A Beginner's Guide to Character Design 

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by Graphicszoo 15+ days ago 5 mins read

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Characters are all too familiar to all of us. We see them everywhere, from books, films, television, the internet, and so many places more.

It has impacted our culture so much that it has made an entire industry for itself. The global animation industry alone is now worth around 270 billion dollars, and it’s still growing.

The cultural impact and the economical value of making character designs have been so significant that there’s no wonder why it has enticed a lot of budding illustrators and animators—just like you!

In this article, we’ll guide you, as a beginner, to the basics of character design. This will allow you to take the first few steps of character designing with sufficient backup knowledge and ease so you can improve your work over a period of time.

Starting on the right foot can set your trajectory to being a professional character designer, with your works being put into cartoons, comic books, anime, manga, animated films, games and so much more.


Set your character design’s purpose

character design tips

Knowing your character design’s purpose is important for you to get a sense of what your character needs to look like. These are some helpful questions—not a checklist where you have to answer every single one—just to keep in mind when you’re conceptualizing your character design.

What’s the purpose of your character?

  • A character design can have lots of purposes. It can be used by a brand as their mascot that gives them a personality and an appeal to a specific market, or a new character in a famous animated TV show that pushes the plot further, and many more.

Who’s your target audience?

  • The target audience is one of the most important things to keep in mind when making a character design. You have to make sure your character appeals to the right audience, say making fun and playful character for children.

character design samples

What’s their story?

  • Building a character backstory can help you imagine what the final character design would look like. The way we look—our external features, our clothes, accessories, etc,—has a lot to do with our backstories or the amalgamation of experiences we have lived through in our lifetime.

What do they do?

  • This can go from advocacies, professions, routines, hobbies, habits, vices, or quirks. The actions they do regularly can have a huge influence on what they look like.

What are their goals?

  • What does your character stand for? You can answer this by thinking about their possible ambitions, advocacies, passions, and basic wants and needs.

What are some of their personality traits?

  • What’s their personality? Are they funny, cheerful, and energetic? or are they more dark, quiet, and mysterious? These answers to these questions can influence your character design from their facial expressions, stances, clothing styles, and so on.

character design examples

What makes them special?

  • What makes a character special can be tied to their purpose, or any of the factors mentioned above, or just what makes them different. Knowing what makes them special will certainly help you come up with a truly unique character design.

And finally, what do you think they look like?

  • After all of these previous factors/questions considered, what now do you think your character looks like? You can start with its size like height and weight, color, prominent features, clothing style (if applicable), and so on.

Answering these questions can give you answers that will help you imagine your character design. Taking consideration of the factors we mentioned to the design process makes it more alive and real, connecting with audiences more.

Take inspiration

From the purpose stage, you can already make an initial concept for your character design. But you can also take inspiration from other character designs to give you ideas on the things you need to consider.

You need to expose yourself to art and design. Not just other character designs, but you can also take inspiration from other forms of art like paintings, photographs, films, literature, or even just your immediate surroundings. 

Take them in, observe, and be inspired by their design and beauty—but don’t copy. Take this time to also do related research on your character design.


Learn the fundamentals

character design tips

As much as it is art, character design is also a skill that needs to be learned and honed over time. You can start by learning the fundamentals of drawing:

  • Study of lines, shapes, and color
  • Figure drawing
  • Anatomy
  • Light and shadow
  • Composition
  • 3D illustrations
  • Spaces and perspectives


Know the psychology behind each design element

Shapes give personality to character designs. Round characters seem more friendly and casual, and edgier or rugged characters seem more serious and aggressive.

With lines, masculine characters tend to look broader and straight while feminine characters tend to look narrower and curvy.

Color psychology is an entirely different subject altogether. It’s where mere colors bring out specific emotions, moods, and even enhance certain scenarios.


Sketch freely

character design tips

With all things considered, you can now let your imagination and drawing hand go wild and sketch out everything and anything you can think of! And leave no survivors, even the crappiest ideas can be helpful in the character design process.

Sketch the first things that come to mind and don’t be afraid to be stupid. What’s good about free sketching is that they don’t need to perfect right away.

Remember: draft now, edit later. This part is where you need to be open with creativity, not restricted by perfecting or rationalizing your designs.

Find the things you like and edit

After coming up with about a hundred sketches, you now need to look for things that you think are interesting and work from there.

Narrow down your choices by picking some of the sketches that you like. Are there specific elements in each character sketch that you like? You can mix and match these elements and improve them once combined.

Remember: you have to make your characters look fun and interesting! So pick those features that stand out to you.

After having a basic character sketch, you now need to find a direction and go for it.


Use references

Using references in character design is different from taking inspiration as mentioned earlier.

Referencing gives you a more direct guide on how to shape your character’s body, how to draw them when they’re moving or keeping still at a certain position, and much more.

References can be an actual human model, a drawing mannequin, a model sheet, pictures, illustrations, and even real-world observations.


Add details

You can elevate your character design by incorporating details like historical influences, cultural influences, social status, environment, body language and their stances, clothing styles, accessories, etc. Your character’s personality can also be reflected through their style of clothing or any other external features for non-human characters.


Make iterations

When making character designs, it’s important to come up with multiple concepts so you can test which one works best.

You can mix and match, remove, or add other features to your initial character design. Don’t be afraid to make character design adjustments from different scenarios or critiques.


Make them unique

With so many character designs already existing out there, it can be really difficult to make your own unique character design.

You can solve this by making them oddly shaped, giving them different colors, add other features, make them more expressive, exaggerate their features, and so much more.

Yes, we know we mentioned the importance of learning the fundamentals like anatomy and other stuff, but to make unique designs, don’t make them too realistic! Making your character designs more expressive than realistic gives it that distinctness and magic that we all love.


Test them out

If you followed our steps and you now have a character design, congratulations! Now it’s time to let it fly and show your design to other people.

Make other people, ideally, strangers, see your character and tell you what they think about it. Make them tell you how they feel when they see it and make them make assumptions about the character’s personality, backstory, etc.

If their comments match your original intent and purpose then you know you’ve made yourself a successful character design!


Keep practicing

Making a successful character design doesn’t mean you should stop learning. There are still many more characters that need to be created and you need to keep practicing to learn more skills and improve them.

Like we mentioned above, there are lots of factors to consider when making character designs and this can vary depending on the project or client. Practicing makes you an experienced designer that can adjust to different projects and clients.

Learning how to design characters can be difficult as it takes years of practice and experience to master. Fortunately, Graphics Zoo’s experienced designers can help you with your character design needs.

Just send us an email at support@graphicszoo.com