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Pictoplasma: Bringing Character Design to Life



The Berlin based Pictoplasma project is acclaimed for its unique focus on contemporary character design and art. Their annual festivals in Berlin and NYC include performances, workshops, talks, exhibitions and character walks, showcasing the work of a global scene of illustrators, graphic designers and animation filmmakers. Their latest conference kicks off in early November in New York so Beth Douglas cornered cofounder Lars Denicke for a quick chat about the evolution of Pictoplasma and what makes great character design.

How did Pictoplasma start and can you describe the evolution of Pictoplasma?

Pictoplasma is a huge network of artists around the world. We call it a global niche phenomena. It’s very specific and based on the idea of anthropomorphic characters which give the feeling that they look at you. This is open to any visual domain – fine art, illustration, graphic art, urban art, animation and so on.

My partner Peter Thaler started the project in 1999. His background is animation but he stopped being an animator because he felt the way the work is organised is quite frustrating. So he just started to research charcter designs, not knowing what he was really looking for. That was the time the internet really started as we know it. We have to imagine an internet before Flickr, before any web 2.0, before any speedy conections or modems, back when you used the phone line.

There were no large photos on the internet and these little character gifs or icons were the things that could crawl through the internet qucikly. So that established a new aesthetic of visual illustration for character design. Characters were so popular around the turn of the century. The internet was new, the world was pre-9/11 and characters were the promise of the graphic esparanto – the dream of a world in which everyone speaks the same language. So that’s how things got started. It was a technological moment and it took off from there into other areas like urban art, graphic art, illustration and animation and so on.

Image Credit: Pictoplasma – Mark Gmehling (Speaker at Pictoplasma NYC 2012)

I joined Peter when he was doing the first book in 2003. My background is cultural studies and philosophy. One of the strongest influences for us became a theory in that domain known as ‘visual anthropology’ or ‘image anthropology’. The first picture we think we have is the drawing of a buffalo inside a cave wall. Well these guys said the first image we really have is the dead body. Ancient peoples classified dead and living and suddenly something living is dead and that causes such irritation. There’s a body lying there that was breathing and now isn’t and that opens up this other dimension that is not dead or alive but hybrid. From there dolls started the image making as memory of the alive.

We freed the characters from the flat surface, and whatever we did since then is an attempt to incorporate the characters into our world.

For us character design was so flat, shallow and superficial but the impression that these characters were alive was so strong. It seemed to us like a reversal of this discourse. We freed the characters from the flat surface, and whatever we did since then is an attempt to incorporate the characters into our world, to give them bodies and costumes. We started doing conferences and festivals and suddenly we were doing more than a reseach project.

Image Credit: Pictoplasma – Images from Berlin 2012 Conference

We started to do conferences, which was my influence from my academic bacground, but we weren’t putting on academic conferences and we weren’t doing design conferences. It wasn’t just agency people and it wasn’t a $1000 a ticket, so students or young illustrators could come.

From the very beginning we attracted a mix of creatives at different stages of their career, and producers and talent scouts and different media artist and animators and graphic artists. They all came together, that’s an incredible mix who aren’t actually used to meeting. We tried to subvert or hijack the idea of the conference.

We did a remix workshop for our first project. A visual culture workshop that didn’t have any computers – just sewing machines. And people would remix other peoples work, rip off eyes and re-sew buttons. We wanted to just go fishing and try things out and see what people were inspired by, which meant we could go onto other things.

Image Credit: Pictoplasma Berlin 2010

What is a good character? Or good character design?

It’s the classic question. They are very humble somehow. It’s hard to answer, but if you look at character design that is consistently very good, the characters aren’t actually loud or vulgar. Good characters are like an empty screen for you to project your longing on. They are like the first teddy bear you ever had as a little child, that connection you had with that teddy, where they give you peace and quietness.


Good characters are like an empty screen for you to project your longing on.

It’s funny because they’re so often used for advertising as the mascot that wants to sell you something. If you look, for example, at Hello Kitty which is such a merchandising machine – if you look at the actual aesthetics though, it’s reduced to essentials. I don’t think Hello Kitty even has a mouth!? She’s so humble and respectful. And it’s funny because she’s so successful and sells so much. She’s probably ruining families because they don’t understand their children anymore. But it is key to understanding the whole movement. It’s not Micky Mouse who’s so aggressive and hyperactive. It’s more quiet.

Image Credit: Pictoplasma – Buff Monster (Speaker at Pictoplasma NYC 2012)

What do you look for in characters? What stands out for you and what do you like?

It’s always changing. We’re always happy if we find the crisp graphical stuff that was around ten years ago, using geometric shapes. We like that. We’re also totally fascinated by more hybrid work which plays with imperfection and mixes different media in the same image. I hated those vinyl toys from ten years ago when they were the big thing, but now I quite appreciate them. If they’re too much like a caricature or a cartoon, like an image of Obama with a big nose, I don’t want to see that. But if it’s abstract, humble, modest – even if it is loud and distinct, but if it keeps that respect, it gains personality.

Image Credit: Pictoplasma – Fashion Net Night Party

How has technology, digital media and the evolution of the online world had an impact on Pictoplasma and character design?

I think people still have this weird euphoria about digital media. Just remember that a few years back ‘Second Life’ was the thing. And the idea in the late 80s and 90s of the ‘data glove’ – that you can somehow touch and feel through a technological device. I think it cooled down a little bit because we were left with something smaller and more specific, that wasn’t taking over our whole body. As the internet became global, it took away that longing to enter space of the virtual world. But it somehow made everything around us permanent. A hybrid space we navigate through and are somehow always located through it – like through our mobile phone.

Image Credit: Pictoplasma

It’s basically the idea of the ‘holy and the profane’, that somehow we exist in the ‘profane’ world which sucks, and we die and it’s terrible and it’s cold and we have diseases. And somehow we want to be liberated from that fate. So it always will be with us, but I think this technological utopia has somewhat cooled down, and we now look at what is more realistic.

The world is now completely mapped, mirrored, represented and then re-coded through technology. Our project on one hand is enthusiastic and conformist to digital culture because we totally love these characters that have lingered in digital culture. But we didn’t go into the trap of just adoring it. We gave it a twist. We always thought this digital character aesthetic is so cool but it shouldn’t be limited to digital culture and it’s relation to our body. So we invited you to join the characters in a virtual world.

Image Credit: Pictoplasma and Yves Geleyn

A huge thanks to Lars for taking time out to chat to Redbubble. There are still some tickets available for the Pictoplasma NYC Conference on November 2nd and 3rd, 2012. Speakers include Buff Monster, Julia Pott, Gemma Correll, Jason Freeny and more. For further info, visit the Pictoplasma website. And for those who can’t make it to New York or Berlin, head on over to Pictoplasma’s Vimeo and Youtube profiles for a glimpse at what Pictoplasma is all about.