Today I’ll be discussing two principles of visual design and how they are utilized to create effective characters. The two principles can be thought of as two ends sides of a spectrum: Abstract and Realistic.
Abstracted characters are often times considered very cartoon-y and simple. Because it is barely tethered by the rules of physicality, it allows for the most visual freedom. The basic building blocks of character creation for abstract characters start with shapes. To fully master abstract character design, it requires knowledge of iconography. Frequently, abstract designs have the most iconic silhouettes, however it can also carry a cultural burden of being “childish”.
Examples of mostly abstracted characters: Mickey Mouse, Pac-Man, chibi anime, etc.
Let’s start with intuition. What we usually refer to as intuition is our ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning. We do this by taking all of our past knowledge on a subject, and then quickly coming up with a generalized idea. Humans tend to be really good at this and depending on the situation, it can be really good or really bad. Good because we can access information quickly; Bad because we overgeneralize.
What this means is that we make powerful associations with certain imagery almost instantaneously. And because these associations keep building on each other, what we end up with is a vast visual lexicon of symbols and shorthands that are utilized for communication every day. Long ago, stained glass illustrations decorated cathedrals to communicate to the illiterate masses. Though most people today in our society are literate, the same principles of communication are still being used today.
The next thing to note is that some symbols/imagery carry more historical weight than others. To illustrate, let’s look at a widely used icon that doesn’t carry much weight:
There’s a lot of gripe about being obsessed with physical beauty in this day and age, but if anything, we face exactly the opposite problem. Rather than physical beauty reining supreme, it is actually image that reins supreme. In photography, having nice physical features is a good start, but ultimately what’s more important is being photogenic, being able to retouch a photo (including Photoshop), setting up lighting, etc. So what is it exactly that we lose when we conflate “physical beauty” with “image”? Hint: It’s a key element in creating good character.