Kikkoman Character Design

Recently I was hired by the good folks at Ketchum Communications to create a character for Kikkoman soy sauce. They were printing a brochure and wanted to include a fun cartoon mascot. They asked me to take a bottle of Kikkoman and add a face, an apron, and a chef’s hat.


It was the standard “take our product and add a face” method of character design. It’s a common approach to creating a mascot (i.e. the M&M’s guys, the Chips Ahoy cookie, the Kmart Blue Light guy, etc.) Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

At first glance this kind of assignment doesn’t give a character designer much to work with. The juicier jobs involve designing a character related to the product (i.e. Keebler Elves, Energizer Bunny, Serta Mattress Sheep, etc.), not the product itself. There is a lot more freedom to experiment visually. When the character is the product you are much more limited. An M&M has to look like an M&M, a light bulb has to look like a light bulb. If a character designer isn’t careful, such product-with-a-face characters risk appearing dull and unoriginal. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Sometimes the most creative ideas come from being forced to find a way around strict limitations. In art school we had a professor, Lyle Laske, who would give us seemingly impossible assignments with very tight restrictions: “Create a pleasing design using only a circle, two triangles, and a line. The circle has to be 2 inches in diameter and the triangles must both be 3 inches tall.” We would gripe and moan at such insane instructions, but as the semester wore on I saw students come up with amazingly clever solutions. Mr. Laske taught us to embrace the restrictions of an assignment and let it push you to think more creatively than you otherwise would. It was a valuable lesson.

I chose to look at the Kikkoman project as a similar challenge and enjoy it. I didn’t want to just slap a face on a bottle, I wanted to see if I could squeeze more out of it. It turned out to be a lot of fun.


(Images © copyright Kikkoman. All rights reserved.)

I did several rough sketches, trying to find a way to give a sense of personality to the face-on-a-bottle concept. I didn’t worry if the sketches looked polished or not. I just played around with the bottle shape, tried different hats, added a mustache, etc. I also made the bottle flex a bit so that I could add some energy to the poses.

(EDIT: Incidentally, the purpose of the brochure was to show that soy sauce isn’t just for chinese food but for all kinds of cooking. They wanted to get away from the perception of soy sauce = chinese. So the client requested I steer away from anything too Asian in the design.)


Besides the design itself there was another challenge: color. Soy Sauce is dark brown, almost black. If we had colored the bottle character to look like real soy sauce he would be so dark his facial expressions wouldn’t read. It was a head scratcher. Then I remembered the old Mrs. Butterworth’s commercials from the 1980’s, the ones with the talking bottle. Since maple syrup looks almost black in the bottle, they had the same problem. Their solution was to cheat it by lightening the color of the bottles in the commercials. So we did the same thing.



(Images © copyright Kikkoman. All rights reserved.)

Here’s the final result, inked and colored in Illustrator. Despite the limitations I think I succeeded in creating a fun, appealing character and I’m quite proud of him. It was a lot of fun and I’m grateful to the folks at Ketchum for the opportunity.