What Is Character Design? + How to Get Started

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Discover character design, its professional and creative applications, and start creating your first character.

[Featured image] A person in an orange sweater and a blue pixie cut brainstorms character design ideas on their laptop in a co-working space.

What is character design? 

Character design refers to the process of creating characters for animated films, comics, TV, toys, and publications. A character starts off as a concept: a collection of personality traits, behaviors, and physical attributes. Then, the designer sketches the character or uses design software to bring the character to life in print, on screen, or as a physical object.  

Elements of good character design 

So what makes a character interesting and memorable to an audience? What sets one character apart from others? Good character design starts with three important elements:

  1. A silhouette shows the outline of a character’s shape and excludes interior details like facial features and colors. By using what’s called shape language, you can create meaning through the lines, curves, and angles that make up a character’s silhouette. These choices can mean the difference between a character that looks soft and cuddly and one that looks menacing and dangerous. 

  2. A color palette refers to the designer’s use of different colors to make a character unique. By using color theory, you can choose colors for characters effectively and evoke emotions in the audience. For example, red can convey a character’s passion or intensity, while green can convey a connection to nature or serenity. 

  3. Exaggeration refers to making some of a character’s features more prominent than others, such as by enlarging the eyes or having the character make dynamic gestures. Depending on what you exaggerate, you can make a character appear comical, beautiful, evil, heroic, and more.     

Tip: Look for instances of good character design in the media you consume and note the silhouettes, use of color, and exaggeration. For example, the Disney character Mickey Mouse is known the world over for the size and shape of his ears, broad smile, and optimism in the cartoons in which he appears.  


What does a character designer do?

Character designers, sometimes called character animators, are responsible for choosing each detail of a character to communicate a personality, role in a storyline, relationship to other characters, and other essential aspects. 

Here’s a list of specific duties and tasks you may be responsible for in a character designer role: 

  • Exploring character concepts

  • Designing characters’ visual appearances

  • Developing characters’ personalities, behaviors, gestures, facial expressions, and body movements  

  • Drawing upon psychology to explore a character’s psyche 

  • Exploring different characters impacts on a story’s plot and themes 

  • Collaborating with other creators on a team to create characters 

  • Making sure characters match a given script 

  • Using digital design or software to create visual representations of characters  

  • Staying up to date with the latest animation and 3D design technologies 

Read more: What Is 3D Design? And How to Get Started

Depending on your interests, you may want to focus on a particular area of character design, such as: 

  • Anime character design: features exaggerated facial expressions and large and expressive eyes of human-like characters, while bodies are relatively proportional. 

  • Fantasy character design: often features elves, witches, fairies, mermaids, or other supernatural creatures.

  • Cartoon character design: features characters that appear on a cartoon series or animated film and that are intended to look drawn, rather than true-to-life. 

Tip: Consider exploring inclusive character design to connect with diverse audiences and represent the world around us. Areas of inclusion might include characters with different skin tones, cultural backgrounds, gender identities, age groups, occupations, body types, physical abilities, and clothing and hairstyles. 


Character design jobs 

As of December 2022, career sites list open US positions as follows: 

  • LinkedIn: 39 jobs

  • Indeed: 446 jobs 

  • Glassdoor: 295 jobs

Industries include sports, gaming, entertainment, non-profit volunteer organizations, language learning, software development, IT, consulting, web design, faith and spirituality, and education. Companies that are hiring include Disney, Sony, Dreamworks, Squarespace, Deloitte, and Snapchat.  

What degree do you need to be a character designer?

In general, career sites recommend that you earn a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, graphic design, animation, computer science, or a related field to apply for jobs in character design. According to Zippia’s resume data, 72 percent of character animators (designers) have a bachelor’s degree, while 8 percent have a master's, 10 percent have an associate’s, and 10 percent have a diploma or other degree. The most popular major among character animators is animation, with 42 percent of degree holders having studied this field [1]. 

Tip: To find out what skills, experience, education, and other qualifications employers are looking for in a character designer, scour job listings on career sites. You may find it useful to create accounts with various career sites and set yourself up to receive notifications about new character designer job listings. 


How much do character designers make?

According to Glassdoor, character designers in the US make, on average, $53,247 per year, as of December 2022. This number includes base salary plus additional pay such as profit sharing, tips, commissions, and cash bonuses. 

Character design software 

In the table below, we explore the cost and features of five different character design software programs. Use this table as a starting point for finding the best software program for you:

Character design softwareCostFeatures
Autodesk Maya$225/monthPolygon modeling, fast playback, graph editor, simulator, prebuilt graphs, interactive hair grooming, motion graphics
ZBrush$29/monthCustomizable brush, polygon modeling, remeshing options, flexible workflows, advanced painting and texturing
BlenderFree and open sourceRendering, modeling, sculpting, video editing, simulation, animation and rigging, Python API
Poser$149.95 flat rateThird-party digital content, rendering, animation, illustration, graphic card support, post effects, Python 3 support
SelfCADStarts freeModeling, sculpting, rendering, animating, magic fix, file export and import, STL slicer

How to design a character 

If you’re ready to design your first character and see your ideas take shape, follow these steps: 

1. Prepare and plan.

The first step is to decide on the kind of character you want to create. Here are some prompts to guide and narrow your preparation: 

  • What kind of story will the character be a part of?

  • What is the story about? Describe what happens and how the story ends. 

  • Identify the genre, such as fantasy, comedy, mystery, etc.

  • What is the character’s role in the story? 

2. Use character design prompts.

The next step is to explore the character’s psyche and essence more deeply using character design prompts that spark your imagination. 

  • What goals and motivations drive the character to act? 

  • What personality traits set the character apart from others? 

  • How will these traits correspond to the character’s most salient physical features? 

Need more character design ideas to fuel more creative energy? Look online for pre-made resources by searching the following terms: 

  • Character design generator: can be an app or internet tool for auto-generating ideas or even basic visual appearance for new characters. 

  • Character design sheet: provides an overview of a character in multiple poses and details the character’s personality, psyche, and role in a story. 

  • Character design template: can be a pre-drawn outline or sketch of a stock character. You can modify a template by changing or adding details as you fine-tune a new character.  

3. Gather character reference materials. 

Before you start sketching and designing your character’s physical appearance, you’ll need some visual examples and inspiration to serve as reference material. Consider creating a mood board on Pinterest or collecting posts on Instagram from other accounts. Examples of reference material you might need include: 

  • Hairstyles

  • Facial expressions

  • Poses

  • Clothing or costumes

  • Gestures

  • Body types and proportions

4. Create a thumbnail sketch. 

A thumbnail sketch is a visual mockup of the character you want to create. The sketch is an important step, even if you’re not a trained artist. When sketching, use your design templates and sheets to capture the basic shape of your character, proportions, the most salient physical features, and the colors. Next, you’ll fill in details, such as adding buttons to a costume or more volume to the hair. 

5. Use software to finalize your character. 

Once you choose a character design software program, your final step is to turn the thumbnail sketch into a polished digital illustration. Familiarize yourself with the software program's features to get the most out of the final design work.  

Repeat this process to complete more character designs. You might consider compiling a character design portfolio for a job search, taking on freelance projects, launching your own character design brand, and showcasing your work to family and friends.   


Learn character design with Coursera 

Taking online courses can be a great way to formalize your foundational training in character design. Learn from professional character designers and observe them in action in the CalArts Character Design for Video Games course. 

Article sources

  1. Zippia. “Character Animator Education Requirements, https://www.zippia.com/character-animator-jobs/education/.” Accessed December 14, 2022.

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