A mascot is your brand ambassador and a great way to connect with your audience in a more personal way, but can also serve as its own source of revenue, either through products that you create and sell yourself, or through licensing. Either way, it's a great idea to design product concepts that show off what your mascot could or will look like when he/she/it appears on real-world physical products.
A word I use all the time in both brand mascot design and product design is STORYTELLING - using a mascot's personality and ideas/themes to create more interest and engagement. In the case of product design, we mean adding an extra layer of appeal to the product, changing it from an everyday, generic item into something that people want to own.
I love Star Wars, and they have made some of the most incredible storytelling products I can think of:
You can see how the designers have cleverly played with the shapes and functions of the original products in ways that match the themes, characters and look of some of the most iconic moments from Star Wars. Even the simple pillows add a witty inside-joke that transform them into a perfect gift for a Star Wars fan couple. [side note: I got my first job in product design by designing a pitch deck of Star Wars merchandise, but the only one above designed by me is the Storm Trooper hoodie]
I begin with a pencil and paper, sketching out and writing down ideas for products that match the ideas, shapes, and colours of the character and its universe - this is a totally unguided, free brainstorming process, where I don't allow myself to be hindered by considerations about practicality, price, or production complexity. The goal is to create as many ideas as possible without filter or limits, no matter how crazy or unrealistic.
I don't want my brainstorming process to be hindered by any preconceptions or existing designs, so perhaps counterintuitively, I do my research afterward. If I've unfortunately thought of an idea that has already been done, c'est la vie. I look at Disney products, check out Pinterest, look at fancy.com and shutupandtakemymoney.com, maybe visit Amazon, etc. Research is the first step in the narrowing-down process that lets me know which products are best-sellers, what the competition looks like, and often gives me more inspiration through ideas that have been used with other IPs that I can repurpose for my own designs.
Consider draft designs' practicality
Now it's time to face any designer's nemesis: the real world. Time to consider:
Ugh. We're not yet ready to talk to product managers and factories, but we can at least guesstimate which products are never going to make the cut, so eliminate any designs that just aren't going to work for practical reasons, and let's not waste valuable time photoshopping away on the next stage:
Create Product Mockups
We want any senior or product manager to be able to concretely envision what each of our selected products will look like in the real world, so it's worth putting in that extra effort to make them look as compelling as possible. I'll do another blog tutorial on this in a later post, but broadly speaking:
Make mockups look as realistic as possible. This means considering lighting, texture and colour. We've all seen clearly 'faked' products that are so badly photoshopped that it's off-putting. The poor quality of the presentation becomes the focus over the quality of the idea or design.
Show your designs in a real life context. Instead of showing a t-shirt on a blank background, show it being worn by a real person, preferably in a setting the target consumer will identify with, surrounded by other products and scenery that he/she would naturally feel comfortable in.
Where possible, use 3D. If you have designers that know how to use 3D software, it's a great tool for making your designs pop and take on real shape. A talented photoshopper can fake 3D to a certain extent, but there's no substitute for being able to show a beautifully-rendered product from multiple angles. Adobe Dimension is a great, simple 3D tool and has a 1-day learning curve, so there's no excuse for "not being a 3D person".
Create product sets
Once you've got you starting collection of product mockups, it's crucial to look at the whole set with all the designs together. Product sets need to be visually consistent and the individual designs look good together with each other. Imagine if your online store or physical store shelves were covered with a confusing mess of different colours and styles of design - not very appealing for your average buyer, and hurtful to your branding. So group similar products together, and eliminate products that look out of place or just don't fit. Here are 4 sets of products, each with its own colour scheme and/or theme, that I designed for Emily the Strange when I worked at Dark Horse Comics:
One way of ensuring visual consistency is to design patterns and use them over a variety of products. By using patterns, you can use a single creative asset to create an entire line of products! Here's a pattern I made using the characters from my mascot's universe:
[Note: after designing the pattern, which took me about 3 hours, I created this rendering in Adobe Dimension in less than an hour]
Consider packaging design
They say a product is only as good as its packaging, and I agree - packaging design is a science unto itself and some brands spend millions of dollars on developing and testing their designs. As with your product line, your packaging line should be visually consistent and should represent your brand and the products inside. In order to idiot-proof and speed up your packaging production, it helps to give clear design instructions and Pantone colours to factories. Here is a packaging template I created for Hellboy-Q products which shows clearly how the pattern was applied over the base red layer:
With your products in mind, consider which types of packaging you'll need and design accordingly. Here is a window box, a hangtag and blister card I designed for "Secret Order of the Teddy Bears":
Finally, packaging is another opportunity to use, yep you guessed it, STORYTELLING. You can use features of the product, artwork or packaging to make the whole design more fun or clever and create a more satisfying unboxing experience for your customers. Here are a few packaging designs I did for Warner Brothers and Star Wars:
My favourite is the lightsaber packaging - the product is a phone powerbank that emits red LED lights, but the problem is the feature is not immediately obvious. So on the inside I added artwork to make it look like the lightsaber turns on when someone opens the box.