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Tutorials to Becoming the Best Level Designer and Game Environment Artist (since 2008)

Silhouette Design Game Environments

Category: Environment Art
August 26, 2010

How to Create Unique, Appealing and Memorable Environments with Strong Silhouette.

Silhouette is a drawing of the outline of an object; filled in with some uniform color, usually black.

Second part of the tutorial:6 Steps to Silhouette Environment Design

Silhouette design is very powerful way of designing characters, props, and environments. It is great way to make your designs to have strong shape, memorable visual appeal and to stand out from the rest.

Designing your environments in silhouette makes you focus on shapes, form, and visual appeal. You don't need to worry about perspective, details, color or line quality. It's about letting your creativity and imagination flow.

Designing with silhouettes is very common when creating characters. TF2 silhouette character designs are a great example of this. Simply by looking at the silhouettes, you know exactly who they are without having to see any detail. You are able to recognize a character across the map simply by seeing their silhouette.

As game environment artists and level designers we can use the same powerful techniques and begin designing game environments using silhouettes.

Beginning with silhouettes will eliminate your environments being generic. Designs with recognizable and strong silhouette will be visually more memorable, and appealing from the silhouettes that are not.

Keys to a silhouette design are:

  • Strong Shapes
  • Memorable
  • Recognizable
  • Quick read from a distance
  • Pops out from the rest
  • Appealing
  • Original
  • Unique

It is all about the first quick read. Strong and appealing silhouetted designs are able to stand-alone and when they become a part of the rest of an environment it will be more recognizable and appealing.

When I worked on designing my character for animation, I was taught to start with silhouettes. I would work with golden poses, which are story-telling poses in animation. Each pose had to tell a story. There was no movement, only silhouetted character posed to tell a story. I would then apply the same principle when posing in Maya. I would turn the lights off in Maya, and get rid of my background. All I could see was silhouetted character going from pose to pose. If the story telling poses were strong simply by looking at the silhouette, then everything else after would only strengthen the performance.

You can see the same principles being applied in L4D1/2. The characters have to be recognizable from a distance and in the dark. Since most of the game takes place in low-lit environments, the characters have to pop out and players on your team have to recognize the characters from infected.

TF2 is another great example. The lists of games that have strong, memorable and appealing shapes are numerous.

Here are the silhouetted environments that I quickly filled in with black.

Below are just examples. I don't know if designers used the silhouette method to create these environments. But strong shapes, form and visual appeal of the final designs are apparent. Whether these choices were deliberate or not, the designers knew about having strong shapes, unique forms and quick reads that come from having a strong memoriable silhouette.


DreamFall: The Longest Journey:

Fable 2:

If we compare that to building from a photo filled it in with black. It serves a function in a realistic design, but it is rather dull and uninteresting.

If we simply push a few areas, bend the roof and add tiny overlapping shapes, then it becomes more interesting to look at. Your mind begins to fill in the gaps of what the shapes could be.

How to Design Your Environments with Strong Silhouette?

The beginning of silhouette design should be very loose.

Think of abstract shapes. Strong shapes. Grouping of masses.

Pay attention to quick reads. Major to minor shapes.

Make sure that your silhouettes have large shape, medium shape and small detail shapes. 1-2-3.

Remember that no matter how stylized your environment is or how realistic, same principles still apply.

Realistic environments require more attention to proportion and authenticity to real life environments.

Stylistic environments, you can push the design and play with proportions, exaggeration and shape variations.

Iterate and push your designs. You can simply fill in an object or a building with black and duplicate it dozens of times. From there begin to push each silhouette to various areas in design. Spend few minutes on each and move on the second one. Push it in a different direction then the previous one.

I will show you how to do this in the next tutorial.

Don't worry about what each shape is or could be. You can figure that out later. Pay attention to shapes visual appeal. Constantly ask the question, Does this stand out? Does it pop from the page? Is it strong? Is it appealing? Is it interesting to look at? If the silhouette without any detail is interesting to look at and very appealing, then you know you are on the right track.

Focus on the silhouette and its shape. Do not add any details into the silhouette. Let your imagination fill in the rest of the design for the interior of the silhouette. Once you have a strong and appealing silhouette, you can begin to add interior detail and explore its design further.

What to do now?

  • Pick a few of your current environments. It could be a building, a prop or a landscape. Take a screenshot of it and open it in Phosothop or Painter. Fill it in with black. Duplicate it dozen of times and begin to push your designs in various directions.
  • You can also choose a photo of an environment and start from there.
  • Work on this for about an hour. Have about 10 silhouettes.
  • Take break. Come back and choose 3 best designs. You can either choose the best one yourself or post it on the forums and ask for feedback. Get new set of eyes on the silhouettes.
  • Choose the best one and fill in with detail.

Next Recommended Tutorial:

6 Steps to Basics of Silhouette Environment Design


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About World of Level Design

My name is AlexG. I am self-taught level designer, game environment artist and the creator of World of Level Design.com. I've learned everything I know from personal experimentation and decades of being around various online communities of fellow environment artist and level designers. On World of Level Design you will find tutorials to make you become the best level designer and game environment artist.

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