Nicolas Scagnelli

Making cool stuff is tough. I wrote a whole column about this topic a while back. While writing that column, I thought a lot about how character design plays a great role in how a character is perceived. A character’s design — or, put plainly, how they look — is such an underrated aspect of fictional storytelling. There are examples of this in different types of media. I have observed that some of the most important and well-known fictional icons in modern popular culture have nothing short of unique and compelling visual design philosophies. A character’s visual design is the most important thing that separates an average character from an icon. But how can we separate the icons from the average characters through visual design? Creators should put simplicity and iconography over all else in making these designs.

Writing a compelling character is challenging enough. Giving a character a unique and fresh look is even tougher. What do you even go for? Do you make something simple yet easy to recognize? Or do you make something unique, yet needlessly complicated? Let’s take a look at some character designs that work and some that don’t and isolate what any aspiring creator should go for.

When I think of iconic characters, I think of Batman. What fictional character is more synonymous with popular culture? Batman is just so cool. He’s a regular dude like anyone, but he’s a superhero. He fights jewel robbers and gods alike. His justice doesn’t discriminate. His outfit is stylish as hell too. He wears a dark outfit with pointy ears, a bat symbol on his chest and a long cape. This isn’t everything, of course. There are smaller details like his trunks, his utility belt and his gloves and boots, but that’s the short and skinny of it. What’s really so awesome about Batman’s outfit is how it has evolved throughout the years.

I’d say one of the more popular versions of the character is the one portrayed by the dreamy Robert Pattinson. As we see the titular character in “The Batman,” his design is very similar to the standard Batman outfit fans know and love. The cowl, the symbol, even the cape — all the elements here are adapted in a stylish yet realistic way. What’s admirable about this design is how different it is, though it still remains recognizable. Slight details are off, like the collar or the textured symbol, but these details are so minor that the overall picture remains recognizable.

Batman’s original costume was a bit different in comparison to what he’s rocking now. Batman used to sport purple gloves and a gray long-sleeve shirt. He’s come a long way. Throughout all of these incarnations, it’s still easy to tell it’s Batman. His costume’s simplicity is the most important part. Remember how I boiled Batman’s suit down to three distinct areas? Yeah, those three areas are iconic in his own right. Again, those are the two most important parts of making a good character design. Keep it simple and make said simple parts iconic. The flipside, however, can be pretty rough.

I’ve never uttered this before in an article, but I kinda like Spider-Man. Shocking, I know. Similar to Batman, he’s a character that has had many different variations on his superhero outfit. Some changes are minor, others are major. In the recent Marvel movies, Tom Holland’s version of the character has had many different toy commercials — whoops, I mean many different suit variations. The one I’ll be focusing on is the Iron Spider outfit, given to him by everyone’s favorite sugar-daddy, Tony Stark.

The Iron Spider outfit in the comics is simple and sleek. With two main colors of red and gold, this suit is simple and streamlined. The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) Iron Spider takes a shit over all of that amazing design. It’s messy, with different shades of gold, red and blue and has random, goofy lines all over the place. The suit’s philosophy appears to be “more is better” while the original was all about the opposite. The comic suit is sleek and sexy while the movie suit tries too hard. I’m not saying the design is bad — it just has too much going on and strays too far from the original.

The design appeal has nothing to do, objectively, with the characters’ qualities. I love both aspects, but a character’s look is sometimes more important than their personality and can even add to it. Batman and Iron Spider are pop culture icons due to various elements, but their costumes are up there. When creators try to make alternate suits to iconic characters, they need to do it in a very particular way. Hell, if they’re making their own character, they should adapt a similar mindset. Iconography and simplicity work best. The simpler a design is, the more memorable it can be. That philosophy is also pretty damn universal for art if you ask me.

Nicolas Scagnelli is a senior majoring in English.

Views expressed in the opinions pages represent the opinions of the columnists. The only piece which represents the views of the Pipe Dream Editorial Board is the Staff Editorial.