Abstract vs. Structural Character Design

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 Structural.

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.

Mickey Mouse




Structural characters are based in physicality and tangibility. Most people would consider it “realistic” …which implies that the intangible isn’t real, BUT I DIGRESS. To utilize this form of character building, it requires a knowledge of physicality. The more structural a character, the more likely it is that photos, real life costuming/objects, and 3D models will be incorporated in some way.

Examples of mostly structural characters: Pop stars, live-action characters/creatures (no CGI), photo-realistic characters/creatures.

Dorothy and Toto from The Wizard of Oz
Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings
Herbie from The Love Bug

These principles have a lot of similarities to flat and skeuomorphic interface design, but unlike interface design, character design involves mixing and blending the two principles together to a higher degree. It’s also incredibly rare to have any character be 100% abstract or 100% structural. I can’t list every possible way a design might mix abstract and structural elements so I’ll list off three common techniques:

1) Start with an abstract base, work towards structural. Often used to create interesting silhouettes using abstracted shapes. Structure is then added in through texture, detail, and mechanics.

A great example of this is illustrated in the development of Rango characters. On the left is a heavily abstracted concept by Eugene Yelchin that uses interesting shapes with little to no structural integrity. Then in the middle, Crash McCreery’s final 2D design with a layer of structure added with gravity, texture, and color. Then finally, we have the 3D model that is fully volumetric, boned, rigged, lit, and textured.

Priscilla from Rango

Another example that clearly illustrates the concept is R2D2. The main draw of his design is his round head and stumpy, non-threatening silhouette. The buttons and mechanisms on him, though still important, are secondary. In the next section I’ll bring up another mechanical character as a comparison.

R2D2 from Star Wars

To a lesser degree, we can see the same thing in the line up of characters from The Triplets of Belleville. The characters’ bodies are warped and stretched to create interesting shapes. However, despite how impossibly exaggerated their physiques are, there’s enough structure added in for us to imagine a working bone and muscular system inside of them (albeit heavily distorted).

Characters from Les Triplettes de Belleville


2) Start with a structural base, work towards abstract.  Take an existing base character rooted in functionality/workable parts, and accentuate only the most desired parts of the character.

One example is the Pale Man who blindly eats children being both underfed and overfed at the same time. See how his costume and the green screens achieved that look by artificially exaggerating his thinness, rearranging his eyes, and adding excess flesh.

The Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth


Also, remember R2D2’s design? Here’s another mechanical character to compare and contrast:

The Terminator from The Terminator

Both R2D2 and the Terminator are robots who have to look believable next to real actors, but unlike, R2D2, whose mechanical functionality runs off the imagination of the audience, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Terminator’s parts were created by engineers to be moderately workable and then tweaked to be fully function.

And lastly…

3) You can isolate entire parts of a character to be abstracted or structural. The most common part of a character that gets isolated is probably the face, which is what I will be focusing on for now.

Korra from The Legend of Korra

Notice in the image above, how the level of fidelity is simplified around the face to allow for greater emotional expression, while the rest of Korra is more structural. That’s not to say that her body isn’t also simplified, but instead that it respects bone and muscle structure much more strictly than her face does.

Another example of this is seen when working in real life where storytellers use masks to abstract faces.

V from V for Vendetta


See also how artists create personifications of youth and beauty by accentuating traits that are pretty much exclusive to young people: Small noses and ears (which never stop growing as you age), slim waists, healthy hair, and a fresh complexion untouched by life’s hardships.

Pin up girls by Gil Elvgren 
Any larger than life movie star/celebrity. In this case, Britney Spears.


Let’s also not forget, faces can get the opposite treatment and have structure added in… though usually for a jarring effect.

Ricardio from Adventure Time


Now I just want to take this time to reiterate that there are a billion different ways to land on the abstract vs. structural spectrum. These techniques aren’t meant to be strictly abided by, but instead used as a starting point to expand upon. With that said, I’ll end with Michael Paulus’s cartoon studies, where he super imposes a skeletal structure into highly abstracted cartoon characters.

Thanks for reading!

Symbolism & The Art of Leveraging Intuition to Build Character

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.

For more information on this, I highly recommend reading Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (no really, it’s an awesome book).

What this means is that we make powerful associations with certain imagery almost instantaneously. Without realizing it, we have cultivated a visual lexicon of symbols and visual shorthands that are utilized for communication every day. Though most people in our society are literate, the same principles that were used to create cathedrals for the illiterate masses are still being used today.

The next thing to note is that some symbols/imagery carry more weight than others. To illustrate, let’s look at a widely used icon that doesn’t carry much weight:


In our tech savvy society, it’s pretty much universally understood that this is the symbol for “save”. However, the reason this symbol doesn’t carry much weight is because its meaning is not firmly rooted in our history of human experiences. Many people don’t always associate the act of saving with technology, and to make things worse, this particular piece of technology is obsolete. With the passing of time, the association between icon’s image and its meaning become further and further distanced.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the save icon is bad, but it is a good illustration of how not all iconography are created equal. Though it works for a certain context, weak associations can cause it to easily become irrelevant and age badly. Other examples of visual short hands that don’t carry much weight also include stereotypes (ex: Asian means smart) and marketing trends (ex: blue means boy).

So what are some examples of symbols that do carry a lot of weight? To look for the titans of iconography, we have to study the stories that weathered the tests of time: Myths and folktales. 

When you start to study myth and folktales, you can see similarities in the way symbols are used throughout different cultures. That’s because the most powerful symbols tend to be rooted in a universality of the human condition.

  • Water = life/rebirth
  • Red = blood/danger/valor
  • Flowers = youth/beauty
  • etc… so many…

What makes these strong symbols are not just the fact that their meanings are closely tied to their image (I’m bleeding… red = danger!). It’s also the sheer number of times the color red has been used in the same symbolic manner that reinforces its emotional meaning. A symbol can be used often because they have strong associations, and because it has a backlog of uses that span an entire culture’s history. This is another reason why many symbols that have a lot of weight are typically found in old tradition.

Here are two really great resources for studying themes that run across cultures: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell for mythology, and World Tales by Idries Shah for folktales.

Now that we’ve seen symbols on either side of the weight spectrum, let’s see how symbols, both light and heavy, can be utilized to create character.

As an example, let’s look at some of the most popular characters in modern society: pop stars. Using music and image as their primary channels, pop stars embody an image or character that is used as a shorthand for a concept/aspect of life. (Kind of reminds me of Greek mythology honestly). One notable example that I’ll be talking about is Beyonce.

So how is Beyonce branded? You are free to disagree with how successful her team was in accomplishing this, but I would argue that Beyonce is used as a symbol for “diva”, “pride”, “strength”, and other similar concepts. And now look at this image:


Nothing says powerful like a queen does. Alright, let’s break this down. Though not quite a part of her character design, it’s important to note how she’s lit in this picture. Around her, we can see a halo (I can see your halo~… hahhh…). A halo is one of the oldest tricks in the book to denote a holy figure. Could there possibly be one that also has deep blue flowing cloth draped around her? One that works perfectly in order to symbolize strength and femininity? How about the Virgin Mary?

From here, we can start working our way through other symbols like gold and jewels signifying wealth and royalty, as well as the visual commentary of a black woman in the role of a European queen. I also want to make a note of the light weight symbols that didn’t make the cut. Notice that the blue of the Virgin Mary (and royalty) won over blue signifying “boy”. Also how gold and jewelry signifying royalty won out over it being gaudy.

To make clear, I’m not saying that Beyonce wants to replace the Virgin Mary. I’m not even saying that her team did any of this consciously. Like I said, symbolism is the art of leveraging intuition. The reason her design is so compelling is because we (including her design team) have seen imagery, like the Virgin Mary, used in a particular way many many times. We’ve internalized it, and having imagery that’s associated with that deep backlog of experiences is powerful. By utilizing and recombining imagery, you can communicate on a deep emotional level instantaneously using a visual language that’s been used for literally all of human history.

And with that, I’ll end with an excellent video by Nerdwriter1 about the multiplicity of symbols in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Thanks for reading!

Personality Leaking Out of Their Bodies

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.

At its core, physical beauty is “presence”. A thing most poignantly experienced in person–In the flesh–In the meat space. An example: The most gorgeous specimen of the human species walks into a room, but rather than be wowed, all you can think is, “Jeez, this person gives me bad vibes…”. Or another: You see a person with the most magnetic personality in a group of friends, the one that makes everyone’s faces light up and has some metaphorical but unmistakable twinkle in their eye– Yet their physical features are what you’d call homely. What I am describing is when some deeper part of a personality is projected through demeanor. It’s almost like personality leaking out of their bodies.

A good general rule of thumb to remember:

  • Image: Emphasis on skillful use of visual medium.
  • Physical Beauty/Presence: Emphasis on personality + physical features.

So, a nice photo shoot can make for some pretty damn good images but the images that best capture character almost always feel candid. Why is that? Presence is defined by how visual design and acting are working together. If at some point it’s hard to delineate whether you’re designing a look or if you’re making your character act, you’re probably doing it right. To get to this stage, start asking questions like:

  • How does the character carry themselves?
  • How does the character interact with their surroundings?
  • How do people generally feel about the character?
  • How does the character generally feel about other people?
  • What is the character’s “default” face?
  • Does the character take up a lot of space with their posture or gestures?

An example: A constantly angry character who has very arched eyebrows that look aggressive even when they’re smiling.

Da Hulk

Another example:  An incredibly shy character who wants to hide from the world. Why not have their visual design help them do that?

Violet from “The Incredibles”

I’ll end with a picture of the Harry Potter trio all wearing the same uniform in their own way. Also Ron’s face.

From “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”. Hermione left; Harry center; Ron right.

Thanks for reading!

Making Person Stew

To start, let’s look at this character:


What would you expect from a character like this? She probably has a high pitched voice and exhibits the usual anime tropes, right?

But then what happens if I said she was actually Hitler’s soul trapped in a little girl’s body? The perception of the character changes and suddenly her daintiness adds another layer of interest. Because of the shift in dynamic, the overly saccharine visuals now make the character MORE intriguing, not less.

That’s not to say that visuals and writing must always be in opposition with each other, but it does draw attention to an often overlooked mindset that is crucial to making great characters.

When crafting a character, each aspect of the character should NOT be created in vacuum.

A character’s writing informs what parts of the visual design need to be enhanced, and vice versa. (Same for movement and audio, which might be covered someday… maybe.)

An example of a character design that works because the visual design and writing build on each other:

Genos from “One Punch Man”

On first glace, Genos looks (and acts) like a slightly blander version of every pretty boy action hero. His visual design alone isn’t terrible, but I’d hardly call it iconic. So why does he work as a character? By all means, if “One Punch Man” were like any other action comic, Genos would have been the hero of the story. However, because of presence of Saitama, the ludicrously powerful protagonist, what would have been Geno’s epic story arc was interrupted. Instead of playing the handsome tragic hero, Genos has now assumed the role of the sidekick/student. With this context in mind, his design actually works. He still looks cool but not iconic enough to be mistaken for the main character and what was initially a mediocre character is made hilarious and complex as he is asked to play a role that his cardboard tropes weren’t designed for.

So the takeaway? Good character creation is not just about visual snazz, but about how individual elements that make up the character combine to make a greater whole. Like cooking a Person Stew, you can’t always save a bad batch by dumping in tons of salt and sugar.

From here, I’ll start doing a deep dive into visual topics (like expression/acting, silhouette, color, and symbolism) and give examples as to how they can be utilized in a given character. And with that, I’ll end with Bioshock Infinite concept art by Claire Hummel and a video about constructing Elizabeth.

Video | Concept Art

Thanks for reading!