Art Direction: Fighting Mech
Importance Of A Visual Hook
By Neil Blevins
Created On: Jan 28th 2022
Updated On: Apr 9th 2022
As a designer, it's important to use visual hooks, which are a set of
rules that define a unique look, a look that makes your design stand
out from the rest of the crowd. For a junior designer, this may be applied to a
single design, or as a more senior designer, a visual hook may be
something that needs to be applied to an entire alien race, or even an
entire IP or Franchise. This lesson will illustrate what a visual hook is, and how
important it is. And to prove the point, I'll be analyzing the visual
hooks from 19 of my favorite fighting mech
You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in
the video below, or read the full text.
Examples Of Visual Hooks
So lets start simple, a visual hook for a single design. Let's say
you're making a character, and that character has a
ridiculously huge sword, that can be the visual hook for that
If someone asks "what
does this character look like", the other person would say "He's the
guy with the giant sword", and now you know you've done your job as a
because the audience can easily identify that character from the other
characters in a single sentence. And hopefully that visual hook can
also say something about the role or personality of that character, but
that's a topic for a different time.
If working on an environment, a visual hook could be an architecture
example, all of the pieces of a building have triangular shapes. Or the
visual hook could be a material, like everything is made with white
marble with black marble accents. Think of Star Wars, Tatooine's main
visual hook is it's a desert planet. Hoth's main visual hook is it's a
Now let's get more complex, and define an entire group or alien species
with a visual hook. The simplest is something like "all the bad guys
Or "all the bad guys shoot red lasers". In the videogame Destiny, there
are a number of alien species you deal with, the Cabal, the Fallen, the
Hive, and the Vex. Each of these species have their own set of visual
hooks that make it easy to tell one from the other.
The Cabal are like
rhinos, everything is fat and bulky. The Fallen are skinny and
frequently have 4
The Hive are white, skeleton zombies. The Vex are covered with golden
metallic armor, have a single glowing eye, and have big fan heads. So
even though each alien race
may have 5 or 6 different types of combatants, each with their own
flavor, you can always tell any member of the Vex because they all
share the same visual hook.
A visual hook can also happen at the IP level. While different races
and planets in Star Wars have distinct looks, all of the stuff in Star
Wars have common visual hooks. Like all of the spacecraft show wear
and damage, and follow a similar philosophy of paneling and greebling.
All lasers coming from weapons
have a similar look. In this case, there are even audio hooks, like all
lasers have a similar sound when firing. That sound really helps define
Star Wars from other space operas.
So visual hooks can happen at many different levels, and are used to
make a individual, group or universe unique.
So now lets get into the meat of the discussion. We've had giant
fighting mech IPs around for 50 years, appearing on TV, films,
videogames, books and comics. Stuff like Battletech, Macross, Gundam,
and Mazinger. Most of these IPs have distinctive visual
hooks to help them stand out from other similar franchises, so I'm
going to go through a number of examples, point out their visual hooks,
and in doing so, it may inspire you when it comes time to give your own
projects a distinctive visual hook.
The first series of Transformers toys borrowed heavily from
toylines in Japan, so it wasn't really until the second series that the
transformers visual hooks became common. But here are a number of
attributes that the Transformers shared...
- They tend to
have strong saturated colors.
- They tend to have very square blocky
arms and legs
- They have similar eyes, either 2 glowing human shaped eyes, or
else a single lens like a pair of sunglasses.
- They either have lips or else a mask that hides their lips.
- And of
course, a big visual hook, as well as thematic hook, they all transform
into other things, mostly vehicles. And so in robot form they have
elements of their vehicle
attached such as tires or wings.
The Gobots came out slightly before the Transformers, the two
franchises have many similarities but a few differences.
- One of their biggest design differences was their simplicity.
Many of their arms didn't bend at the elbow in their toy form. Instead
of 10 or more
steps to transform them, they would transform in 2-3 steps.
- Most of them were also smaller than their Transformers cousins.
When Michael Bay did his version of the Transformers, many of the
visual rules that defined the Transformers toys, comic and TV show were
thrown out the window.
- The number one difference, silhouette complexity. While the
original Transformers were boxy and had some simple shapes, the
Bayformers were hyper complex, no more boxes, just tons and tons of
smaller details everywhere. Regardless of how you feel about these
designs, you have to admit they are unique looking and pretty easily
recognizable as a Bayformer.
Neon Genesis Evangelion
For the Evangelion robots, a tremendously popular anime from the 90s, a
very different aesthetic.
- The main visual hook is they are all very
tall and thin, almost anemic.
- They also tend to hunched backs. Many have items on their
shoulders that make their shoulders taller than their heads.
- They have very bright saturated primary colors.
- The bad guy robots in
this series, the "angels", have far more variety in shape, although
even they tend to all have a giant red orb somewhere on or in their
body as a way to define them as a group.
Five Star Stories
These mechs were designed by Mamoru Nagano, and have a very distinct
- In general his mechs seem like a cross
between a knight and a ballet dancer.
- They tend to have very thick
shoulders, and their waists are ridiculously skinny
- The symbols and logo designs feel very medieval
- They all have helmets with visors.
- They carry long swords or lances and many have shields.
These mechs were designed by Japanese artist and sculptor Kow Yokoyama
- These mechs have a distinct world war 2 tank feel to them.
- Their colors
are all pretty muted, either green camo, whitish grey or sand colored.
- Their cockpits have this big bubble feel to
them, frequently without any eyeholes. This makes the mechs very top
heavy, like they might fall over.
Mazinger / Grendizer
The good guy mechs of Go Nagai all have much in common.
The bad guy robots also share a lot of
- They tend to have
a similar color scheme, black, red and blue and white with yellow
colors are bright and saturated.
- Their arms and legs are simple
- They all have horns
- They have similar cylindrical arms.
- But they also look like
- And also have faces that frequently look like
tribal animals masks from Japan or Africa.
- In Grendizer, all of the
bad robots transform from a flying saucer, so they all have some sort
of saucer element to them.
A more recent mech franchise, owing a lot to the mechs that have come
before. I almost didn't include this franchise as its visual hooks are
more subtle, but there's a story reason for that, and story should
always trump design.
- These mechs have a variety of visual hooks unique to each mech,
for example, Cherno Alpha has a giant reactor for a head. Crimson
Typhoon has 3
arms and is bright red. And Gypsy Danger is the most humanoid of the
- Since in the story each mech was created by a different country,
having variety in each mech and not making them all look too similar is
a story point.
- But even with such variety, there are still some things that
define the Pacific Rim look. First the details, they all have a similar
look to their paneling and drips and wear.
- They are pretty much all
bright saturated colors.
- They all contain multiple pilots in a control room that's pretty
similar, so the insides of the mech are actually the more consistent
These mech again have unique looks to define each combatant, but they
do share some common DNA. They are also loosely based on a toy from the
60s called Rock 'Em
Sock 'Em Robots.
- They are all quite rounded on the arms and legs.
- They are all pretty humanoid in shape
- And most importantly, since
they're all boxers, their main visual hook is they all have big robotic
equivalent of boxing gloves.
The first Battletech mechs were actually taken from a number of
existing japanese mechs such as Macross. But later Battletech games
came into their own design wise.
- Battletech mechs tend to be more
square and blocky in shape.
- They also tend to have giant weapons that
replace their arms, or are mounted near their arms.
- Many of them have prominent cockpits, like they're giant vehicles
almost more than mechs.
- Many but not all have digigrade legs, so they look a little like
The mechs of Makoto Kobayashi, when he isn't contributing to works such
as Gundam or Battleship Yamato, all have many similar
- The overall shapes of the
mechs tend to have a slightly melted feel, they aren't square, but they
aren't round, they feel like medieval cast iron pots
- Exposed piping is a common theme, especially in joint areas
- Also very tiny
heads compared to body size is a common attribute.
Giant Killer Robots
This IP from Weta Workshop is for a table top game.
- They have strong primary colors.
- The mechs all have limbs that are flat rectangles.
- The arms and legs have flat panels that have some sort of logo or
- They heads all tend to be very inhuman like.
This 80s IP is actually seeing a bit of a resurgence these days.
- First obvious visual hook is that all the mechs are based on
- Second, they looks sort of like dinosaur bones that armor plates
have been attached to
- Third, they all have similar colors, with heavy use of chrome
- And they also have these little cylindrical plugs on all of the
Warhammer's space IP has been around for years, and while there's more
focus on the space marines, there's also some mechs in there.
- Most of the mechs have exposed rivets, like you're attaching
giant sheets of metal together in the fastest way possible.
- They look a little like medieval
- They all have eagle crests and similar insignias on them
- They have a hunched back, where the head isn't to highest part of
Iron Harvest is from a diesel punk videogame based on artwork by Jakub
- The robots all tend to have skinny legs and arms and fat bodies
- They are made up of metal that wouldn't be out of place on old
steam locomotives, including exposed rivets
- Lots of exposed piping and greebles that wouldn't be out of place
in an old boiler room.
- Lots of rust and patina
Big-O is another japanese anime, a more recent one this time.
- The robot's arms tend to be big cylinders that are attached to
the body at the midpoint, instead of trying to replicate a human arm
where the upper arm is attached to the top part of the lower arm.
- They have a number of similar details, such as segmented bellies.
Similar style feet. Similar sized upper legs. And oversized hands.
Horizon Zero Dawn
While not a mech IP exactly, Horizon Zero Dawn's robots all have a very
- First, they're based on animals or dinosaurs.
- Next, they are heavily segmented, with lots and lots of visual
- Unlike the Bayformers, the visual detail tends to remain inside a
simpler silhouette, rather than breaking the silhouette.
- They're materials are a combination of metal and other advanced
materials like carbon fiber.
- They have glowing elements inside the robot bodies.
Zone Of The Enders
Another japanese mech IP that has appeared in TV shows and videogames,
I'm not as familiar with this property but I see it show up a lot...
- The mechs tend to wear motorcycle type helmets
- They tend not to have feet, but their legs end in a sharp shape
(I believe this is due to the fact they are in space, no need for feet
there's nothing to stand on)
- They tend to have wings, frequently made up of multiple floating
- They have long protruding appendages from their lower belly.
So now we've looked at many Mech IPs, and seen the various
details and hooks they use to be recognizable. Any mech has certain
things in common, but beyond that they all have elements to make them
So the next time you design a mech, before your first pen mark on the
paper, what will be the mech's visual hook. A shape? A historical
period? A pattern? A certain type of weapon?
Or maybe draw a bunch of really rough mechs, see if any major element
speaks to you, and if it does, start basing a whole mech army using
variations of that element.
And of course, as shown earlier, this type of thinking doesn't only
apply to mechs, but any sort of design. Having a strong visual hook is
THE thing that will bring attention to your idea, and make it stand
above the rest. So next time you're designing a character, an
environment, or a whole IP, keep its visual hook in mind. Your work
will be much
stronger for it.