Discover Online Classes in Character Design
Cartoons, role-play games, animation, and more.
What is it about certain characters—like Shrek, Mickey Mouse, or Scooby-Doo—that makes them so iconic? It’s not just about how they look; it’s also their voice, personality, and backstory that make them memorable.
That is the beauty of character design.
Character designers create characters for all types of stories, from books to movies to video games. However, this type of design goes beyond a character’s appearance to include their personality, history, disposition, motivations, and more.
What does it take to master this form of art and build a character design career? Should you pursue a college degree or take character design courses? Below, we’ll explore everything you need to know about the fundamentals of character design as a career.
To become a character design artist, you need to know how to draw, of course, but there’s much more to it than that. To learn character design, you will also need a firm grasp on how to use digital illustration and animation software, capture realistic movement and personality, and work with art directors to bring a vision to life. Here are the basics of what you need to know and how to attain that knowledge.
Character design involves creating visually appealing characters, but it’s not just about perfecting your drawing skills. You must understand how to craft every aspect of a character—personality, disposition, backstory, and more—and communicate those elements through your design.
To successfully create characters, you must understand how to:
- Build and incorporate backstory: Great character designers understand how to devise a backstory and incorporate those details into the character’s appearance. For example, a character with a grumpy disposition might display a dissatisfied snarl, as well as wrinkled, disheveled clothes to show he couldn’t be bothered to find a more appropriate outfit. Those details are what bring a character to life.
- Match the tone and look of the overall story: Characters are only one piece of a story. They must work well within the overall movie, book, or game. If, for example, a movie director wants a realistic-looking cat character, but you deliver one drawn in a cartoon style, your design will likely be rejected or require heavy revisions.
- Use shape language: Shape language is a concept used in animation and illustration to communicate meaning through everyday shapes, like squares and circles. By incorporating these shapes into your characters, you can convey personality and tell a story—all without words. For instance, using a square as a fundamental shape in a character can make him or her come across as reliable and strong.
- Consider anatomy and movement: If you design human characters, you need to understand the true proportions and movements of the human body. Otherwise, your characters will lack a sense of realism and relatability.
To learn these character design basics, most designers take one of two paths: pursuing a character design degree through a college or university or taking character design courses.
Learn the Building Blocks of Character Design
Character Design: From First Idea to Final Illustration
There’s no one required character design degree, but many aspiring artists hone their skills by pursuing bachelor’s degrees in animation, graphic design, computer graphics, or fine art. These programs will, of course, cover the basics of illustration and digital design, but many character design programs now require an anatomy class or two, so you can fully understand the human muscle and bone structure—an essential component of character design training.
Art school isn’t for everyone, and some artists prefer to take in-person or online character design courses instead of taking formal classes through a college or university. If you choose this route, make sure your character design classes cover a range of topics, including:
- Human anatomy: Character design artists must understand how bodies move. This won’t only allow you to draw your characters in a more realistic way; you will also be able to more effectively convey personality through your character’s movements and posture.
- Diverse character types and art styles: Keep in mind that not all characters are human. (Just take a look at nearly any Disney and Pixar movie!) While understanding the human figure is essential, it’s also important to develop the ability to create other types of characters—animals, robots, aliens, and so on. In addition, while some artists develop a signature style, you can be a more versatile artist (and open yourself up to more opportunities) if you can create characters in a variety of different genres.
- Digital illustration platforms: Character designers should be well-versed in programs like Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. Most of your work will be created digitally, so you must understand how to work effectively and efficiently in these programs.
- Digital animation platforms: You will also benefit from learning how to use animation platforms, such as Adobe After Effects, Maya, or Blender. While not all character design jobs will require you to actually animate the character yourself, you should understand—and be able to demonstrate—how the avatar’s body moves.
- 2D and 3D illustrations and animations: Different stories and visual formats will require different types of characters. Understanding the basics of 2D and 3D animation will stretch your creativity so you can adapt your art to tell any story. Make sure to include both types of character design classes in your education.
While you may need to take several separate character design classes to learn these varied skills, you may also be able to find an all-inclusive character design school that incorporates all of these elements into a single program.
Beyond the design-specific techniques you can learn from character design courses, you will also need a few general skills to excel as a character designer:
- Collaboration: As a character designer, you may do a large portion of your work on your own—especially if you choose to freelance. However, the field of character design typically requires close collaboration with a project’s art director or production designer, whether that’s through meetings, phone calls, or emails.
- Willingness to accept and incorporate feedback: There will probably be a lot of changes between your first draft and final character design—that’s just part of the character design process! Character designers should be comfortable receiving feedback and adjusting their artwork to accommodate critiques or changes.
- Desire to learn: Digital art evolves quickly—in terms of software updates and new illustration programs, as well as trends in design and animation. Especially if you want to work on bigger projects, such as movies or video games, you need to be willing to stay up to date on the latest trends and technology, so clients see your artwork as fresh and innovative.
- How to follow a creative brief: For many jobs, you will receive character design basics from a creative brief. It will outline suggested traits (emotional and physical), as well as the overall look of the world that the character will reside in. To be a truly effective designer, it’s important to understand how to interpret and work from these briefs, so you can produce something as close to the art director’s vision as possible.
Character designer jobs typically fall into two categories: full-time employment within an animation or design studio or freelance work.
Entry Level Character Design Jobs
Many entry level character designer jobs start as apprenticeships—jobs that also provide training. Walt Disney Animation Studios, for example, offers a character design trainee role, which is designed specifically for emerging artists. Through the program, trainees work closely with mentors to learn the ins and outs of the Disney animation studio and character design.
To find a similar program, create a list of animation studios to target, and then research them individually to see if they offer apprenticeships or other entry level character design jobs. Following an apprenticeship, you may be asked to stay with the studio as a junior character designer—and move up the ranks from there.
Freelance Character Design Jobs
You may also choose to forgo a traditional salaried position and instead work as a freelance character designer. You can pursue this route from the beginning or after you have a few years of experience—and a robust portfolio that you can use to attract new clients.
Establishing a robust freelance career starts with a quality portfolio and online presence. You will direct potential clients to your portfolio so they can see your past work, but you also have the opportunity to use that online presence to build a following and make your work known within the art community. You never know who will see your work and decide that you’re the artist they want to hire.
With the right fundamentals—whether you learn them in a formal art school environment or through character design courses—you can develop the skills to become a successful character designer. Want to create the next Mickey Mouse or Shrek? It’s time to start learning, practicing, and building your portfolio.
Dive In to Character Design
Character Design Crash Course: Dynamic Design in Four Steps