I believe that character designs were much better back when the job wasn't considered very important. At least not important enough to have a separate department for it. It wasn't even until the late 50s that character designers began to get credits on title cards.
Tex Avery is not beloved because of his own personal drawing style - unlike say, Chuck Jones. Avery used a variety of animators to draw his model sheets and design his characters. He wasn't all that concerned with having a consistent visual style. He liked to experiment and just wanted the characters to be appealing and animateable. Avery is admired because of his direction and personality - which used to be considered the most important job in animation.
The guys who drew character designs were animators - artists who knew from personal experience what the needs of a good animation design were.
1) Functional:A lot of early designs were merely functional and didn't show a lot of individual style. But they are still appealing just because they are so well drawn.
Simple is extremely important for animation. That's why the best classic cartoon designers spent more thought on the overall shapes, than on a lot of details.
Too many details make animators sweat. It takes too long to move something if you are spending all your time on extraneous insignificant details.
Too complex proportions:
It's also very hard to keep detailed complex designs from warping and changing shape when you animate them.
Realistic or even semi-realistic humans are a great example of what can't be animated well, so logically the best animators avoided these sorts of designs. The crappy result in motion is not worth the incredible effort of just barely moving the stuff around.
This gives the few details you have some order and structure. Smaller parts have to obey the positions in space of the larger parts. This makes the animation more convincing and also makes it easier to control more complex motion.
The thinking behind simple well structured designs and animation is far more complex than the thinking behind "realistic" or unstructured designs.
Detail does not equal complex thought. Quite the opposite.
Line Of Action
Even fat characters can have a line of action when drawn with knowledge.
SilhouetteUse of interior negatives
2) Aesthetic: Appealing
Part of appeal is just plain obvious skill. Something sorely lacking today, but in abundance in the 1940s.
but not always: Tex had at least one designer whose work was kind of crude for the time.
Good design has balance-a hard term to define. You need a good balance of empty space VS filled space - clear areas to help draw attention to the details.
3) Descriptive of the Character:
The design should evoke some visual description of the personality of the character.
An Ed Benedict Story About Tex Avery's Animators:
I'm not sure who drew these quick sketches, but they have Tex' personality and expressions inherent in them.
When Ed started designing characters for Tex Avery in the "UPA Style" in the 1950s, the animators would come up to him to complain that his designs didn't work. "You can't move these things!" Ed, being an animator and layout man himself for 2 decades already, would roll his eyes and think "how backwards and conservative these animators are". The irony is that the animation in Tex's 50s cartoons is much more fluid than the animation in the UPA cartoons. That made Ed mad. He complained to me that the animators were resorting to all that "Mickey-Mouse-ish" squash and stretch and overlapping action.These tracings have lost some of the guts of the original drawings. They would have been first posed by Tex in the storyboard, then Ed would have drawn Tex' poses in his style on the layouts, then the animators would trace Ed's drawings or adapt them, and then finally an assistant animator would trace the animators'. That is 4 steps away from the source of the poses.
Even the UPA designers were mostly Disney or classic-studio trained animators and layout artists-so while they were trying to rebel against the funny-animal cutesy style of Disney, they still retained all the great drawing principles of the 1930s and 40s cartoons.
FAKE UPA DESIGN IN THE 1960SIn the 60s, it all went to Hell. A new generation of designers, who did not have the same training as the 50s designers began superficially imitating the simple-looking flat designs of UPA, but now without the line of action, the hierarchy, the use of space and all the other classic tools of good animation design. There are a few years of fake-UPA style TV cartoons and commercials, and then after that, even that went out the window.
THE 70S IS EVEN WORSEA whole new generation of executives and untrained artists went against all logic and started designing unappealling, scratchy semi-realistic or just plain primitive looking cartoons that were completely non-functional and ugly to boot.
MODERN CHARACTER DESIGNToday, there is a whole separate category of character designers culled not from the animation process itself, but rather from sketchbooks, high schools and colleges. The words "character design" to me have lost their meaning. Anybody can be a character designer today. It's a handicap if you can draw really well and you have to dumb-down to stay employed in most places.
Most designs cause problems rather than help the animators do their jobs. I think it's because the job (in theory) has attained more abstract importance than it had in Tex's time and because the designers don't have to animate - or even layout their own designs. (Some do, but not all animators are automatically good designers either especially in today's completely illogical atmosphere).
I know, everything is subjective so nothing matters anymore.
But I'll take Tex.
WHAT'S THE SECRET TO BECOMING A GOOD CHARACTER DESIGNER?
Have lots of experience drawing storyboards, layouts and animation. Understand personality. Know your principles. Have a rare gift from God that can't be taught. - An eye for design.
Even with all this, character design is a collaborative effort under a strong director.