Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Costume Design vs. Character Design

I'll start this post by saying that I am not a costume or clothing designer. I've taken some classes and I've got an active interest in the subject, but that's about where it ends.

One common problem I've seen in video games is that costume designs often get passed off as character designs. This sort of makes sense because a lot of game characters are facing away from the camera most of the time, and they are smaller on the screen, so the most prominent aspect of their design is their overall silhouette. But I find the actual character of most video game characters lacking. I get the feeling that their creators think of them as little more than a sort of action mannequin.
This is not really a character design. Sorry.
Which brings me to the separation between character design and costume design. They are closely related, so it's easy to confuse the two. Character design is about the person underneath the clothing. That person should be essentially the same no matter what he or she is wearing. And this personality/identity should be visible to everyone, not just something the artist knows is there!
The heart of the character shows through no matter what she is wearing.
Costume design, on the other hand, is merely a modifier to the character. Clothing has long been used as a symbol of transformation---but what makes that transformation feel real isn't the change of clothing itself, but how that clothing reflects what is happening inside the character. And in many cases, once you know the character outside of his or her clothing, you can use the tension between the costume and the character it is modifying to create further appeal. This is the problem with having a mannequin character: the clothing becomes everything---there is no personality or history underneath to modify or create tension against.
Getting more life in a character is part design, part expression. Hair is technically a costume element, but like many costume elements, hair can add to the personality you're describing.
My point is that, when I design a character, I don't focus on the clothes. I don't necessarily design a character nude; in fact, I often include costume elements to get the silhouette to match the character's personality. But my most important priority is what is going on inside the character's head. I ask myself questions like, who does she think she is? What it most important to her? If she was put into _________ situation, how would she react? Would her reaction be the same in any similar situation, or are there factors that could change her reaction? Does she hide any secrets about herself, and if so, how do they change her behavior? There are other good questions, but I think that's a good start.
The eyes are the window to your character's soul
There are a lot of things you can use to tell people about the character once you know him/her: shapes, lines, proportions, etc. But the most important thing is in the face, and more specifically, in the eyes. I should be able to look into the eyes of my character and get a sense of who she or he is right away.
How would the character modify a given outfit---what feels right for the character?
Once I feel like I know the character, the way I think about his or her clothing changes. In addition to having a feeling for what he would choose to wear, I know how he would wear that clothing, as well as the way he'd wear clothing that he doesn't feel comfortable in.

I know these are all cartoony examples, but I believe these principles hold true no matter what style you are drawing in. A costume design can contain an enormous amount of appeal in itself, but if you want to maximize the appeal in your designs, then finding and showing your character is essential.


  1. nice post. very true

  2. This is a really fantastic post man! It's really easy to forget this and fall into the trap of costume designing, especially in a work environment. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Anonymous2:56 PM

    So much art in this post... drool.

  4. Thanks David, Anon!

    Danny: It's not that costume designing is bad, it's a great tool for appeal. But trying to hit maximum appeal while failing to address the character itself is like going into a boxing ring with one arm tied behind your back.

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  6. thanks again for another knowledge bomb. this is such a great post to share. I do have a tendency to focus on costume before character and sometimes fall short when i realize that I cant explain everything about the character in what they are wearing alone. The amount of expression you put in these character's faces and poses are great reminders of how to push the person under the clothes.

  7. Unluckiii11:28 PM

    You sir, are a god.

  8. Very nice post. I found it to be quite enlightening. Your additions of explaining your thought visually with different character hit the point home. Thanks.

  9. Scott Stoddard and I talked about this a lot when we were working on Capoeira Fighter 3. Our example at the time was Capcom's approach versus SNK's approach to character design. Street Fighter works alot more around designing characters whereas SNK was all about the clothing and fashion. It the end I think it was just two fanboys trying to justify our biased love of one game and rejection of another :)

    All in all, great post! Love the Blizzard guy, he cracks me up in the light of your comments.

  10. Great post Sam!! Thanks!

  11. awesome!! Sometimes after designing my 10th armor set in a row, i'm in desperate need of reminders like this.

    I've heard people say they don't want to put "too much" character into their designs, especially for rpg's/mmo's, because they want the player to determine who the character they play is. I'm not the smartest, but something about that doesn't ring true to me ...

    best example i can think of would be all the great characters you play as in borderlands, vs. the dead-eyed player characters in skyrim (even though I like playing skyrim in general more than borderlands).

  12. Thanks everyone!

    Adam: I also have a preference for the Capcom games, probably for the same reason.

    Tyson: That has never rung true for me either, but I think there are two legitimate schools of thought on this. When we were first designing Disney Infinity, there was some debate about whether we should give people pure building blocks or whether we should give them self-contained world pieces that had their own identity. With the success of old-school Lego and Minecraft it was easy to think that people preferred simple colored blocks. But we followed our hearts and created world pieces anyway, thinking that _most_ people would feel more creative if given something that suggested a form like the newer Lego kits. We'll see soon enough whether that was a good decision.
    In the same way, some people really do want a blank slate character they can project themselves on. But I believe that a good percentage of people like characters they can relate to and that "suggest a form" like the world pieces in our game. While I don't think this is a hard and fast rule---it might depend on what market you're going for and the type of game you're making---I think that outside of RPGs and a few others, it's probably safe to assume that people prefer character over the blank slate. And I don't think the blank slate is really right for all RPGs either, but there will always be some who argue otherwise.

  13. Smiling. Why Sammy - you are a method actor at heart. Stanislavski would be proud. Costume is the way actors once approached character - they wanted to put on the clothes, and have the clothes create in them - as some sort of organic response - the character. And it is true to a certain extent that what we wear influences many things about our movement and our perspective - which is why boys have to wear white shirts and ties to church. As an author, I almost never describe my characters. I never talk about what they wear - even though I was weaned on Nancy Drew - strong on details like what people had for lunch and what sort of frock they were wore going out in the convertible with Ned and Ben. I seldom even describe hair. Never LIPS or EYES. The middle ages were rife with character cues that had to do with the shape of the nose and space between the teeth. But real stories are made out of personalities - choices that go with or against the character grain. You cannot have a tragedy, not a true one, if all your character is is a suit of clothes. Maybe comedy - but not the kind an intelligent person hungers for.

    So I'm very with you here. You start with questions and you let the answers lead you through the design. And would it hurt the world terribly if the character design actually prompted the player to act more nobly, more kindly, more magnificently than the player's own wont?

  14. K: It's funny because the twinkle in the eye, the twist of the lip, or even the spacing of the teeth are essential for a visual character design, but I think that's because those are the only things we can use to describe a character. It gets easier in animation of course, but even then, an audience reacts to what their impressions of the character are. They search for cues that will make the character relatable so they know whether to like them, distrust them, be annoyed, etc. But I think they are equivalent ideas to what you look for in good writing, just using the limited vocabulary we have.

  15. This is an awesome post, I really like the idea on the differences among those terms. Thanks for the good information...

  16. Couldn't agree more!

  17. Really good advice. Thanks!

  18. I know I'm late to this post... and others have already said it... But this is a fantastic post.

  19. Very simple but well written and to the point! Thank you for the help! :D

  20. Thanks Kenny, Ken, Jack, Scott, and Factoid! Sorry for the late response. :\

  21. Agreed on character development sometimes lacking in lieu of costume design. Character must exist apart from appearance. But I might have a slightly different opinion. Realistically hair on its own would be costume but I treat it more like character, as if it behaves to reflect the person's feelings; that's not true in the real world but I like it sometimes in art. Also I don't use costume to suggest character but to convey it. For instance, if this character chose this clothing, why? Why do they like it, why have they done their hair this way? When I pick a shirt I do not pick to reflect a deep symbolism of myself but because I like it. There is a place for subtle suggestion in the design for the audience too, but I enjoy better showing the character than telling.

    1. Sar: You are absolutely right that costume and hair should reflect the character in side, or at least resonate/create tension with that character. My point was to say that the character still exists without the costume, as many artists seem to forget that, and design a costume reflecting character that is not apparent or even nonexistent in the character himself/herself.

  22. What a great post! Thanks for sharing your insights, Sam.


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