1. Research, Concepts & Sketch
I receive plenty of character design requests for several types of businesses, but I can tell you there are no correct steps to follow when designing a character, but there are a few tips you can follow to achieve the right look.
One client brief I handled was focused on creating “a fictional, health-conscious character which is supposed to bring fun and excitement to kids’ meal choices while also serving as an ambassador to balanced and wholesome eating”.
So typically, you would start with some quick research of current character trends, similar brand avatars, and an analysis of what could possibly work and reflect the brand’s personality, keeping in mind that it targets kids on an educational level.
Here are a few tips on designing characters for kids:
Keep the character design simplified.
Draw simplified shapes and expressions kids can relate to.
Take time to explore possibilities, sketch concepts out, and make sure it’s different from what’s in the market.
Eyes communicate emotions, and they are the first thing we view when connecting with a character. Slightly large eyes bring out the warmth and appeal to kids.
The character should have an assertive stance.
Slightly wide smiles always win the heart.
Keep an open mind. Clients tend to have their own vision and will tend to direct you in the way they need the character developed to suit their business. What you start with may vary by the end of the process.
Sketch out at least three rough concepts for the client to review.
A sportive apple, a toast-headed boy, and a lunch bag were among the sketches.
The client’s feedback was to create a “sandwich boy”, with arms and legs, but nobody. So I sketched a cleaned out version, and it was immediately approved.
I illustrated a sandwich with big bubble eyes, a wide smile, a sports cap, trainers, and a thumbs-up pose.
When approved, save your image as JPG, to place it into Adobe Illustrator.
Open Adobe Illustrator and create a New Document, Name: Sandwich Mascot, Profile: Print measuring A4 size, and Orientation: Landscape, and Save.
The size of the artboard doesn’t matter, because, with vector, all artwork is infinitely scalable.
sandwich mascot adobe illustrator A4 size landscape character orientation print document
File > Place (Command-Shift-P), and a preview icon of your sketch file will appear. Click on the artboard to place the image onto the artboard.
Open the Layers panel, Window > Layers.
Double click the first layer in the Layers panel, and name it “Sketch”.
Check Lock, Dim Images to 20% and click OK.
adobe illustrator tutorial beginners sketch layer options panel lock dim images
Create New Layer, on top of the Sketch layer, and name it “Outline”.
File > Save (Command-S) and OK.
2. Outline, Brushes & Line Weights
Let’s start outlining the artwork. There are many ways to do this.
Select your Pen Tool (P). Open the Stroke panel. Select a black Stroke of 0.75 pt, Fill to None, Rounded Caps/Corners and begin tracing over the main parts of the artwork.
adobe illustrator outline sketch weight stroke cap corner uniform profile
As a start, trace the basic linework and leave out the organic shapes, curved lines, and ellipses.
adobe illustrator trace pen tool mascot stroke weight basic lines
Next, select the Ellipse Tool (L) with Fill to None and black Stroke, and trace over the ellipses in the illustration. At some points, you may need to select the Scissor Tool (C) to split paths at anchor points or along segments, and then delete the excess paths.
adobe Illustrator ellipse tool weight stroke scissor cut
As you can see, the illustration looks rigid and lifeless, with plain 0.75 pt strokes. We need to bring it alive by creating some thickness to the lines. However, having similar thickness doesn’t help ease the eyes any more than the thin stroke. Instead, we need to add variation to the widths of those lines. We can do that by playing with the line weight.
adobe illustrator same line width stroke same lifeless character
Line weight is a form of style and expression.
It can distill images in our brains, taking mass visual data and transforming it into a simplified interpretation of that form. Just by varying the thickness of lines and outlines of the illustration, we can give flat artwork movement, character and added strength to create a type of the third dimension!
This is definitely a style technique that I think everyone should experiment with, in order to get a better understanding of why line weight is important.
When it comes to line weight, there is no rule on whether to use or not to use line work at all. Not using any linework can give the mascot a light visual feel, but at the same time, it can limit its usage. Using varied linework can give the image more presence and definition.
To accomplish the thickness effect, grab the Width Tool from the tool palette (Shift-W), and simply click and drag anywhere on the stroke to change the width of that point.
adobe illustrator width tool shift w width stroke
Click and drag to control the width at each desired point. Drag inwards to reduce the line weight, and drag out to increase it. The fun thing is that the transitions are instant and smooth, so you don’t have to spend time tweaking.
Gradually you will begin to see the character develop beautifully.
adobe illustrator character width tool variation tool line weight mascot sandwich
For curves, I like to create custom brushes.
Rather than eyeballing line weights, you can set up Variable Width Profiles that automatically apply to a line.
Select the Line Segment Tool () and draw three to five lines, holding down the Shift key to keep the line fixed horizontally.
Then select the Width Tool (Shift-W) and create different width profiles for the strokes. This will enable you to adjust the settings that you want the profile to duplicate.
setup variable width profiles apply to line save profile line segment tool
Next, hit the Add to Profiles button at the bottom of the Profile panel, in the Stroke panel.
This will pop open the Variable Width Profile window, to enable you to name the stroke. Click OK.
Delete the custom line paths created after their profiles have been saved.
variable width stroke save profile edit save adobe illustrator
Now take the Pencil Tool (N), and trace in the remaining curves, with the Stroke Profile and Stroke Width of your choice.
It’s important to understand that when you apply Variable Width Strokes, the nature of the path stays the same. It edits the stroke independently of the path.
sandwich mascot design variable-width profile stroke edit segment path
To finalize the outlines, take the Pen Tool (P) and fill out the black zones of the illustration to give it depth, wherever suitable.
Then tweak paths as you see visually appropriate.
Once you are happy with the outcome, File > Save.
adobe illustrator outline pen tool path tweak black zone mascot save
3. Color Variations
We need to expand our artboard in order to create different versions of our character.
Typically four versions of the mascot character are delivered to clients:
Color with effects