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5 Creative Uses of Character Design

- Tuesday, October 25, 2011 |

Character design is like the honeycomb of brand strategy, used for decades to raise brand awareness and entice customers of all ages. Character illustrations are making their appearance in web design more often recently, but one needs to understand when and how characters should be used in association with a brand name, product, website or even with themselves. This article highlights the best and most creative uses of character design, with the sole purpose to help you, designer or business owner, understand its magical powers.

What Makes Character Design Great?

We have chatted with people, designers and illustrators and everybody comes with their own recommendation of how character design should be used. Yet, from all these colored viewpoints, one idea stands out as a common denominator: characters are often used to add a playful and fun side to brands and products.

Nicola Smanio, art director and animator, points out to an interesting aspect of character design: humor:

"Character design, in my personal experience, is a good way to bring some humor to a boring matter. TV advertisers noticed quite early that humor is probably the best way to build up brand awareness. Everything that's cute and funny seems to get the public's attention regardless of what the message may be. Let's face it, if I'm not interested in what you are selling, at least make me laugh."

Self-portrait | Nicola Smanio creates, designs and animates characters

Below we present 5 types of characters and discuss about the way you can use them to raise awareness and build a memorable image for a brand or website.

The Helpful Mascot

Some products are designed to help people handle daily tasks faster and easier. Others are so complicated, that additional customer support department is needed to help users become proficient in using it. The need for help can be addressed in multiple ways by brands, such as introducing a character as a helpful mascot that people recognize and remember. A few interesting examples of characters as helpful mascots have been living around for a while, like the SEOmoz Robot, others are rather new. Regardless, their roles are to help people or prompt the user that they can find helpful tips when interacting with them.

Roger the Mozbot is a well known character helping users understand how to use the SEOmoz dashboard

The Animated Hero

The Animated Hero is a character usually playing in multiple short stories or episodes for the sole purpose of illustrating how one particular product can become useful to customers. A world wide recognition of the animated hero may be easier to achieve when the character is part of funny or unusual situations, like the Red Bull characters. These characters, despite being very sketchy, are now recognized by huge audiences. They are used in short stories to illustrate the main effect of the energy drink, that "it gives you wiiings!".

Character Design for Red Bull, by Nicola Smanio. Example of animated heroes illustrating the effects of Red Bull.

Real Life Characters

Most commonly used in web design and social media, real life characters are created to represent real people. These illustrations have become more popular, and now you can even order a character based on a photo of yourself. The character can then be used on a blog, twitter background or another social media account. In web design, the trend has evolved towards using more abstract illustrations, but the core concept is the same: create a drawing of a real person to add a touch of playfulness, personality and openness to your website.

Illustrator Ricardo Gimenes has created multiple cartoons for Smashing Magazine, including the team characters

The Abstract Illustration

Unlike the Animated Hero, an abstract illustration is a visual statement reinforcing the brand's mission statement. The character can be animated, used independently or as a part of the visual identity of a brand. An interesting example can be found in the visual identity of Anim'est, as a simple illustration of a sheep in different poses. The sheep is usually a metaphor for conformity and mediocrity, but the Anim'est illustration is turning that metaphor around. The ordinary sheep becomes a unique character representing the creativity and quirkiness of the different animations in the Romanian Film Festival.

The Romanian Animation Film Festival uses a simple and funny sheep character as a metaphor of creativity in animation

The Brand Personification

Brands are personified when there is a character that does everything the company or team is supposed to do. The character is basically the image of a brand in action. It can also be used in the role of the helpful mascot or the animated hero. It lives and evolves with the brand and becomes the carrier of the brand's story and message in offline and online media. From the memorable MailChimp character, supposedly delivering emails to users, to our own creation of Mr. Fox, in charge of tracking down the rumors in Philadelphia and uncovering the truth, the examples of a brand's personification through character design can be found in a variety of situations. These are just two examples of how character design can help people related to brands easier.

The MailChimp character acts as if it's involved in delivering the e-mails to people

Endnote: Funny or quite, abstract or realistic, characters animate brands in a unique way. They have various roles and purposes and have evolved from simple mascots/puppets to lively figures used in advertising, digital media and as metaphors for brands and products. The use of characters in web design is a technique borrowed from comics and theater. Check out our previous post about Theatrical Elements in Web Design to learn more about this practice. if you liked this article, don't forget to share it with your friends!


Will Paige commented on 27-Oct-2011 08:15 AM
The mail chip icon has to be my favourite, its a beautiful illustration which sums up their business.
ross commented on 04-Nov-2011 12:39 PM
I am always impressed with the use of characters that are recognised without seeing the name. I am a big fan of the seomoz robot and the smashing magazine characters.

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