Character Sketches

Two designers illustrate cartoon-figure development.
Denron Sign Co. designed and wrapped this vehicle graphic for Castaldi Plumbing.

There’s a plumbing company here in Cincinnati whose illustrated mascot on their service vans is so close to “Rich Uncle Pennybags” from Monopoly that they’re more identical twins than first cousins. The thick white mustache, the full-stride, “advance to Boardwalk” pose – they’re unmistakably similar. It made me wonder: How did the sign company designer come up with that character, or more to the point, how did he or she get away with ripping off that character?

To learn how designers should go about creating or developing illustrated characters as part of a client’s vehicle wrap graphics, I contacted two designers and asked about their design processes.


Dan Antonelli, owner of KickCharge Creative (Washington, NJ) has completed thousands of projects, including the winning service vehicle for our 2017 Vehicle Graphics Contest (see ST, September 2017, page 34).

Dan uses his portfolio to steer consultations. “As we review our portfolio with a new client,” Dan said, “we can get a general sense of whether [to do a] more modern mascot-based approach or one more rooted in a retro genre.” Whether modern or retro, of course, any illustrated figure has to fit, or better, take advantage of, the space on the intended vehicle.

“As sketches are being roughed, I’m placing them on the truck to get a general sense of how the hierarchy works or doesn’t,” Dan said, regarding “the body movement of the mascot, and the orientation of type within the canvas. We sometimes have to figure out a tweak to the logo – for example, breaking up a logo that normally resides in a panel – in order to maximize the canvas.”

Shelby Varone is the lone (and thereby very busy) graphic designer for Denron Sign Co. (Downington, PA). “When a client brings me a rough sketch of their idea, it helps me envision what they are looking for and gives me a starting point,” she said. Even when a client’s starting concept doesn’t work, she tries to weave a few elements of the initial idea into her final design.

Shelby enjoyed more freedom when Castaldi Plumbing came to Denron for a partial vehicle wrap. “They wanted something big and bold that would grab attention, but [they] didn’t have much of a design direction,” Shelby said. “I did a little research on plumbing wraps and a few designs caught my eye that had large characters or plumbing tools as the focal point.”


KickCharge Creative redesigned AttaBoy Plumbing's cartoon logo.
KickCharge Creative redesigned AttaBoy Plumbing's cartoon logo.

What about changing one illustrated character into another? This was the challenge for Dan and his team with client AttaBoy Plumbing, whose plumber cartoon, Buddy, was hard to recognize from a distance. KickCharge’s early drafts featured a similar character in an attempt to salvage the brand equity. However, the proposed running man looked too frenetic, Dan thought. “I don’t want someone out of control who is flying by the seat of his pants to fix my problem,” he said and scrapped that idea. “Additionally, from our perspective, the name spoke to having a younger mascot, so we wanted our brand to feature a cute, memorable boy.” The client agreed. Stan’s Sign Design (Indianapolis) printed KickCharge’s design with a Mimaki JV33 printer using Avery 1105SC EX RS wrap film and protected it with 3M Scotchcal 8518 Overlaminate applied with a GFP 463TH laminator.

Meanwhile, regardless of the starting point, the design work needs to happen quickly. “In 2-8 hours,” Shelby said of her work for Denron. “I sketch out my ideas on paper and then I find stock art that I can manipulate to create the designs that I sketched.” Happily, with Castaldi, “The customer wanted to get their wrap done ASAP so the design came together quickly,” Shelby said. Denron printed her design on 3M IJ180cV3 film using their Mimaki JV3 printer, then applied 3M 8518 with their GFP 563TH laminator.

I suggest you take their advice and develop original characters, avoiding possible trademark violations by too closely modeling something famous. As for the local company that lifted its character from Monopoly: Proceed directly to Jail. Do not pass Go!


Signs of the Times January 2021

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