This piece is a guest contribution from Wendi Ndaki. A freelance writer at the intersection of games, art and IT.

His work simply speaks for itself and a visit to his website is delightful. He has worked on a Netflix series that will be out in the near future. He is passionate about storytelling and embraces any medium that will effectively communicate stories. 

He is Lawrence Paul-Okoh, a Nigerian Character Designer and Illustrator based in the United Kingdom.

It was an honour to be part of the audience during which Paul-Okoh took us through a session on illustration and character design for games and animations. This session took place in April and was aimed at the African game development community.

In order to convey the amazing energy that Paul graced us with, I have decided to write this piece from Paul’s first-person perspective. The following are 10 tips from his talk that I know will be valuable for most illustrators and character designers going forward.

  1. Dig deep into your understanding of the brief

The first thing I have to make sure that I do when I’m about to design anything is to understand the brief, because the brief will dictate everything else that I’m going to do.

And then I’ll go into data research. When I started initially, I was like, why do I have to do this research. But now, I absolutely love it because I see the benefits. Even big studios like Disney, you hear how they have to research. This is so that we can get the best ideas for the brief.So once I’ve done my research, then I can start designing. And it’s almost straightforward from there.

2. Lighting is your audience’s guide

I use it to control the viewer’s eye in the same way a Cinematographer on a film will compose a shot. So that even though there are lots of things going on, lighting and colour will draw your eye to where they want you to see. Whatever you’re not meant to see on screen, they will find a way through the use of lighting to throw your eyes to what they want you to see. 

I have a friend who works as a lighting artist on games. And he is always talking about how you know when you’re designing your levels, don’t place lighting in specific areas so that the players know okay, this is where I have to go. And I’m sure that you are used to playing some games where you have those lights that guide you to where you have to go to meet the objective of a game. And it’s pretty much the same, when I’m thinking about this I am thinking about how I’ll use this colour or this light to tell the story.

When you create illustrations, if you apply cast shadows to your work, it will greatly send the work to a different level because cast shadows just make your work a lot more interesting in my eyes.

3. Repeat repeat!

You know how sometimes someone will tell you something, and they’ll say it over and over and over – I’m talking just in general conversation. The reason why they do that is to tell you how serious this thing is, or I don’t want you to lose or forget what I am saying to you. 

I think about my parents; when I was younger, if my mom called me more than once, I knew that something was serious and I had to pay attention.

So to repeat the shape over and over and over and over again, for example, you will be emphasizing that this particular character, or this particular environment, should communicate that particular thing to the audience. For instance, triangles are very slick. But they can also communicate something that is dangerous. 

For example, if you think about warning signs on your road, or in a supermarket when they place a caution sign to say that the floor is wet, the warning sign, it’s usually a triangle.

And so when I repeat a particular shape in a design, I am trying to tell the viewer that this is what this guy or this person or this environment is about. This depends on the shape that you use and that’s what I use repetition for, in terms of exaggeration.

4. Have a great visual library

A visual library is a collection of ideas that you can call upon. And you sort of know what something should look like when you’re designing. So I feel like I’ve spent quite a lot of time looking at sci-fi, and futuristic designs, but for some reason, it’s still one of the hardest for me to design. But anyway, I always take projects that will push me because at the end of the day, if I can design anything, then it helps with my longevity in the industry.

Example 1:

When tackling a design brief on an Afrofuturistic young princess, the very first thing that I do is really attack the weakest thing or the things that I’m not really good at. I seek to accurately search sci-fi designs. I identify the sort of thing the client is looking for and decide I’m going to go with that. 

So in this case, one of the design choices that I made was to repeat a lot of beads. I grew up in Nigeria, and when I was in Nigeria, I knew that everyone recognized beads as something that you associate with an African country.

So how I met the African part of the design brief was simply to apply lots of beads. Of course, I also have the ring looking thing on her neck. And that was taken from all the women that you see right in the centre of the research piece, just to emphasize the African aspect of this character.

To meet the sci-fi aspect of the brief, one of the things that you’ll notice about sci-fi designs is that they have a lot to do with shapes. All the grey and slightly white elements help me to meet that brief’s sci-fi requirements of this character. Also, if you look at the rings on her neck, they are supposed to communicate something that is sci-fi related.

I think about films with sci-fi stuff and they usually have a lot of glowing elements. So if this was to be animated, without light, the brain is meant to create a little bit of light that will glow on her face. Just to give it some sci-fi elements. 

And now remember, the brief says she’s also a princess. So when I think about a princess, kinship or monarchy richness comes to mind. I can’t think of a poor princess. 

One of the best things that communicate someone is rich, and is royalty, is gold, the colour of gold. So colour is what I primarily used here to communicate that sort of royal rich persona of this character. 

5. Use colour to draw attention and to quicken your design process

Anything that is a hot colour, you will quickly identify and anything that is a cool colour, you will not be able to identify and even if you see it, it’s not going to grab you. 

So I’m always looking for new techniques that will help me design very quickly. So something I’ve noticed, especially with sci-fi designers who create designs for robots, they tend to use a little black in their concept art.

And I was like okay, I wonder why that is. But once I understood the reason why, then it’s a little bit easier for me to complete designs quickly. 

And the reason why they use black is that the things that they don’t want you to see will be in black, and all the things that they want you to see will be in a lighter value. 

The things that you do see have a lot more detail than the things that you don’t. So what does this have to do with improving on time? 

The thing is that every stroke takes time.

6. Diversify your portfolio

A quick thing to note, I decided that I wanted some of my characters’ designs to look a little bit Asian; not simply because of diversity in my portfolio, but also because when I was creating my portfolio initially I noticed there was a certain race in my work. And if art directors can see that oh this guy can do more than one race, then that’s a good thing.

7. Find artwork that also inspires you

It should be the sort of quality that I’m looking for in my work. I always put that artwork close just to inspire me to know that, yes, I have this awesome idea. But I think somebody else has done this even better than I have. It may not even relate particularly to the artwork and could be just one little aspect of the artwork of this person that I am interested in, to sort of practice, but also apply to my work.

8. Look at work that tackled a similar brief and differentiate

Example 2:

This design brief was to design a giant tree – this was actually a very easy one for me. So this is a bad guy. Okay, actually in the story, he isn’t a bad guy. But initially, our introduction to this character is that he is going to come and destroy stuff. So another thing about my design process, is that I look at other people’s work.

I look at, you know, this creature is a tree creature. We know Groot, who is a very famous tree character. I wanted to make sure that my design did not look like Groot so I had to have Groot in my research, just to make sure that I can easily look on my page of reference and say – Okay, these are the elements of Groot that I don’t want to include.

If you look at Groot’s face, it doesn’t have a nose. So I said okay, cool. I’m gonna try and make sure that my guy has a nose because that will make my design a little bit different; even though it’s such a small thing, it’s still very important. 

Also looking at Groot here, he doesn’t have leaves on pretty much any of his body parts. So I thought, okay, cool. I’m gonna have to try to introduce leaves as well. And again, just to make sure that my design is different. 

So this was the final result. Like I said, I wanted to make sure because we already have a tree creature. I didn’t think about the Lord of the Rings’ tree creature. And I think I can’t remember exactly what it looked like now. But I knew that a huge aspect of diversifying and making sure that my portfolio stands out is simply being aware of what is already out there and not recreating.

9. Use relatable motifs for a successful design

Using example 2, you can see those circle looking designs on the shoulder muscle of this tree creature, that’s the pattern that you see on most woods and anything that has to do with trees. 

So even if someone looks at it and doesn’t think that this person is a tree, then at least that design motif will at least let them know that okay, this is a tree type of thing. You can do this for environments as well, this is honestly the easiest way to design something that people recognize.

To do this, you need to take something that identifies any object from the real world that you will associate with these objects you’re trying to design, put it into a design, and you will have a successful design. Because for me, a successful design is if I can tell what that thing is, without asking whoever the artist is. 

If I can do that, I’m a very happy designer.

9. Combine unrelated elements to create something new and different

If you’re designing a chair, for example, a Sci-Fi chair that is meant to be for an evil character, you can take a design from something that you would see in a place like a church. But this is an evil character. You can take that chair from the church, and look at places that we would associate evil with. 

I’m trying to think of barbed wires which are dangerous, right? We use it on something you would associate with a character. So add that barbed wire to this chair that is meant to be for Church, for example, and I have a completely unique design pretty much by just combining unrelated elements. 

Those were the top 10 tips that stood out to me from Paul’s inspiring session. if you got a chance to attend it and you remember something impeccable that I may have left out of this piece, feel free to add it to the comment section. 

It is my belief that every illustrator/character designer that has gone through this piece has spotted a thing or two they could add and would benefit their creative process. 

The Swahili have a proverb: “Haba na haba hujaza kibaba” meaning little by little we fill the measure, and a great journey is begun by a simple mile. Little by little this kind of sessions are filling the game industry’s education gap that is rampant on the continent. 

Thank you Lawrence Paul-Okoh for your contributions towards bridging this gap and for sharing your time and expertise with us. Check out his website.