Art Direction: Fighting Mech Analysis: The 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 franchises.

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 character.



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 designer, 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 theme. For 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 snow planet.



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 wear black". 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 arms. 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.

Giant Mechs

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.

Transformers

The first series of Transformers toys borrowed heavily from pre-existing toylines in Japan, so it wasn't really until the second series that the unified transformers visual hooks became common. But here are a number of attributes that the Transformers shared...


Gobots


The Gobots came out slightly before the Transformers, the two franchises have many similarities but a few differences.


Bayformers


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.


Neon Genesis Evangelion


For the Evangelion robots, a tremendously popular anime from the 90s, a very different aesthetic.


Five Star Stories


These mechs were designed by Mamoru Nagano, and have a very distinct visual style.


Maschinen Krieger


These mechs were designed by Japanese artist and sculptor Kow Yokoyama


Mazinger / Grendizer


The good guy mechs of Go Nagai all have much in common.
The bad guy robots also share a lot of common DNA




Pacific Rim


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.


Real Steel


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.

Battletech


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.


Hyper Weapon


The mechs of Makoto Kobayashi, when he isn't contributing to works such as Gundam or Battleship Yamato, all have many similar attributes.


Giant Killer Robots


This IP from Weta Workshop is for a table top game.


Zoids


This 80s IP is actually seeing a bit of a resurgence these days.


Warhammer 40k


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.


Iron Harvest


Iron Harvest is from a diesel punk videogame based on artwork by Jakub Różalski.


Big-O


Big-O is another japanese anime, a more recent one this time.


Horizon Zero Dawn


While not a mech IP exactly, Horizon Zero Dawn's robots all have a very distinctive look.


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...


Conclusion


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 stand apart.

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.


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