There’s nothing like the simplicity and charm of 2D character design. Just think back to all of your favorite animated features, cartoons, comic books, and video games. It all comes flooding back, doesn’t it? Something about the immediacy and evocative quality of two-dimensional drawings goes straight to the heart and turns us into children again. If you want to know a bit more about this art form, this is the article for you. As a bonus, you’ll learn where the best 2D artists live and how to hire ’em for your projects!

I mean, sure, you may be one of those 3D purists who always sing the praises of 3D modeling. I get, I really do. But trust me, 2D isn’t going anywhere just because technology is moving full-steam ahead. In fact, 2D character design remains popular, engaging, and fun as ever. Therefore, even as we get swarmed with Pixar clones and newfangled graphical marvels, we discount 2D at our own peril.

If you want to bring life to your projects in a simple, artisanal way, read on!

So, What’s 2D Character Design?

It’s been around for a while, as you probably can surmise. Indeed, we could say that the seeds were there when we started painting on cave walls. Of course, we can’t really say that style and the ensuing ones in the history of art count as 2D character design, which is a modern technique.

So, what changes? What is the difference between simple illustration, drawing, and 2D character design? In one word, it’s intentionality. As with most things in life, purpose is everything. Hence, even things that may bear a superficial resemblance can be different. The same thing happens in the world of design, full of subdivisions and classifications. We, humans, are a strange lot.

The first 2D character design actually harkens back to the early 1900s. American cartoonist and animator Winsor McCay was the first to systematically create a 2D character, Gertie the Dinosaur, who starred in an eponymous film. This wasn’t the beginning of McCay’s Pioneering spirit, though, he’d already made two short animated films, Little Nemo, and How a Mosquito Operates.

What’s the difference between these two and Gertie? As I said before, intentionality. Gertie the Dinosaur is widely regarded as the inspiration for the cartoon boom that followed. In a way, it’s the first time someone set out to create a character with an identity and an identity in a still-nascent genre.

Of course, as time marched on, 2D character design became even more popular with cartoons. As we know, the dam really broke when Walt Disney premiered Steamboat Willie. Then, all bets were off, and it was time for the spotlight to shine.

Time’s Relentless March

But that was only the beginning, of course. We saw many, many animated characters become household names over the last 80/90 years, yes. But, we also saw the growth of the comic book industry, graphic novels becoming a legitimate thing, and other mediums like video games gain prominence. Things continued in the same way until the 90s when 2D video game characters gave rise to a new industry boom.

At first, 2d game characters were just blobs of pixels that sorta looked like something else, like an Italian plumber. But then, the evolution of game systems led to vibrant, 2D art that took the best cartoons and anime had to offer and made it interactive. That, combined with the anime and cartoon boom of the 80s and 90s, led to a renaissance of 2D character design. As I wrote in our article about it:

Technology went through rapid phases of evolution. In time, arcade machines and some home consoles were able to render more detailed graphics. While the same hand-drawn pixel art techniques were still a thing, characters got more and more complex real fast. That meant that, for the first time, video games resembled animated features rather than cave art. With better graphics, of course, came a veritable deluge of fans.

The late 80s and early 90s were a wonderful time for 2d game character fans. Incredible games like Street Fighter 2 in arcades, Sonic the Hedgehog on consoles, and many others, signaled an increase in fame that still lasts to this day. The mass adoption of voice acting for video games sure didn’t hurt things either! (…)

(…) And I truly mean everywhere. Better technology, voice acting, more detailed, expressive characters, and booming numbers of gamers everywhere turned the industry into an even bigger giant. What’s more, animated TV shows and live-action movies became a thing. This only led to even bigger numbers down the line; suddenly you couldn’t turn around without a video game character hogging the scene.

2D Character Design – What Does It Take?

So, what’s does a great 2D pro look like? What’s their skillset? First of all, having great drawing skills is a must. Then, it’s all about having a great eye and ear for interpretation. You see, designing characters when you have the idea is one thing, but doing it for someone else takes a little something extra.

Interpreting means being able to keenly understand the idea that another person conveys. Then, the 2D character design artist has to be able to make that idea into a reality through the means at their disposal. Whether it be by drawing the character by hand, on a design or artist tool like a Wacom, or on a bitmap editing program like Photoshop, the point still stands. The creator/idea person may need the pro’s creative talents, but mostly they’ll just be guiding their hand until the result fits what they saw in their head. Typically, this process goes through many iterations and feedback cycles. Rare is the occasion when a pro or team of pros gets it right the first time!

2d character design

The SkillSet

A great 2D character design pro needs:

  • To be a great artist. Steady hands only, unfortunately.
  • A fantastic listener. It’s not just about sketching like a madperson, but about breathing life into ideas. They also have to be great at incorporating feedback and re-doing previous work if it isn’t up to par.
  • Able to work alone or with a team. Some 2D character design professionals are great lone-wolf freelancers; others are amazing at working with a team. Having the best of both worlds is always a must. Why? Because having great communication is key, as is the ability to cooperate.
  • Great a working within the available time constraints. Sure, some may want to Da Vinci their way through life, and that’s great for solo artists, but not so great in the 2D character design world. Deadlines are a powerful, ever-present force. Being able to deliver high-quality work with tight deadlines breathing down one’s neck is the hallmark of a fantastic professional.
  • Being able to offer great pricing. There’s no two ways about it: high-quality 2D art, especially for animation, can drive up costs. This is not always the case for pixel art or more rustic animation types, but expect to be able to pay a premium if you’re creating something animated in 2D from scratch. It’s a painstaking, slow process. Still, unless you’re going for a world-class film like Akira, a great pro should be able to offer sensible prices in relation to what they’re being asked to do.

Where Do I Hire a Pro?

Freelancing platforms are really popular these days. Unless you’re looking to fill in a position in an agency or art studio, it’s always a great choice to go with freelancers. You can find all sorts: the dime-a-dozen newbie who is just gaining their sea legs, eager for work and charging pennies; the jobber who’s so-so, will not overcharge but will rarely wow you with their results; the amazing pros who could be working in a world-class company but would rather go it alone; and my personal favorite, the few people with a great price/quality ratio who don’t tear your head off with their prices, but offer great results.

Of course, if you’re new to the game, or not a very discerning customer, it can be hard to know which one you’ve got. Freelancing platforms don’t really vet their talent, and going by rates alone is not always the best measuring stick. Appearances can be deceiving, as the old adage goes. The good thing is that you can base yourself on the available talent’s reviews (yes, like Uber). Reading them, and their replies to it is usually a must. Even if they get the odd bad review, you’ll be able to see their reply to it. Sometimes clients can be unreasonable, and that’s no big cause to write someone off.

You should only hire professionals with previous experience as well. Basically, only the ones with a hefty portfolio and proven work should get in the door. Some pros can offer you everything, but come up short when the time to deliver finally arrives.

The Best Option

What’s the best option? In my opinion, going with Bunny Studio. We’re a true mix between an out-and-out multimedia studio and a freelancing platform. Therefore, we can offer fair, quick, high-quality, and distributed options to companies and individuals the world over. Here’s a list of our qualifications.

  • A huge team of multicultural, multi-language freelancers.
  • A great team to get the pros you need. That means we vet our talent, unlike other platforms. Only talented, responsible freelancers may enter. We accept only the top 2% of applicants.
  • We worry about turnaround times and quality. That means unlimited revisions, and our times are typically under 24 hours, depending on the scope of the project.
  • Great, flexible rates that actually make sense. The bigger your project, the better the deal.
  • It ain’t worth it if you’re not happy. We have a 100% money-back guarantee in case you’re not satisfied.

Why wait around? If you have any 2D character design needs, we’re ready to help you get exactly what you need, every single time.