On Character Design

I’m not a character designer by training, but I am trying to pick up on techniques and principles to help me further my character designing skills. There are some character designs that work wonderfully. For example, consider Bugs Bunny. He has a good silhouette and can be recognized from a distance. Up close you know who he is. His facial expressions are clear and his anatomy, though caricatured, is clear. His design seems to work from just about any distance, at just about any angle. He is made up of interesting shapes, is often drawn with opposing curves and straights against curves. He has good proportion. Some aspects of his anatomy are exagerated over others, but not too much. When all is said and done, his character design is appealing, easy to read and simple. There really isn’t anything confusing about his design.

On the other hand, even though I enjoy the ‘Over the Hedge’ comic strip (most of the time), I find one of the lead character designs confusing. Consider Verne, the turtle (see image above). I think the design of the shell and legs kind of works. I mean, you can tell he’s a turtle (most of the time), but what confuses me the most about this design is his head/nose area.

If you look at the right image of Verne and if this is the first time you are seeing this character, it’s easy to mistake that ‘nostril curl’ (right under his eye in the left and right image) as his mouth (as if he is smiling). We don’t usually, anatomically, place the nostril right under the eye (if anything it’s the cheek that is found there, pressed up under the eye when someone is smiling – and hence the confusion that it looks like a mouth). It just doesn’t make sense as a nostril.

If you look at the left image there are so many confusing lines where his mouth is supposed to be it makes you wonder what expression he has on his face (I think he’s supposed to look sad there). There is a shell line, above that is a neck line, above that is a bit of a curve which is supposed to be his down turned mouth and then up under the eye are his nostrils. Quite confusing if you ask me. His face reads much better in the mirror image. There we clearly see the delineation of the nose and mouth. But alas, that pose is not his default. His default pose is confusing.

I like the overall idea of Verne, but I think something was missed in the execution of the design. Comic strips are very small and so they require, above all else, simplicity and clarity. It takes a bit out of the punch line if you can’t discern the expression on a character’s face.

The moral of the story? Don’t forget the medium you are creating your character design for. Keep things simple and clear and make sure you don’t confuse your viewers. It’s much easier said, than done.