration is so important. If an artist creates without consideration for the steps to follow them – then the design will run into issues. Without the input of a modeling, rigging, and animation, a project might end up with a wonky character that has no actual way to walk!

First Impressions

Even before fundamentals, let’s answer the question of why we aim for good character design. The image of a character, does it matter that much? Well, of course!

First impressions are huge, in real life and in media. We make decisions and assumptions based on appearances every day. The things we see on a person, what they wear, how they look and move, these things influence us. They define our initial impression, which is often difficult to shift.

This is true in real life and, in media, it’s absolutely integral to a character’s place in the narrative. Once we’re introduced to a character in a game or film, their initial appearance is the immediate impression we get – followed by their first actions. These things tell us what type of character they are.

Vampire hunter exploration10 1 compressed min

The Artist’s Language

When talking about this topic with our experts, they did have a clear answer for the fundamentals. There can be no good character without a proper foundation. At the beginning of all good character design is shape language and a strong understanding of anatomy.

They were firm in this idea – that the fundamentals were truly the core to it all. An expert in using the tools of an artist can create something amazing, but without the fundamentals – they will eventually stall. They said that anatomy comes first in everything. No matter the style and then a good understanding of shape language.

Anatomy is fairly straight forward. Knowing how limbs and joints interact, how bodies work and how different parts of ourselves work together to create fluid movement. The understanding of how parts actually move is key, whether you’re creating a human or some inhuman monstrosity. After all, understanding how something works is key in breaking the rules.

Squares, Circles, and Triangles

But what is shape language? Well, honestly, you already understand it! It is the communication of meaning through shapes we understand. This is often distilled into posture and style, but it all comes down to shapes.

Squares are strong and firm – signifying powerful or immovable entities. Circles are organic and smooth; they help tip us off to warmth or welcoming characters. Triangles are sharp and exaggerated. Depending on how they’re used, they can exaggerate authority or show us keen confidence.

These are all very basic examples, and there’s no steadfast rules here. Just guidance. And a good artist will pull on these unconscious understandings to give us impressions of a character before they’ve said a word.

Vampire hunter exploration GB MM 1 compressed min

Fundamentals Give Meaning

Good character design is defined by fundamentals and the increased focus of iterations. Style is narrowed to perfection and the characters can be discovered at a glance.

Ultimately, characters get this attention because most media is character driven. Our teams understand that audiences and players relate to characters before the overall narrative. We feel for the people inside these experiences.

Sympathizing and empathizing with characters and these moments are key to the experience of entertainment. And the moments of sorrow and grief, triumph and victory, will only land if we relate to the character enduring them. And their design, their appearance, is the first step in creating this relationship.

If you’d like to see what our artists can do for you and create a visually compelling character, get in touch. You can see more of our art and design services on our website, alongside our portfolio, and a plethora of other game and entertainment services.


    Let's Talk