Pokémon Sun and Moon and the Keys to Iconic Design

With the success and ubiquity of Pokémon Go coloring the summer of 2016, and the imminent release of Pokémon Sun and Moon, we're once again seeing the power of iconic design, and how it plays a role in the success of the franchise.

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We're no strangers to Pokémon. It feels like Nintendo's popular franchise has been around forever, even though it only dates back to the mid-nineties. Pokémon has that special tendency to be around even when it's not around. Whether it's Pokémon TCG tournaments at your local comic book store, new episodes of the ongoing Anime series, or something fun to watch on Youtube, such as the newly released mini-series Pokémon Generations, the franchise has a way of lingering in relevancy even when its been three years since the release of Pokémon X and Y, the games that kicked off the 6th Generation of the franchise. 

There are many factors that lend themselves to Pokémon's success, not least of which is the fact that the games are just plain fun. Despite this, Pokémon games over the years have been criticized for being too similar to one another. Anyone who has any sense knows that if something isn't broken, don't try and fix it. This is a rampant issue in the gaming industry today, which suffers from more unnecessary innovation than perhaps any other kind of media. Pokémon understands this, and so it rarely deviates from the expected. This is one of its clear strengths, regardless of the naysayers.

One strong bit of evidence for this are the bountiful and almost hilarious amounts of Pokémon hack games there are, most of which barely deviate from the gameplay and style of the official Nintendo releases. You have Pokémon Emerald, Glazed, Legendary Ashes, and the now infamous Zeta/Omnicron, just to name but a tiny few, all with their own art, story, and gimmicks, but nonetheless based on the tried and true Pokémon framework.

Legendary Ashes and Glazed

Legendary Ashes and Glazed

So we know the gameplay and concept is solid. Pokémon does what it does, naysayers and critics be damned. But what of the graphical elements? What is it about the creature designs that have stayed with us and have continued to populate Nintendo's world when they just as easily could have changed things up along the way?

I'll be the first one to say that some Pokémon designs are somewhat lackluster. The latter generations, especially, get harped on for what many consider to be poor designs, or outright bad ones. However, I would also beg to differ. Nothing's changed all that much as far as Pokémon designs go. For every ice cream cone and chandelier Pokémon, I can point out amorphous blobs and awkward ostriches from the first generation. This is part of what makes the Pokémon iconic in the first place. It's not that they are overly detailed or especially cool (well, some of them are. I'm looking at you Aggron!). It's that they are designed to be memorable.

Ever remember the design of a Pokémon but can't remember its name? With the influx of new Pokémon fans that came with the Pokémon Go craze, I noticed this quite a bit. You might not remember the name of that rock with the arms, but if you see it, you know what it is. That's the design of Pokémon in a nutshell. When you get deeper, you begin to associate what they do with what they look like, as well. It's all part of what makes the Pokémon world unique.

It is a mix of simplicity and use of archetypes that designers in general would do well to pay attention to. Pokémon doesn't pretend to be some graphical innovator. When dozens of high-end AAA games offer us a plethora of extremely realistic, detailed characters that are all as unremarkable and unmemorable as the next, Nintendo can still show us an electric mouse with red cheeks and more than half the world knows exactly what it is. How many other franchises can say that?

Why is this design style important? In one sense, it's surely a meal ticket for Nintendo. They've been making money off of Pikachu, Charmander, and all the rest for decades now. It's more than that though. This design style is how they relate to their audience.

The Pokémon we know and love are in effect tools of communication. This is the same philosophy used in other mediums, such as logo design. A logo does not need to be overly detailed or ingenious, otherwise it may be lost on people. Many of us could name dozens of Pokémon, but unless you are a hardcore gamer, most of us would be remiss to name even a half dozen characters from the current top-ten selling video games on the X-box One and Playstation 4, especially from games that haven't been released yet.

That's the genius of Pokémon Sun & Moon. The game is not even out yet but already Nintendo's new characters are drawing us in. Some of us have picked our "starter" Pokémon already (Team Rowlet!!), and we haven't even bought the game yet. How's that for marketing? It's all about iconic design. The simple yet effective characteristics of the Pokémon make each of them unique. The three new starter Pokémon in this generation are based on a cat, an owl, and a sea lion. There have already been cats, owls, and the closely-related seals in Pokémon, yet each of these designs will inevitably speak to different people.

An iconic design is one that can effectively communicate an idea. That's all there really is to it. Without knowing much about these new starter Pokémon, it is easy to infer what Nintendo was going for with their designs. By purposefully appealing to different archetype demographics, it automatically creates variety, excitement, and tension in the Pokémon community. 

There's three main components we can draw from this kind of design style:

  • Just Enough Detail
  • Color Association
  • Symbols and Patterns

These iconic principles are exactly what makes for an impressive, memorable logo, or brand packaging. I'll briefly touch on each point, because their each worth exploring as a basis for solid design.

 First, "Just Enough Detail" means just enough to effectively communicate the purpose of the design. There doesn't need to be a ton of pointless detail in order to make a character that people can connect to. In fact, usually the opposite is true. The more random spikes, claws, arms, ears, eyes, and wings that are thrown on a creature, the less likely it's going to connect with someone, because it ceases to be an archetype. The same holds true for a logo: a potential client is unlikely to feel anything toward a logo that is a mass of elements thrown on top of one another just 'cause. Think of the most iconic logos: Pepsi, McDonald's, Ford, Apple. These logos are all vastly different, but for the fact that they forgo pointless detail for the sake of memorable simplicity. Most of the Pokémon designs follow this same formula, which makes them easy to remember, and easy for the mind to associate with and relate to.

Next is the idea of Color Association, which is basically how the color scheme of a design relates to its purpose or message. Though we don't actively think about it, most good logos have some kind of reason behind why they are a certain color. A perfect example of this in Pokémon is how many are colored based on their element typing. Since many players have an affinity for certain types of Pokémon, such as Fire, Ice, or Fairy, the colors will communicate this idea to the player, automatically eliciting a response from them. Many fans of the series guessed that Litten's final form would be Fire / Dark simply because of its coloration, and they guessed right, even though there has never been a series starter with the Dark type before in the history of Pokémon. Color Association is a powerful tool that can communicate ideas to your clients before you even bring out a slogan or show them a product. Remember that.

Finally, we have the Symbols and Patterns used in Pokémon. Notice, for example, the markings on Litten, Rowlet, and Popplio above. The jagged whiskers and head markings of Litten infer flames, while the soft, round shapes of Rowlet give the impression of feathers and leaves. Even Popplio's frilled neck invokes the shape of waves. This is all fully intentional, though the casual observer might simply chock it up to cute design. A large amount of the Pokémon from every generation have these kinds of traits, because they form symbolic impressions that stick with us. If Pokémon were a game that featured highly realistic graphics, they wouldn't be able to get away with as much of this as they do, because there is less license for simple shapes and colors. Typically in such games, characters are remembered more for their place in a story or their acting, rather than pure design, and if the game fails to deliver on this point, well, we know how that turns out. Needless to say billions of people worldwide wouldn't be able to recognize said characters in any context whatsoever.

These same principles apply to all aspects of design, not just for cute cartoon video game characters. As much as Pokémon might be seen as having bland or even lazy design, nothing could be further from the truth. These characters have endured for a generation and there's no sign that they are stopping any time soon. If you're serious about design, you'll take what Pokémon does seriously, not just as a gaming phenomenon, but as an artistic monolith which has spawned hundreds of beautiful and powerful designs. The same elements that make a person fall in love with Pikachu can make a person embrace your logo or other corporate branding. It's not always about looking "professional" - that logo you has commissioned which you think looks professional and high quality might look stuffy and uninteresting to your clients. Have some levity in your design practices, and use the elements of iconic design to your advantage. I don't necessarily advocate that your logo feature a fire-breathing racoon or anything, but you get the point. It might make the difference between "just another design" and something that truly attracts people to your brand.

 

We're less than a week away from the release of Pokémon Sun & Moon. Find out more about the game by visiting the Official Pokémon Website.

- banner credit: Arkeis Pokemon | Download: http://arkeis-pokemon.deviantart.com/art/Wallpaper-Pokemon-Sun-Moon-Starters-608263591

- information and photo credit to serebii.net.

- Pokémon Fan Games: http://pokemonessentials.wikia.com/wiki/List_of_fangames

- Pokémon Glazed: http://pokemonglazed.com/

- Legendary Ashes: http://pokemonromhack.com/pokemon-legendary-ashes.html