Stick figures, with style! Basic design

October 10, 2012 in Beginners, Lvl 0

There is no design without discipline. There is no discipline without intelligence.

— Massimo Vignelli

You know, it’s one thing to make marks, it’s a completely different thing to make those marks interesting to look at.  How do you make what you put down look pretty, attractive, cool, appealing?

Have you noticed that when you draw a stick figure, it looks like…well…a stick figure. But when a professional draftsman draws a stick figure, it’s kinda cool looking? Why IS that? What do they know that YOU don’t?

That’s EXACTLY the right question. They DO know something you don’t.

Lucky for you I’M going to tell you exactly what it is.

It’s not even that difficult to understand either.

It’s design. Very basic design principles.

Design is a big topic and it means a lot of different things, to a lot of different people. I’m going to give you a small introduction to design as I was taught design.

This will be the view point of design, as it is seen from the eyes of the animation industry.

Once you learn these basic principles, you’ll know enough so that when you draw stick figures or anything else from this point on, you will be able to do this with purpose — With  a goal in mind by which you can judge your drawing.

You’ll be able to look at your drawing and say, “It needs more ‘this'”, or, “a little more ‘that’,” or ,”I think I should  do ‘this’ and it will make it better,” or, “Let me try ‘this’ and see what  it will look like…ah yes, much better.”

You’ll also know enough so you will be able to look at, say, a cartoon character, and say,

“That’s a good design because of ____,” and you can actually learn simply by observing a good design.

You’ll ACTUALLY start seeing the world  through the eyes of a designer.

Are you ready to begin? Let’s do it!

Harmonizing Contrast and Balance

Design is pretty much any purposeful drawing you put down on paper.

Usually, when the word design is used, that’s what is meant. This is fine. I’ll also use the term this way.

BUT what we’re interested with here, is not simply putting purposeful drawings down. We’re interested in putting INTERESTING and APPEALING drawings down on paper. In other words, GOOD design.

THE secret to GOOD design is harmonizing contrast and balance <= CLICK TO TWEET

What does that mean? It sure SOUNDS lofty.

Okay, let’s break it down.

What is contrast?

When talking about drawing, contrast is:

  • Dark against light values or lines.
  • Straight lines against  “c” curve or “S” curve lines
  • Big against little shapes
  • Uniform patterns against chaotic marks.
  • A color against it’s opposite color on the color wheel (more on that in a later lesson)

Contrast is good because it adds interest and dynamism to a drawing.  It gives a drawing tension that draws the eye. But it can also be unnerving and just plain ugly.

What is balance?

When talking about drawing, balance is almost what you’d think it is:

  • Making things seem even
  • Placing things on a page so that it doesn’t seem off kilter
  • Making things uniform.

Our instinct is to make what we draw balanced and uniform.  Balanced, uniform drawings are automatically appealing to us.  A perfectly uniform and balanced drawing is often seen as an ideal. They can also be VERY boring and uninteresting.

Good design is when you deliberately take contrasting things, and you place them together in such a balanced way, that they seem like they BELONG together. In other words, you’ve managed to harmonize them. This causes them to not only be appealing, but interesting as well.

A good design works well when you end up with the appeal of balance, and the interest of contrast, without keeping the dullness of balance and the ugliness of contrast.

In music, the right balancing of tempo, high notes, slow tempo and low notes creates a harmonious piece of music.

In Kung Fu, the right balance of slow contained movement and stops next to quick snappy controlled action, creates the harmonious execution of a Form.

In order for this to make ANY kind of sense at all, I have to SHOW you.

Let’s take for example, a stick figure:

Figure 1

The  stick figure design in Figure 1  is an “idealized” stick figure. This is the type of stick figure you will see if you Googled “Stick figure” online.

There is nothing wrong with it per se. It’s a perfect “symbol” and it’s got it’s own appeal in being a symbol.

It’s also not very interesting as a design.

Why? Well, let’s take a look:

Figure 1a

I drew these figures in a grid so I can clearly point out where the stick figures are balanced and where they are not.

As you can see here in Figure 1a, all the main parts of the figure are evenly spaced.  The neck, body and legs are all the same proportion as the head.

The figure is all even, all balanced and all boring.

A very dull design.

As I mentioned before, as human beings, we tend to naturally go for the balanced and idealized. This is not a bad thing. There’s a time a place for the ideal, but the ideal doesn’t always make for the most interesting designs.

Okay so let’s take a look at a slightly better design:

Figure 2

This design is much better the the first one.  Again, this is another example of a stick figure that you might find if you googled “Stick figure”.

But why is this better than the Figure 1 version?

Let’s take a look:

Figure 2a

Notice that because the figure doesn’t have a neck, and it’s not split up evenly, that the body portion is much longer than the head and the legs. The figure is much more interesting to look at than the one in Figure 1 because it’s parts contrast more.

I’m not too sure about its appeal though. It doesn’t have a neck and the legs are still the same length as the head.

Still, do you see why one is slightly better than the other? This one has both Contrast and Balance, but it’s not as appealing, which means that it’s not very harmonious.

Let’s take a look at another figure:

Figure 3

This figure is a LOT better.  Sometimes you see this type of figure if you Google “stick figure.”

This figure, seems “right” somehow.

Let’s take a look at its proportions:

Figure 3a

In Figure 3a you can see that every part of the figure is a different length. Although, to be honest, you can probably make the argument that the line of the body from the bottom of the head to the start of the legs, and the legs themselves are the same length. I wonder if that’s why it also feels balanced?

In any case, it’s a decent looking stick figure.

At this point, personal taste steps in. I’m looking for something even more interesting. I want to come up with something dynamic, so I’m gonna start REALLY messing around with the proportions to see what happens:

Figure 4

Right…uh…Figure 4 is a little top heavy. Not exactly what I was looking for, but interesting.

Let’s see how it was broken down:

Figure 4a

The head is not quite half the size of the rest of the body. The body itself is still bigger. The neck is short, the body is a little longer and the legs are longer still.

I like the body proportions but the head is too big. Perhaps it would have worked better if I’d thinned out the head into an oval.

Lot’s of contrast but not balanced.

Let’s try something else:

Figure 5

Okay, wow. Figure 5 can be an alien or a very skinny tall guy. Strange that I think of this as skinny since, IT’S A STICK FIGURE.

Let’s take a look at the proportions:

Figure 5a

As we can see in Figure 5a, very long body and everything else is small.

I’d have to play with the length of the arms. If you notice, they’re exactly half the length of the body and it makes them look a little unnatural (if a stick figure CAN be natural looking).

Okay, last one:

Figure 6

I thought I’d try a different head shape this time. I kinda like this one. It takes some getting used to though.

Let’s check the proportions:

Figure 6a

Yup, Figure 6a shows a nice variety of contrasting shapes.  I’d still play around with it a bit. Perhaps raise the “shoulders” up a tad and reduce the length of the oval of the head a touch.

So you see, you can do a lot with a little if you only play around a bit.

You can use the principle in more than just body proportion. Below I’ll show you how it can work on a simple happy face:

Figure 7

Here in Figure 7, we have a standard, well balanced happy face.  Just like the stick figure in Figure 1 above, there is nothing inherently wrong with it.

It is in fact very appealing.

Let’s take a look at why:

Figure 7a

If  I take a line and connect both eyes together and I take a line from each eye to the center of the mouth, we get an equilateral triangle. It’s as well proportioned face and completely balanced.

It’s also REALLY generic.

But I want to play around and create a unique face. To that end, I’m gonna start messing with the spacing of the features.

Figure 8

Ha ha, I like Figure 8. It makes me laugh.

I didn’t really do to much with it and it’s already interesting. Let’s take a look at the spacing:

Figure 8a

Yeah, Figure 8a shows a far less perfect triangle.

Let’s do another:

Figure 9

Okay! Trying to play more with imperfection in Figure 9. Different eye sizes and a slanted mouth.

The eyes are not only closer together but they’re also tilted and pointing to the mouth:

Figure 9a

In Figure 9a, we see the eyes point to the mouth. No equal spacing here, and whole lot of contrast.

Let’s go a little crazy and change the head shape as well:

Figure 10

Figure 10 looks like a character that is in need of some “Adventure Time”.

I did this, to show you that it’s not just about doing things with standard shapes. You can play around and experiment.

Figure 10a

Figure 10a shows how extremely compressed the features are. And they are NOT in the center of the face but a little bit above center.

I liked ALL the faces I drew. They where all unique, full of contrast, balanced and appealing.

I think the stick figures needed  a little bit more work, but I think you get the idea.

Besides, when it comes to the final design, the ultimate judge will be personal taste. You take the principles of good design and you play with them, til you get something YOU like.

It’s a little bit like a recipe that way.

Here’s an Example of These Principles in Action

There’s this artist I’m aware of named Robert Valley. His work is really far out and can sometimes be very odd. He often draws “adult” things too, so beware when looking him up. That said, his designs are fantastic.

He’s done a lot of work in animation as a designer and storyboard artist, but his influence has really been felt in two shows that have taken his style and used it as their “look”: TRON: UPRISING and MOTORCITY.

Since I’m going to be publishing these posts in book form eventually, I can’t directly take the art from these shows and post them here for analysis.

What I CAN do is synthesize the style and break it down so you can see it in action. Which, perhaps, is even better:

Okay so here we have my Robert Valley style Black Terror and (my own creation) Lady Terror. This was really fun to draw. Robert Valley has a fun crazy style.

So let’s take a look at the way these character’s proportions are broken down based on what we’ve learned so far:

Okay so first, lets take a look at the red and blue brackets on the left of each character.  Notice I didn’t split the characters perfectly in half. The top half of the characters are smaller than the bottom half.

It was difficult to tell with The Black Terror’s blue bracket so I made a copy and put it next to the red. We can see it’s obviously smaller.

Next, we take a look at the head, neck, body and legs breakdown.  See how none of them are the same length?  All the proportions of these parts vary and contrast against each other.

Finally, let’s take a look at the limbs. I’ve colored them dark red and orange.

Even the limbs are not evenly broken down.  The Black Terror’s upper arm is longer than his forearm. The same can be said with Lady Terror’s arm.

Also, both characters have longer lower legs than upper legs.

You see? This is how these principles are applied in a more professional setting.

I hope this makes the importance of these principle clear.

Now it’s Your Turn

Exercise 1

Your exercise this time around is to simply come up with interesting looking stick figures using the principles explained above.

In order to make this easier, I’ve posted a blank version of the grid I was using:

You can download it to your computer, print it out or trace it off your screen. You don’t have to use it, but it helps.

That way you don’t have to keep measuring things by hand to see if things are too even.

I’ve also created two stick figure “model sheets” for you to work off of:

Model Sheet 1


Model Sheet 1 is the the stick figure from Figure 1 with a face.


Model Sheet 2


Model Sheet 2 has a more “advanced” stick figure design. I gave it shoulders and joints so you’d have more to “play” with.

Both stick figures are in fact designs, but they’re boring. They’re your standard, no contrast, dull, stick figures. Use the stick figures in the model sheets as your starting off point.

Take them and play with their proportions. Yank them, pull them, push them, as if they were made of rubber. Change their head shapes, make them a square, a rectangle, egg shapes, or  triangles. Move the face features around. Like I did in Figures 1 – 10.

You know, like this:

Make sure you have an eraser handy. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be doing a lot of small adjustments.

Have fun (because it is) and play with these things. See if you can find a way to push the contrast or its proportions and shapes but still end up with something that looks okay or interesting.

If you REALLY want to get ambitious, replace some of the body lines with shapes and see what happens. Make sure to use the same contrast and balance principles, if you do.

Like so:

It’s very similar to doing the exercises in Lesson 2. You’re simply putting shapes together in a type of pattern or symbol, only it has arms, legs and a face.

Remember, harmonizing Contrast + Balance = Good design.

Don’t expect to like what you end up with the first time. Simply play and explore.

At some point, you’ll hit that ONE drawing that seems to work. You’ll know it when it happens. When it does, you’ll be one step closer to being a professional character designer.

Exercise 2

Once you’ve done this, take the stick figure off the grid and draw it on it’s own. Have fun and play with it. Send it on adventures. Have it do your math for you. Whatever. Have fun.


Q: How do you measure proportions when you DON’T have a grid?

A: Okay, this is a good question because I do this all the time. I don’t draw my characters in a grid.

So here’s what I do. When I’m drawing and I need to check the proportions of parts of my character, I take my pencil or pen and place it on the drawing, just like the picture below:

I line up the top of my pencil (I marked it in red) to the top of what I want to measure.  In this case the top of the head.

Then I take my finger and put it on the pencil to mark the length of the proportion I want to measure. In this case the crotch of the character.

Now I have the length from the top of the head to the crotch.

Next, KEEPING MY FINGER EXACTLY WHERE IT IS on the pencil, I move my hand down:

I then line up the top of the pencil to bottom part where I last measure my finger. In this case the crotch. Then I check were my finger actually lands.

Because I didn’t move my finger on the pencil and only moved the pencil, I still have the actual measurement of the top proportion of the body.

As you can see, it’s not evenly spaced. My finger doesn’t quite go to the bottom of the feet. This is what I wanted.

Here’s another example:

I measure from the crotch to the top of the knee.

Then, without moving my finger from where I placed it on the pencil I move my hand down…

…and line up the pencil with the top of the knee and look at where my finger is. The measurement tells me, the upper leg is much shorter than the lower leg.

You can measure everything you want this way. This is how I check the proportions in my designs as I go.

I hope this is helpful. You got to learned something new and I got to write crotch a lot. Crotch crotch crotch crotch…

Pro Tip

This is IT! A lot of what I’ve written about here is  foundational to good drawing. These principles will be applied over and over and over again in many different ways as you grow as a draftsman.

Get used to them. You’ll get better at doing them and seeing them applied as you practice.


I can’t help you if you don’t ask.

What’s your burning design question?

Is there something you’ve always wanted to know about design? Ask.

I’ll give you my best answer and, who knows,  probably write a post about it.

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