In-Class Character Design


This is a quick one-class assignment that has the students create and define a character with 2 given prompts, and access to limited costume stock.

I pair them off randomly, then they pull a number to decide an order of choosing prompts. Each pair takes a word and an image, and must create a character from them. After a quick demonstration on dressing a mannequin, highlighting how fit and garment usage can also define personality, they then costume a dress form from a selection of garments, accessories and fabric.

The pairs identify a speaker and end by presenting their character, specifying their impressions from the prompts, the choices made, and the relationship between them.

Activity Objectives

This is a verbally given assignment, but one that encourages collaboration, design decision- making and the articulation of choices. It is an ungraded assignment, but it sets them up with an experience relating to their midterm design project where they must research and design a character, costuming a dress form based on specific script analysis.

The successful pair will analyze their verbal and visual prompts, and create a character from their discussion of them. Their goal is to tie their choices to these prompts rather than imposing preconceived traits. They can choose dichotomous prompts, or ones that work together, but what they choose must inform the character.

They then use the limited garment choices to tell that same story. Their creativity is challenged as they translate their character not only into garment choices, but also in how it is utilized (traditionally used, uniquely worn, does it fit properly, do they match, etc?).

The paired discussions, the dressing, and the presentations are all timed, so they work under an intentional time crunch to force collaboration and avoid ambivalence. Their ability to make decisions under pressure is also challenged, creating a fun and fast- paced environment. Because there are no points involved, many students just run with it for the fun of creation.

Activity Goals

A prominent aspect of all classes is our students’ need to articulate their choices. They cannot just say that they “like” or “dislike” something, but spend time expanding on the why of their choices. In this assignment I specifically make them explain their selections and how they tie back to their initial character discussion. I also call them out for arbitrary or thrown away decisions in their presentations, but endeavor to find something creative and positive about each character.

Because this is not a graded assignment, I make it clear that they are learning skills that they will use directly and shortly on their design project.


Depending on the size/pairing ability of the class, I choose enough words and images to have extra choices, then create a magnetic board with the options (see image below) Currently my words are: paranoid, strong, inner strength, tender, submissive, chameleon, sympathetic, passive, passionate, pathetic, uneducated, cerebral, aggressive, and dominant.

I choose images with (I feel) strong visual styles/themes and they currently are: a colour-coordinated minimalist living room, a nighttime city street, a Banksy Victorian living room with a camouflaged elephant, Circus Circus casino, a room of cubicles, a train car, a reflective bubble, a Jackson Pollock print, an adorable Victorian house, Grecian ruins a disco ball, a graffiti-ed street, and I cycle out other images depending on what I think will spark interest in the students.

To introduce the assignment, we talk about personality types and how certain images and words can conjure various archetypal characters.

I demonstrate how to dress a form, taking fit and styling into consideration. We talk about how tailoring something denotes one kind of character vs. leaving it loose; how much skin is seen vs. more conservative dress; we reaffirm male/female clothing and how they button, and we talk about the elements & principles of design, specifically using scale, texture and colour to inform on the character.

In their pairs, they pick their prompts and then imagine a person who would exist in that image, and has the quality of that word. This is where their choices are important. Does their word and image match, or are they combative? Do they belong in that environment, or are fighting against it? Does the image inform their colour palette or the pace or movement of the character? If there are a lot of actors in this section, I encourage them to think of movement, posture, and breath in the character as well. Do gender and age play a role, or does it not matter in this case? What is their backstory, and how does this manifest in their clothing? I also provide a work sheet with some of these questions.

I pull a selection of stock garments, accessories, and fabric and they work with that to style their character. They then have 10-15 minutes to style and dress their form, with 2 minutes to regroup and plan their 2-minute presentation.

 Time Required

I do this in one 75-minute class period. Each section is timed to allow for the students to clean up after the assignment.

Required Materials

-Words and images printed on card stock.
-Trifold board and magnetic strips for display.
-Sticky back magnets for the images and words.
-A selection from costume stock.
-Dress forms, both male and female. But they could also dress themselves if (enough) forms are not available, or create flat costumes and lay them out/hang them on the wall and emphasize garment choice rather than fit.
-Stopwatch, phone, or an innate ability to track time precisely.


This could be an individual project for smaller classes.

It could be a group project where they create a cast of characters and must work together to do a cohesive look.

The prompts could come from the students from a discussion on stereotypes, archetypal characters, or a specific script.

They could have access to all of stock rather than the professor pre-pulling.

They could use their own closets/ clothing on their person provided that they’re wearing layers…

One could use research images/ collaging techniques instead of physical garments. This could translate into other design disciplines if images/research/collaging is used.


This is not a graded assignment, but feedback is given directly after their mini presentations, both from myself and from classmates. When we talk about design choices resonating with the audience, the class weighs in on if they agree or not with the decisions. I give feedback based on my own opinions, and make it known that this is where my initial feedback comes from. The only way to not be successful is to 1. Either not dress the form, or 2. Not be able to articulate/defend the choices. Otherwise, it is a very freeform assignment.

-Jennifer Sheshko Wood