What’s in the Design?

So, this is something a little bit different. I have talked many times in the past about how I make my own clothes, but I also make costumes, specifically I am a cosplayer. Some of you know this, that’s why you’re here, some of you will be going “what the hell is a cosplayer?” and others will have already stopped reading because “ugh, cosplay”, which is fair.

Cosplay is literally costume + play. It’s dressing up as characters/people from media of all sorts and that’s kind of it. Some people, like myself, get a bit carried away with and make increasingly more ridiculous and over the top costumes, learning how to sew, make props and armour, style wigs etc etc. Others, don’t. Which is also, fair. People like to do things in whatever way they deem to be fun. I like crafting, it’s really fun, but I’m a weirdo. What I also love is designing. I absolutely adore it. I actually wanted to be a costume designer, until I went and worked in a theatre for 18 months and decided that I’d rather write and have no money, than work in a theatre and have no money – couldn’t deal with the stress of it honestly. But that didn’t kill my love for design, so I started designing and redesigning costumes for cosplay and more recently clothes and outfits.

When I talk about designing, I don’t mean coming up with a character from scratch – though that is also fun and totally worth doing sometimes if only for the creative challenge – I mean looking at a character like BB-8 from Star Wars, or Eevee from Pokemon and making them human or taking a character from a book, say the Discworld books, and creating design of what you think they look like. When I say redesign I made a character that already has a costume and changing it. Simple? Yes? Good.

Personally I think that designing and redesigning characters is really fun, but I think there is a lot fear about doing it as very few cosplayers will do original design pieces. A lot of people will copy fanart or other people’s designs, but I do think there is a lot more scope for cosplayers to makeup their own ideas, after all we are a bit of a creative bunch.

SO! In this article I’m going to a bit of a 101 of design tips and tricks, how to get started, what not to be afraid of and most importantly repeatedly reminding you that being able to draw is not important. No seriously, only you need to be able to understand it, so it does not need to be good, simply understandable. You can even write lots of notes on it.

Disclaimer: This is just my process, my way of working, it is not hard and fast rules, it’s just a starting point that you can work from if you want to start designing yourself. Also you don’t need to be able to draw.

#1 Research

It seems almost obvious but doing research into the character you want to design for is super important and should not be overlooked. Just because you have a great design in your head does not mean it can’t be improved by researching, and often you’ll work out a better idea through the research process. For example, with my most recent costume, Godric Gryffindor, I started out thinking about sort of generic DnD medieval fantasy bard but the more I researched into the time period and the clothing of the time, the more I found that viking and saxon clothing was more in keeping with what I wanted.


The Final Costume

You can see how it changed and how the final costume came out better because of just a little bit of research. I say little bit, about a couple of weeks worth of research, because I’m a mad person.

What you can also see at this point is that I really can’t draw. And that’s fine. Just remember that ok. I mean look at all those notes I did, very helpful. Obviously.

#2 Think about the character

This is something that I took away from working as a designer in theatre. You need to think about the character. If you are presented with a script, you can’t just go “I want them to look like this” you need to see what those characters are like and what is going on to inform those characters.

There are three questions that you did to ask yourself about your character when designing a costume: Where do they come from? What do they do? And, what are their character traits?

These are very important in designing what they look like. Shall we have an example? Let’s look at BB-8.
Where do they come from? Well, BB-8 is from the Star Wars universe, nice and obvious. They primarily seem to be living (I guess?) on the resistance base with Poe but they also travel and send a lot of time in an x-wing.

That’s all good stuff, very helpful. Knowing that they are from Star Wars, despite it being super obvious means that we should start by looking at the designs in Star Wars. If we look at what other characters are wearing, especially since a lot already exist, that can inform our ideas for design. The fact that BB-8 moves around a lot? It needs to be practical in some way. Not boring but practically might be helpful. And then x-wing? Well we can follow that up with the next question.
What do they do? BB-8 is an astromech. They work on the base, they are navigation, engineering, piloting etc etc etc.

Basically this tells me, is BB-8 was human, they would look like a pilot. Easy as that. So if we move onto our last question…
What are their character traits? BB-8 is cute, they are based on a child and are therefore childish and immature in many ways but also very emotional, they are funny, brave and mostly just done right adorkable.

Cool. This is very helpful. For me, this says don’t make this costume to grown up, this character is a child in many respects and so that should be reflected. I want it to be fun and silly and be able to move around in it so that I can get into character and run around. After adding all of this together, I ended up with this…


A few things changed along the way, mostly to do with practicality (and money) but it came together to look just how I wanted and it really fits the character. Or at least I think so. I wanted it to feel as if it were actually from the Star Wars universe and not just a costume or outfit based on BB-8 because for me that is really important as part of the design process.

Also it’s so much fun to be BB-8.


Such a cutie. Photo by KatYuna Cosplay

You can apply these questions to any character, and you don’t even need a massive backlog of designs like Star Wars. I used the same idea of characters from books and it works just as well, even if you don’t have other stuff you can look at and refer to in the same why, you can always look for other character descriptions and see if they give you more clues, or simply go into more depth with the answers to the questions. The more you think about it, the better your design will be.

And just in case you forgot, you do not need to be able to draw, look at how terrible that drawing is. Look at it.

#3 Refine your design

You do not have to stick with your first idea. In fact you probably shouldn’t. Don’t be afraid of doing 3, 4, 5 sketches, maybe even more, trying out loads of ideas, throwing in things you maybe don’t think will work, looking at different sources of inspiration – this is especially good with books as often you will find that there are many different descriptions and illustrations and therefore no one fixed idea of a character’s appearance and you are more likely to be able to pinpoint which features are repeated and therefore important to keep in the design – as well as just faffing around. It may be that design number one was great and actually it didn’t need changing, but in my experience you will almost always end up changing and refining something. Plus if, like me, you are pants at drawing, you may end up changing things as you build because your sewing looks better than your drawing.

Case in point!


My first design for Riddler.

This is the starting point I had for Riddler. It looks like Riddler, you can easily see what character it is, but it wasn’t quite working for me. It’s a little disjointed but I liked the basic idea so I had a bit of a think and refined it.


Second design

It’s much clearer, it’s better thought out with a more coherent look to the whole thing while still maintaining ideas from the original design. Then I went in and looked at the details a bit more, really working through the ins and outs of the design and what I wanted to portray with it.


Refining the details

The last thing I wanted to work out properly was the cane. I didn’t want something standard or boring, it didn’t fit the idea of Riddler I had created through this design process. It had to be flashy, he’s a bit of a needy thing after all.


The light up cane

I took inspiration from the Batman Arkham games where Riddler has light up trophies. It felt like a nice nod to an existing design while keeping the feel of what I was creating.

Each step of refinement allowed me to think further and see the design clearer until I was really happy with the end result. I think you don’t want to go for the east reach, that first idea, when you are designing, you want to work through the thoughts and process it all until you get something you are really proud of – even if your drawings are bad.

Riddler and Penguin 002

Photo by Ian Sharman

Right. That’s it. Go have a go! I mean it, have a try even if you don’t like it in the end, it’s worth seeing where your creativity takes you. You may find you come up with something awesome, everyone has to start somewhere after all.


My first try at designing. Is shocking.

I hope you liked this, even though it’s quite different and weird. Next week some sort of regular service will resume!

If you like what I’m doing please you can buy me a cuppa on Ko-fi!

Or you can support me on patreon.

‘Olly Out!

Written by Holly Rose Swinyard


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s