Add personality to your vehicle and mech designs

mech personality

Learn how to use fine details and decals to create unique mechanical designs.


Charles Guan
Charles Guan
Charles has worked for many clients from fashion, print, TV and film, but much of his regular work features in the video games industry. He is an expert in electromechanical design.

An easy way to add personality to any object is to paint unique details that tell stories, such as decals on a military vehicle. However, it’s important that such details are in keeping with the vehicle’s purpose.

I start with thumbnail sketches to generate ideas, before taking my favourite thumbnail into Photoshop to flesh out ideas, forms and the mechanics of the mech, all the while keeping the art relatively loose yet structurally sound.

Using the rough mech concept sketch with no decals, I make a sheet with some duplicate layers of the sketch to try out different decal ideas. Coming up with scenarios and a narrative for the mech drives the decal design process; I consider military, futuristic and sporting situations.

I then apply the decals with broad brushstrokes to test possible concepts. The broad stroke decals are mainly shapes to either completely cover up or break up the shapes on the outer panel surfaces. Shape design is the focus, complementing the decal shapes and their arrangements with the shapes that are already established in the mech concept sketch.  

When I’m happy with the shapes and arrangements of the decals, I add smaller decals for accents, scale, functionality and believability. When a design is ready to take to a final presentation, I revert back to my previous sketch to finalise and focus on fleshing out the mech design fully, before adding in the final decals at the very end.

adding personality to vehicles
Decals can help to describe a narrative for a design. It’s always fun to play with different themes by using shapes, colours and patterns.

Step-by-step: Designing a mech with details and decals in mind.


First, I sketch a final mech design. I’m only focusing on the forms and mechanics at this stage, prior to any decal applications. It’s much easier to handle the industrial design of the mech without having to paint and repaint decals.

From trying out some decal ideas in the roughs, I already know the theme and colour scheme I’m going for.

adding personality to vehicles


I create a layer mask for separating the mech from the background, to help retain my edges. The layer blend mode I’m using is Overlay, although Softlight, Color and Color Dodge can get some cool results.

I play with broad decal placements and shapes on the panel surfaces, following the contours to help the forms read and pop.

adding personality to vehicles


Finally, I apply smaller decals and accents. I try to balance their location and scale so that they work as a whole, especially when using accent colours.

I like researching, creating and using small informational decals to scatter around appropriate areas of the mech for functionality, believability and strengthening the narrative.

adding personality to vehicles


Play around with the base colour options. A good way to start exploring a variety of decals is by changing the base colour of the mech. By doing so, it inspires me to explore different colour schemes more often then not, and at times it can also trigger ideas for themes.

Charles' tutorial was featured in ImagineFX issue 76 as part of our Artist Q&A .

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