Just a brief introduction. 'The Design Annex' lessons were a series of observation-inspired design problems I put together for the now-defunct TeamGT board (in cold storage at The Design Annex, members were encouraged to post their ideas at TeamGT and may still be found there with a little research); Jason's kindly allowed me to continue posting new lessons here. The central focus of these lessons is to foster research and creativity in our work; the tools and techniques of the arts are now more available than ever in mankind's history, which is in my opinion a wonderful thing, but the theory behind challenging design remains as elusive as ever if not moreso. The result is that we seem to have a vast number of technically proficient artists in the professional and amateur markets who are capable of astounding works of style and technique, but unfortunately little of substance.
One of the more obvious examples of the afore-mentioned problem lies in the genre of creature design, particularly where aliens are concerned. One of the primary definitions of the word 'alien' is 'wholly different in nature; foreign; adverse; inconsistent'. . . it is remarkable to note that, despite this definition, most aliens in popular media are composed of wholly recognizable, even familiar, physical elements as well as distinctly human motivations. Science fiction film and television once had the excuse that the technology permitted little more than masks and animatronics, so aliens had to appear as little more than anthropomorphic animals or 'little green men'. . . and yet, now that we have the technology, its champion George Lucas gives us little more than giant fish, extremely toothy cats, misproportioned but distinctly humanoid forms, and insect men. These may be alien in the sense that they ostensibly come from other planets, but wholly different in nature? Foreign? Hardly.
Video games have never had this technological limitation, and yet the same problem is persistent: alien creatures remain the slaves of the biped or the slightly more exotic but no less familiar quadraped. Artists will often try to rattle this chain a bit with extra teeth or formidable spikes, but this is a tool of style over form and is in and of itself played out as a convention of design.
There are two culprits at fault here: an over-reliance on bilateral symmetry, and a lack of research. If we look at life on earth at a macro level, the most successful creatures in terms of volume and longevity of species are more likely to have radial symmetry or no symmetry at all. . . protozoans and amoebas, for instance, or at a more complex level, jellyfish and starfish. It is no surprise that these forms of life are generally considered most alien from our perspective. Wouldn't forms such as this, with their strange shapes, motions, and hidden senses, be a more mystifying and therefore more compelling alien than that man in the cat mask with a ray gun?
Second, science fiction authors (talented ones, at least) must by the nature of their craft do a mroe thorough job of research than than their artist counterparts, but we as designers could certainly take advantage of the tools they use when creating aliens. There is a generally accepted checklist, abridged here, that helps dictate essential forms and details that could breathe new life into the visual alien.
1) Where does the alien come from? A planet with high gravity dictates a stocky, compact form that must withstand intense pressure; conversely, a planet with low gravity gives rise to forms with willowy, elongated structure, or perhaps no structure at all. A hostile environment necessitates a tough hide, a peaceful one calls for little more than a pliable skin.
2) What is the basic composure of the alien? Is it carbon-based, which gives rise to a wide variety of active, adaptable forms, or silicate-based, where creatures may be more static, with less individual variety. Is it gaseous, perhaps, or pure energy, where the form is more likely to be amorphous?
3) How does the alien sense the world? Does it have echo-location or sonar instead of sight, or pyschic ability instead of hearing? Does it have three senses or eight senses? Every sense demands a critical organ that conveys that information to the alien, and offers an opportunity for a unique design.
4) How does the alien interact with the world? Does it have arms and hands to manipulate objects, or tentacles, or perhaps a carpet of fine cilia? Does it walk on two legs, or spin on three legs, or hop on one leg, or hover using gas bladders? Again, any form of motion demands organs to employ; the more unique the motion, the more creative the design may be.
So essentially, the lesson here is to create an alien that is truly alien. Please feel free to post your ideas and thoughts here, in either a page of loose sketches or a finished piece (or both!) as well as describe what your thoughts were in creating the forms that you choose. Try to avoid bilateral symmetry unless you have a idea that pushes the form to its limits, and if possible try to avoid the conventions of style that will clutter that form (random spikes, razor teeth, et cetera).
Good luck ;-)