+44(0)20 7164 6431
+44(0)20 7164 6431

Understanding The Character Design Process In Animation

Working in animation is a technical skill, combining consistency with some individual creativity. One of the most challenging tests for creativity is character design, as you will need to make sure that each individual figure stands out, and moves harmoniously when in motion.

No matter what you’re using animation for, having distinct characters can help viewers relate to the story you’re trying to tell if you want the images to stick in people’s minds. That’s why character design has become an essential part of animation for brand videos and advertising, giving viewers someone or something to form an emotional attachment to and root for, which in turn will have an impact on how they feel about your business.

When you think of some of the most famous and well-recognised cartoon characters, from Mickey Mouse and Homer Simpson to Buzz Lightyear and Woody, you’ll notice that their overall design seems simple. However, this masks the complicated nature behind their conception.

Even characters designed for corporate animations have gone through several transformations to become what we recognise today. Here, we’ll go through how the process of character design itself works, what a character designer does, and the impact it can have on your video content.

What Is Character Design?

Whether you’re playing a video game or watching cartoons, character design is vital for helping an audience connect with the protagonist. To properly engage with viewers, characters must have unique personalities and appear visually distinct.

The animated characters must be able to express a wide variety of emotions, which will make the design process even more complex, as the designer must know what the character will look like in any emotional situation. Adding further to the complexity is knowing how the characters will portray these feelings from different positions, forms of motion, and angles.

Character design is a creative and technical process that brings an animated character to life, based on the character’s brief, from initial concept art right through to moving and expressing emotions. Character design can make animated figures look realistic, helping to create a connection with an audience.

What Does A Character Designer Do?

A character designer’s role may seem simple, especially when looking at a finished product, but don’t be fooled into thinking the process behind it is easy. They take inspiration from the script to create concept art, which depicts the characters’ personalities through the design of their physical poses and facial expressions.

There’s a lot of research that character designers do to inform their work, from studying the character’s anatomy to choosing relevant fashion styles. The process relies on digital or paper-based drawings, which provide various designs, usually multiple designs of a single character.

Once the design has been approved, the character designer will create model sheets that show the character’s different angles. In 2D, these are used to make sure the animator sticks to the model, while for 3D animation, the designs are modelled to create the character. As the project progresses, storyboard artists will also incorporate these designs into their storyboards.

What Makes A Well Designed Character In Animation?

1. Tell a story

Since the dawn of time, we’ve been telling stories to help us learn, teach, and entertain, but storytelling must be done right to get your audience invested in your character. Be sure to intrigue the audience with your character’s story and personality traits.

2. Shapes and lines

It’s essential to choose the right shape for the personality of your character. Some of the most well-known characters are designed from simple shapes that the audience can easily attach meaning to. Round shapes are considered soft and approachable, whereas angular shapes imply danger.

3. Silhouettes

Anyone that remembers the original Pokemon TV series will remember the “Guess the Pokemon” game at the end of each episode, where viewers were shown a silhouette and asked to name the Pokemon in question. This is something of a brag on the part of the series’ character designers, as a sign of strong design is the ability to recognise a character without any details being included.

4. Proportions and exaggeration

Exaggerating the features and proportions of your characters can really help identify the characters’ personality traits before they even say or do anything. You can make a character stronger, weaker, clumsier, or obviously good or evil by merely exaggerating their body features. Extending this concept to the way they move can also emphasise a character’s personality.

5. Expression

They say the eyes are the window to the soul, and in animation, they are just as key to expressing emotions. So naturally, we develop an animated character’s expressions eyes-first. You can have fun with animated expressions, and really exaggerate the feeling to make it easier for your audience to read.

6. Posture and stance

Consider how your characters are standing, and use their posture to determine how they can portray certain emotions — imposing, proud, scared, angry, confused, etc. You can get a very good impression of someone from the way that they stand, and what their body language tells you about them — the same applies to animation.

7. Scale

To help you establish the size and scale of a character, animators use scenery to give additional perspective. The buildings, trees, plants and cars which surround a character can also help highlight emotions, and more abstract designs become instantly more relatable when this is done correctly.

8. Colour

Colour is more than an aesthetic decision — it can also help set your character’s mood, making them seem more severe or energetic. Using the right shade can help your viewer understand your character on an emotional level.

9. Shading

Shading will depend on how realistic the style of your character is. The more natural the character looks, the more complex your shading needs to be. You can also introduce some tones and tints of the existing colours to put your stamp on the character design.

10. Texture

Depending on how your character design looks, you may not need (or want) to add texture to their skin tone, clothing, or how they are overlaid onto the background. However, this will serve to make your animation feel far more organic.


Get in touch with Frantic today to discover how we can engage your audience.