Identifying and Understanding the Problem

The first and most important thing to do when trying to solve any problem is to identify and understand the problem at hand. While that may sound obvious, most of us are sometimes guilty of rushing headfirst into the unknown ill prepared. Here we’ll assume that your job is to design some sort of character. It does not matter who the character is for; if you don’t clearly know what you’re trying to accomplish, you will not be successful.

The first and sometimes hardest task to accomplish when you’re identifying the problem is to make sure that both client and artist are visualizing the same thing. When a client and artist are discussing ideas, their different backgrounds can be a major obstacle to visually understanding what is needed in a character. Everyone perceives the world somewhat differently. Everything that we have experienced, been told, observed, or felt as children will affect how we view the world around us and, consequently, the images we create. If two people hear identical words or see identical images, they will not form mental images that are also identical. So it’s very important to ensure that both parties understand exactly what the artist is being asked to do both visually and technically.

A typical scenario that an artist will face as a character designer might be the following:

  1. The initial meeting between Sally, the artist, and Mr. Smith, the client, is going well, and both parties are excited about the scope of the project. The client tells Sally that he requires a great big, hairy, ugly villain who will pound the hero to a mushy pulp. He even uses hand gestures and sound effects to impress upon her the “badness” of the villain. Sally can see it now in her mind, and she has a clear picture of the direction that she will take with the character.
  2. Once back at the studio, Sally starts drawing immediately, and the results are fantastic. This is quite possibly the finest sketch she has ever produced in such a limited amount of time, and she cannot wait to take it to Mr. Smith.
  3. At the next meeting, she hands her sketch to the client with great expectation of being told that this is the finest villain ever drawn.
  4. Mr. Smith’s reaction is not what Sally expects; he casually tosses the sketch on the desk and tells her to try again. The rest of the meeting is a blur as she tries to figure out what happened and where she went wrong.

The problem in this scenario is that while the artist thought she understood the problem, in reality she did not clearly comprehend what was being asked of her. The client asked for several things. He wanted a villain that was big, ugly, and hairy. What did he mean when he said “big”? How many different interpretations can there be of the word “big”? What big means to one person may be entirely different than what it means to another.

When presented with such a description, an artist must find out exactly what is meant. For example, the character is big in relationship to what? The hero, an elephant, a mouse, or what exactly? The villain is big in what way? Is he tall? Muscular but not large in size? Fat or something else? Can you see the problem? It’s easy to see the same problem with the other descriptive words. What is meant by “ugly” and “hairy”? You can almost be certain that Sally’s understanding is not the same as the client’s.

So, how does an artist identify the problem so that everyone involved has the same understanding of what is being described? It is really very simple. Ask lots of questions. When you are told to make a character “big,” respond with something like this: “You mean as big as an elephant?” Quite quickly, both you and the client will start to arrive at a shared vision. When you have arrived back at your studio or desk, it is a very good idea to follow up the conversation with a written recap of the discussion. Write a memo or letter stating, “As per our discussion, this is what I understand you to be looking for in the character design.” Be very specific in your memo. If the response is that yes, you understand exactly what is wanted, you’re ready to go to the next step.

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