Pictoplasma New York showed how character design can spread joy and important messages

23 November 2017
Reading Time
4 minute read

New York is a city famed for its characters, so a perfect setting for the sixth Pictoplasma conference at the Parsons School of Design, exploring the art of character design across the worlds of illustration, art and animation.

In these difficult and confusing times, we need characters to give us happiness and entertainment – but to also speak for us and help us navigate our identity and place in the world, whether this be for joy or protest.

Across the day, we met a lot of characters living in digital worlds, with speakers sharing films, GIFs, digital stickers, VR experiences, games and apps, with too much story and depth behind them to contain within a screen. Here, we pick out some of our favourite characters from the day!

Character art imitating life was introduced by Scott Benson, who shared his experiences of growing up, taking us from punk bands, to grocery store jobs, to being fired by his boss on the advice of “angels”.

Scott has taken these experiences as inspiration for Night In The Woods, an adventure game focused on story and character, which tells the story of a college dropout who returns home to a former mining town in the Rust Belt of America – an area that has also become highly politicised in the last year. The game deals with themes that are not conventionally connected with video games, such as depression, anxiety and “the fear”. It is designed in a beautifully simple and textured style – resulting in a game unlike anything players have experienced before, with characters, locations and stories feeling like real places they know so well.

Animator James Curran showed how personal projects based on his passions allowed him to leave his job working in the games industry and become an animation director. His love for travel and sequential projects inspired three Gifathons. These are 30 gifs created across 30 days in New York, LA and Tokyo with each day’s gif inspired by a personal experience of each day in the city.

Personal passion was a theme that continued through the day, with Cécile Dormeau and Mauro Gatti both sharing sticker projects, which have helped them explore and share topics they are truly passionate about – on a teeny tiny, yet massively shareable, scale.

In her talk, Cécile Dormeau spoke about the importance of representation of diverse female forms in the media. This is something she is known for in her illustration work, but it was great to see how in a commission for Google Stickers, Cécile aimed to continue this message, and to show the theme of health and wellness in a way that was far from the thigh-gap-abs-of-steel-motivation-monday images so prevalent within this world.

Through the creation of two characters; Mitch and Mitchy, an avocado and his stone (good fat!), Cécile Dormeau set out to show that working out and looking after yourself can be fun, in the hope that the set would appeal to both friends and enemies of the gym, and inspire anyone to get active in a way that feels right for them.

Mauro Gatti shared how his love for his favourite things (veganism, pizza, sex and poop!) have clearly translated into character-based projects that come from the heart (and butt).

Highlights were children’s book Hugo Makes a Change about a little vampire who quits meat to take up a new life as a vegan and the fantastic Poop Troop, a set of iMessage stickers commissioned by a pharmaceutical company to help you share something that’s a little hard to talk about…

Another common theme that kept popping up throughout the day was stripped-back style in character design.

Emily Meinhardt and Alice Moloney from Google shared their experiences working on digital stickers and the importance of expression for Google Messaging Products. They spoke on how illustration and character design is so effective and essential in connecting with people, when autocorrected words aren’t quite enough.

Due to the nature of a sticker sent within a messaging app, each one needs to be understood on a very small and instant scale. The team explained how it is key to focus on the one main emotive point of a sticker to ensure the meaning comes across. Exaggerating facial features in size, but simplifying in style, is a method the team have employed to ensure that each message is instantly clear. For example – making sure your ‘pleeeaaseeee’ really comes across in the exact whiney/begging tone that it is intended in.

Continuing the theme for stripped-back style with ultimate character, we heard from Sean Charmatz. A story artist and director on shows and films including Spongebob Squarepants and Trolls by day, after hours Sean creates adorable and hilarious experiments in character. Sean finds small, everyday moments, and with the simple addition of an eye, mouth (and sometimes a stick-limb), is able to create new worlds. His social media followers are the ones who get to enjoy these the most, as Sean explained that this work is just for him, and through refusing to take commissions from brands, he manages to keep the magic alive.

And finally, we saw how real life characters can be pared back to the simplest items, and we can still immediately identify who it is. Artist Edel Rodriguez shared his work for Time and Der Spiegel – showing how the world’s most talked about character of 2017 can be simplified down to a colour and an open mouth, and really needs no further introduction.

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