Using Shapes & Patterns To Define A Fictional Species
By Neil Blevins
Created On: May 4th 2022

When working on a Scifi or Fantasy project, and you need to create a new species that feels coherent and believable, the first stage I usually go to is to define the species Shape Language, Patterns and Symbols. From there, so many other design choices just fall into place, and the final results tend to be more consistent. So this lesson is a discussion of one of my latest environmental concepts, and showing how Shapes, Patterns and Symbols were used to define and strengthen the story and design of this species.

You have two choices with this lesson, watch me discuss the issue in the video below, or read the full text.

So first off a little explanation of the project. I can't give you too many details yet, but a few years ago I was approached by a friend to help with with making some images for a project that combines technology/scifi with the baroque. For those who don't know, the Baroque is a style of European architecture, music, and art of the 17th and 18th centuries and is characterized by ornate detail. Here's an example of some Baroque furniture:

As a fan of the 1984 Dune film aesthetic & artists like Juan Gimenez, I jumped at the chance to work on the project, & started developing this alien species called the Venrusi.

Beyond purely the baroque, I decided to also incorporate some elements of other art movements, such as some art deco, and a touch of Southeast Asian architecture (places like Thailand and Myanmar). This provided me with a number of design elements:
Here's the finished architectural concept of a palace.

So those design decisions got me started, but now its was time to go deeper, and to get that richness I needed the shape language of the species, or what are the most common shapes that will make up the species architecture, furniture, even patterns on clothing. An example I have used before is the dwarves in the Lord Of The Rings films. The design motif and shape language for the dwarves were diamonds, triangles and angular gem shapes. Not only did those shapes represent the gems the dwarves mined from the ground, but it also represented their physical bodies, they were short, wide, stout, and immovable from the ground (like the pyramids with their solid triangular base). Knocking a dwarf off their feet is tough, and so are these shapes.

So after some thought and some random sketching, I settled on the following shapes that would occur again and again in the Venrusi design aesthetic.

There would be 5 main shapes in the Venrusi vocabulary, the Star, the Pill, the Spindle, the Flower, and Ribs.

Of these 5 I decided the star would be the most prominent. But why? Frequently when creating a species you'd write a backstory and then find shapes that solidify that back story. In this case, I hadn't worked out an entire backstory yet, which gave a chance for the art to influence the story. So I decided that while the alien planet has a sun at about the same distance as our own, they also have a neighboring star system that is far closer than our own neighboring system, and so they have a rather large star in their sky. It shines so brightly, it’s easily seen during the day and night. In ancient times, the star was worshipped, and so many of the planet’s symbology revolves around this star. Art solidifying the story solidifying the art.

The 2nd most important core shape would be the flower, since organic shapes do help sell that baroque feel. But that choice also helps define the planet. If the planet were a desert planet, or a planet made of jello, then there would be no reason to see flowers or leaves in the architecture, it wouldn't make any sense. So by including the flower as a core shape, I am basically saying there must also be flowers on the planet.

Next came patterns. While I wanted patterns that gave that baroque feel of intricate detail, what would the elements be that made up that detail? Or in other way, from far it should look like baroque detailing, but close up that detail could look different than standard baroque detail. I decided to stick with some of the plant and flower motifs, but then added to that some patterns based on the star.

Also notice the ribs here as well. Ribs are a nice repeating pattern in nature (like the rib cage of an animal), and so that form is a favorite of mine for long repeating patterns. But I avoid the exact same element repeated to infinity, I'll usually do a repeated element say 3-10 times, and then add a different element to break up the pattern a bit. Like for example, look at the 3rd from the bottom, a whole bunch of dots, but then some larger shapes at the beginning and end.

Next is the Symbols and Logos. These are slightly different from patterns, patterns are shapes that repeat again and again. These would appear as singles, like say on a flag or a door. Again focused on the stars and flowers.

Then I decided the image needed some language for signs and such. Since it's an alien species, written english or even something like ancient roman numerals wouldn't make sense, so I started building up a character set for the Venrusi. I decided to base it on twisty vines. That works with the flower core shape, and also helped define the type of vegetation that would exist on the planet. If I pursue this further, I may make the language into an actual working font.

So now back to the environmental concept. This was my flow...
So it wasn't a linear thing (and rarely is in the early stages of concept), I didn't define a shape language then paint a painting, I defined some shapes, did some rough painting, refined my shape language, then finished off the painting. For future paintings I'd more likely not do much more inventing, instead I'd stick with the direction I've defined. But since this was a first painting, I could have more fun inventing and adapting to come up with that good mix of shapes and story.

Here's my painting again, the red outlines show places I've used the shape language, patterns and symbols.

So hopefully this shows you how you can take some key shapes and use them to create a visual language when you want to invent your own alien species. I think following this process will help you create more believable designs, as well as coherent designs, whether it's for a film, a videogame, or even books / rpgs. So give the technique a try next time you're exploring a new scifi or fantasy world!

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