Designing between the lines
As Jonathan posted earlier, Mike Del Mundo and I have begun concepting elements for 3W3M so I thought I'd show my process on a couple designs.
For an upcoming story "Duels" I needed to design an assassin, a device the assassins use to accept contracts, a timer, and tokens that have a symbolic purpose.
Everything begins with the script or character descriptions from the writer, so let's look at what the script has to say first about our male assassin.
His description: “A brute. He’s big, strong, and terrifying -- he looks like the kind of guy that twists the heads off of birds. Then moves on to twisting the heads off babies.”
And in the script itself: "He’s a giant murderous bastard. A cruel smirk on his face. "
And that's all we really have as far as a description, which for my purposes is fantastic! This leaves the designer a ton of room to create without having to worry about crossing some line that would affect the narrative. In the absolute best case scenario, your concept could give the writer new narrative options for later scripts.
So all we know about our assassin is that he's big and he looks mean, his description suggests he likes twisting the heads off things and we meet him on a very affluent planet.
The first thought I had about this character is that he does indeed twist the head off things. He's an assassin that kills by strangling. Also, this is a sci-fi world, so I want to give him some enhancement that assists him with his method of killing. Finally, he seems to be a resident of a rich city and planet, so his appearance will be important to him. This strangling monster wants to look good.
In my first sketches for this character I settled on a basic shape and worked out his enhancements.
Visually I want this guy to be all arms and shoulders. He should look like he could twist your head off. So his costume needs to accentuate his hands/ arms, communicate some level of affluence, and let you know he's capable of action at any moment.
I went with a sort of sleeveless jacket over martial art robes, paired with samurai style leg armor. The jacket highlights his arms and I think the armor lets you know this guy gets into some serious situations. I added a large scarf/ belt and (eventually on my final pass) some rope details- all elements that would be useful to strangle someone. Some color coordination and an outlandish tiger pattern and hopefully it all comes together as a look.
For his enhancements I wanted to go minimal. His method of killing, strangling, is brutal and takes some time to commit, and I don't want to change that by overpowering him. So his enhancements boost his strength *just enough* to make sure he can strangle anything he gets his hands on, but it's still a slow crushing process.
I wanted to keep his enhancements visually minimal as well. A single wire can be seen running down his arms and through the back of his hand into each finger. The last digits of his index finger and thumb are metal.
The one whimsical touch I added is a small box with knobs attached to his belt that allows him to control the level at which his hands are being boosted. Visually I think it's fun, it communicates a level of technology to expect in this environment, and it feels like there's a story here. Like this enhancement is a custom job done by some shady tech dealer.
Next I had a few props to design. First up: "a techno-medical device (a small box that you depress your thumb into)." This device is described as something that samples your blood and will project a hologram confirming the identity of the party that had their blood sampled. In addition we needed: "this world’s version of an hourglass".
As described, these are tools the assassins use routinely, and together. So my first thought was to pair these two tools into one unit, and make it something that could fit in a pocket. This device is used everyday for a job. It should be convenient, simple and efficient.
I settled on a handheld disk that attaches to a small digital hourglass. The disk has a slot to take blood, can run the analysis internally and then project the results holographically from a projector at the top.
Once the ID is confirmed the digital hourglass is switched on and it's LED panels mimic the action of sand falling from top to bottom. The unit is adjustable so that any unit of time could be measured.
This device should be completely unremarkable visually. It efficiently does a job then gets thrown back into a bag or pocket.
The final prop to design for this story were a set of tokens. From the script: "These depict the various schools and methods of assassinations, laid out in the script. There are three of them: Think of it like Assassin: rock, paper, scissors."
I asked in a follow up if there was more info on the schools or methods and it seemed there wasn't anything solid yet. The tokens had evolved from something similar to tarot cards to something more like coins, and that was really all that was decided.
This was another design that left a lot of room for me to imagine, and if I didn't contradict anything in the story, the visuals could suggest a history or backstory that could maybe be canonized later.
My first thought was that I wanted to make these coins, and coins from this locale- it's another tiny worldbuilding opportunity. So I designed something that hopefully looked recognizable as a currency. The front has a portrait of a blindfolded man (perhaps suggesting an interesting backstory) and the back has some mix of architecture and natural elements that seem typical on coins.
Now we get to the part where I'm entirely making stuff up.
I don't know if the assassin organizations are legal on this world, but even if they are, I imagine in their early histories they were not.
So instead of custom cards or tokens that announce their presence, I think their traditions would come from a history of being covert. I imagine coins, whose backs have been defaced, with crude symbols carved into its surface. If someone is searched they just have a handful of coins, and even if one of the defaced coins is discovered it's odd but not immediately incriminating.
It also felt like an anarchic statement to deface a symbol of local government and then carve your symbol directly into it.
So maybe these schools have risen to high social status, but I think their traditions would enshrine their early hidden years, and one of those is this tradition of defaced, hand carved coins (perhaps even handed down?) that carry their symbols.
Or not. We'll see!
So that's it for these “Duels” concepts. I think you can see my approach generally is to look for pockets in the story that are undefined and try to visually fill that space with as many ideas or stories as possible. Much of it will never become a story detail or even be explicitly mentioned but the hope is that it makes the world feel layered, with a history, and one that spills out in every direction around the small window the story is giving you.
Alright I hope you all enjoyed this look at process, let me know below if you have any questions. We're designing a ton of stuff now so I’ll be back soon with more!