Illustrated flat design characters are a big trend in design, popping up in advertisements and site experiences for fresh new companies. Getting really good at character design takes time and practice, but this tutorial will give you a starting point using a simple approach to this burgeoning style. You can also explore our collection of royalty free vectors, including tons of great character designs.
We’ll use some simple techniques to build the character, using familiar tools like these:
Then we’ll get into Gradients, Grain textures, and Clipping Masks to add shading that lift your characters off the screen and keeps the design fresh and modern.
1. Set Up Your Document
Open Illustrator and hit Command + N or go to File > New. In the New Document window, choose a simple 5 x 5 inch square for our artboard. Don’t worry about the bleed or anything else. I like this size because when I apply accents and shading it keeps the grain effect at the right resolution for this style.
2. Think Through and Plan Your Character
If you’re using a real person as inspiration for a character design, there are a few ways to capture their essence and make your illustration recognizable. Even when cartoonishly simplified, adding unique features to your flat character design helps tether it to the original person, especially if used as an avatar.
Here are a few things to consider when planning your flat design character:
- Notice any identifying marks like dimples, freckles, a mole, or the shape of someone’s hair.
- Match eye color, skin tones, and hair color to a flat version of that color.
- Include any signature accessories like a necklace or glasses.
If you like to sketch ideas, this is a great way to preplan. You can draw the likeness of a person and block out the shapes that comprise their features.
3. Use Vector Shapes to Build the Parts
Create some basic layers to organize your work and keep the different character parts separate.For each of these parts, make a new layer by clicking the New Layer icon in the Layers window. Name it by double-clicking on the layer itself. Move them by dragging them in the Layers window with the mouse. Start with a layer for Background, then work up through the hierarchy: Body, Neck, Face, and so on, for whatever features you want to build.
Head and Neck
You usually need only a few big shapes to make a head: an ellipse for the top of the head, and another shape to make up the face and jaw – I’m using a rectangle.
For the neck, I’ll make another tall rectangle on a layer underneath the head.
Select both shapes and hit Unite in the Pathfinder window (Window > Pathfinder.) This will combine them into one polygon.
Use the Direct Selection tool to move the vector points around and refine the face shape. Simply click on the object to highlight the vector points, locate the point you want to move, click on the point, and drag it. Here, I’ll adjust the jaw line.
This is a technique I’ll use throughout the tutorial to bend and manipulate the shapes.
Eyes and Nose
Select the Ellipse tool from the Shapes section in the tool menu, or hit L on the keyboard to activate it. Hold the Shift key to click and drag a perfect circle. You can add a color fill here, or leave it white with a black outline.
For the nose, use the Pen tool to draw a simple three-point shape. Click once at the starting point, click the next corner to add a vector point, and click once more at the end. Hit Enter to release and deactivate that path.
For the ears I’ll use the Ellipse tool to make an oval. Activate the Direct Selection tool (V.) Hold the Option key and click and drag the oval to create a duplicate. Position it so it’s a bit offset from the original.
Select both by holding Shift and clicking on them. Go to the Pathfinder window and hit Divide. This will cut the paths where they intersect.
Now, activate the Direct Selection (A) tool. Click on the segments that don’t make up the outer part of the ear shape, then hit the Delete key until those parts are gone.
Like the eyes, the mouth can be a place to add expressiveness. If someone has a big smile, make their character have a big, open smile
Draw a quick rectangle and adjust the vectors using the Direct Selection tool.
My guy has curly, short hair, but I want to keep it minimal. As with making an ear, I drew a circle with the Ellipse tool and copied it by holding Option, then dragged out the copies around his head the create a fluffy, cloud-like outline.
I then used the Pen tool to create the shape of a hairline around the face. To make a curved line, click and drag the vector until the path matches the curve you want.
>>Learn more in this guide to Pen tool techniques.
Select the entire Hair layer. In the Pathfinder window, click the Unite icon in the upper left. This will combine all the ellipses with the hairline shape into one whole shape.
Touches of Personality
Once I have the structure laid out, I can add some personal touches that personalize to my character. Some little emotive eyebrows will help this avatar communicate like a human.
4. Add Color To The Shapes
Now we’ll turn this outline drawing into a flat character. Simply click on a shape and use the Color window to remove the outline and fill it with color.
Click on a shape, then click on either the Fill or Stroke color icons. Click in the color spectrum to eyeball a shade, or use the slider to input specific color mixes. Set it to transparent by clicking the white box with the red diagonal line. Do this for each shape to achieve your preferred color.
I removed the outlines and made each shape a solid color.
5. Finish Your Character With Gradient Shading
Gradient shading is an easy way to give your flat character design a more dynamic and modern look.
First, click on Effect in the main menu at the top of the screen. Select Document Raster Effects Settings. From that window, click the Resolution drop-down and select Medium (150 ppi) from the list. This will determine the size of the grain for the Grain texture effect.
Use the Marquis tool to draw a rectangle. Go to Window in the main menu and select Gradient. The Gradient window will open and, like in the Color window, select the Stroke icon and set it to transparent.
Select the Fill color icon and click anywhere in the Gradient Slider. This will set the rectangle to a white-to-black gradient fill. Set Type to Linear and the angle to 0°, as seen below.
Now, go to Effect in the main menu, hover over Texture near the bottom, and click on Grain. A window will open showing the settings for the grain texture.
I set the Intensity at 50 and the Contrast at 1. Grain Type is set to Stippled for the grainy texture look. These settings will give a nice, graded grain coverage. Hit OK to return to the illustration.
Rotate the shape using the Selection tool so that the darkest side is at the top, then move it off the artboard. Copy the shape, create a new Layer, and paste a copy of the texture into it. Move that layer under the Head layer. Then, set the Blending Mode to Multiply in the Transparency window.
Now, manipulate the shape with the Direct Selection tool, as before. Move the corner vector points so the sides travel along the angles of the shape casting a shadow.
This works well for a large area, but for smaller areas we’ll have to make a Clipping Mask. Create a shape that will serve as the mask. That means when the grain is contained by the shape, the grain will only show within the outline of the shape.
Here, I created a shape for a shadow under the bottom lip with the Pen tool. I copied the grain texture shape, pasted it over the shape, then moved the layer it’s on under the shape. To create the Clipping Mask, I selected both the shape and the grain texture, then hit Command + 7. Just remember that the shape you want the mask to be has to be on top.
I adjusted the size of the grain texture to squish down the gradient. You can select the object inside the Clipping Mask by double-clicking it to enter Isolation Mode. To exit, hit the Escape key.
To further adjust, I selected the mask itself and reduced the height with the Selection tool, which adjusts the object being clipped as well. This reduces the total area of gradation, making the grain texture fade over a shorter distance. Using these techniques, I touched up some other areas like the edge of the face and the depth of the ear.
We now have a modern, minimalist character illustration, but with added depth and style. Use these steps to create your own work!
This easy 5-step tutorial will show you how to create a fun and trendy flat design character with simple vector techniques Illustrator.