The Story of Mascot Design

Come join me and discover an incredible story about mascot design. It’s a story that starts way back with our cave dwelling ancestors at the dawn of mankind.

That might surprise some people because many think mascots are a modern cultural event but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact our ancestors used primitive mascots as far back as prehistoric man living in caves and if you fast forward to the high energy performers of our present day and you’ll soon see that mascots have played a role in human culture the world over for thousands of years.  In many ways, the story of mascots is an interesting look at what it is to be human, ready to check it out? Let’s go!

The History of Mascots

The definition of a mascot includes “A person or thing that is supposed to bring good luck …” Now luck of course, is success or failure brought about by chance and naturally, humans worldwide used a variety of means, including embodying persons or things that would attempt to bring them good luck.  That being the case, then the earliest mascots have been in use to conjure all kinds of good luck as far back as our prehistoric cavemen ancestors.  These cultures would embody (or “mascot-ize”) animals and spirits of many kinds for many different reasons.  Common uses include bestowing good luck on big hunts and harvests or to encourage fertility among the tribe.

Early mascots were used in hunting and fertility ceremonies.

These early mascot designs were masked creatures that could be embodied with a mask and a costume and danced around during ceremonies and tribal events.   As far as we know, these designs ranged from simple constructions through to very elaborate costumes adorned with the most extravagant embellishments available at the time. Other times, the images of these mascots would be etched or drawn on rocks, cave walls or carved into wooden totem poles which were then erected as a sign of respect and again, so they would bestow their power and good fortune on the tribe.  You could say that even our prehistoric ancestors from tens of thousands of years ago understood that mascots had power to affect and influence, to rally tribal spirits and boost morale all in the aim of soliciting more luck, blessings and fortune.

Mascot Evolution

Tracing back through modern history, the word mascot has been traced to Provence and Gascony.  There it was used to describe any thing that brought luck to a household.  Like so many words in the English language, the word mascot has it’s roots in France.

Edmond Audran, writer of La Mascotte

In 1880 the word was popularized when a French composer by the name of Edmond Auduran wrote La Mascotte, a popular operetta at the time.  The word “Mascotte” had been in use in France long before as a slang term amongst gamblers; a sub-culture obsessed with the concept of luck.   His La Mascotte operetta was hugely successful and translated into English as, you guessed it; The Mascot. This introduced the word into the English language for any animal, person or object connected to bringing good luck.

From what we can tell, we start to see the physical beginnings of mascots as we know them today also in the 1800s.  Apparently these old time mascots were actual live animals associated with the teams they represented.  For example, if a team of athletes proudly wore a bear patch on their uniform then chances are there was an actual bear in tow somewhere not too far away.  The cost of maintaining live animals ultimately brought the keeping of live mascots to an end and gave birth to what we now know as mascot costumes.   Still, it wouldn’t be until the 1970s that mascots would turn pro er … amateur … er … both!

The Olympics Catches on.  First Mascot in 1972.

Olympic rings

You could say the IOC (International Olympic Committee) was somewhat slow to catch on to the benefits and power of mascots.  The organization as we know it was officially founded in 1894 yet it wasn’t until 1972 at the Munich games that the first Olympic mascot appeared in the form of Waldi; a multi-colored dachshund.   Although not the biggest, strongest or fastest dog breed, the dachshund was chosen due to his qualities of agility, tenacity, resistance and the fact that they embodies some of the distinctive history and culture unique to the host city Munich.

List of Olympic Mascots

1972 Munich Olympic Games Dog mascot Waldi
1976 Montreal Olympic Games Beaver mascot Amik
1980 Moscow Olympic Games Bear mascot Misha
1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games Eagle mascot Sam
1988 Seoul Olympic Games Tiger mascot Hodori
1992 Barcelona Olympic Games Cobi
1996 Atlanta Olympic Games Lizzy
2000 Sydney Olympic Games Kooabura, Platypus, Echidna Olly, Syd & Millie
2004 Athens Olympic Games Athena & Phevos
2008 Beijing Olympic Games Beibei, Jing Jing, Huanhaun, Yingying, Nini

You can see Waldi and all the Olympic mascots in this great little video.  It actually  shows all the Olympic Mascots from 1972.

Modern mascot design 101

Today mascots are designed to embody traits most desired by the organizations who create them.  Although not a hard and fast rule, sports team mascots are typically created to reflect strength, speed and a competitive spirit.  In sports we see mascot design that reflects these traits such as warriors or predatory animals such as eagles, large cats, bears and sharks.

Mascots are often designed from predatory animals

Again, this is not an absolute rule and many sports teams opt for cheeky, cute and fun mascots rather than characters exhibiting purely athletic qualities. For non-profit and corporate mascot designs we tend to see more approachable characters such as smaller (cute) animals, clowns and characters that completely made up to look as friendly as possible.

Inside the costume: mascot performers

Professional mascot performers are actors who take on the spirit of the mascot. It’s their job to give the mascot personality through movement that is relevant to the character they are playing.  For example, a mascot in a theme park needs to move in an inviting and friendly manner that is appealing to kids and families.

A performer can make or break a mascot.

Compare that to a mascot for a football team that is more likely to move in a faster and more aggressive manner and provide entertainment and antics.  It can’t be understated that in sports, a mascot performer can be crucial in getting the crowd into the game.  This is especially true if the mascots team is losing and the energy of the fans is low.  A great mascot coupled with a great performer can get the crowd back on its feet and the team back into the game.

Controversy for some older mascots

In the USA, there has been controversy over the choice of mascots that are based on Native American societies.  Some argue passionately it constitutes the exploitation of an oppressed culture and in order to take changing times into account, teams have gone as far as to rename their teams and mascots.  Back in 2005 the NCAA asked all teams to “self-evaluate and examine their teams for potentially offensive mascot choice”.

Are some mascots controversial?

The University of Iowa went so far as to refuse games with schools using Native American mascots.  A great case in point on the effect this had is Southeastern Oklahoma State University who changed their mascot from a Native American called “the Savage” to a superhero called “the Savage Storm”.  What to you think?  Are mascots using native American symbols, names and terms derogatory or are they respectful because they embody strength, speed and competitiveness?

Modern mascot design methods

Creating mascots always starts with the audience in mind.  A mascot designed for a target audience of kids need vastly different characteristics then a mascot for a football team.  Luckily, identifying the audience is a no-brainer for any organization so the real challenge lies in creating a mascot that will fit perfectly with what their audience wants and expects.  Typically ideas are brainstormed regarding creative considerations such as the species, attitude, size and shape of the mascot.

That’s fine for just a cartoon mascot , however if the mascot is to subsequently be turned into a wearable costume then technical factors need to be taken into account. These include: what kinds of climate will the costume will be worn in? Will the mascot be active or more of a mellow meet-and-greet type? Will the costume be for indoor or outdoor use etc?  These are all important factors because nobody wants some performer trying to do cartwheels in a hot shaggy costume on a sunny summer day in … Phoenix!  Taking all these broad ideas and considerations into account, the brainstorming for specifics can be evaluated.

mascot sketches

Mascot concepts sketched out and fine tuned to final mascot.

Organizations tend to enter the design process with (at the very least) their own rough ideas on what they need for a mascot.  These ideas are communicated to a mascot design company who employ professional artists to turn those ideas into concept sketches.  These cartoon-like sketches establish a foundation for discussion about what the character should and shouldn’t look like.   Nothing beats these visuals because they quickly and cost effectively allow elements of a design to be kept or eliminated.

The sketch phase is typically where a lot of exploring is conducted because making changes on paper with pencil is a much cheaper than editing a completed cartoon character or custom mascot costume.

Cartoon mascot designs

Examples of modern cartoon mascots (provided by FastCharacters.com)

Once the sketches are approved the artists will then transform the pencil artwork into fully rendered vector art.  That sounds geeky but what this essentially means is that the analog pencil drawing is scanned and digitized, turned into curves called “vectors” and then beautifully colored in.  The result is a cartoon mascot character much like you see representing sports teams, cereals and fast food joints everywhere.  During this stage of the design process, the client can safely experiment with different colors, textures and shading options to get the exact look and feel they want.

Mascot logo designs

Depending on the where and how the mascot will be deployed, the next step might be to incorporate the newly created character into a mascot logo design.  This is especially common for sports teams who want to fuse their mascot with a logotype treatment in order to come up with a cartoon logo to use for the branding of their team.

Mascot Logo

Example of a mascot logo design where the cartoon mascot and some typography are used together.

Put another way, this is a hybrid of a cartoon mascot with a customized typeface wrapped up in one tight package.  A lot of time and effort goes into these kinds of logos to make them look as good as they do.  Unlike a typical logo design project, the creation of a mascot logo involves both the development of a logo and a cartoon character and then integrating the two in a visually powerful manner.

Mascot costume manufacturing

The next and final step in a custom mascot design is having a physical costume created.  As previously mentioned, there are some very important considerations when it comes to manufacturing mascot costumes.   In order to choose the appropriate fabrics and materials, the first thing the designers need to know is what kind of climate the character costumes will be used in.  Hot and cold climates both place the performer under different stresses and the costume take this into account.

Fabric for mascot costumes

Different fabrics considered for mascot costumes

Secondly, the designers will need to know the height of the performer(s) intended for the costume as this will dictate the scale and size of the costume.  Another important concern is whether the suit will have an active performer inside.  Costumes which are intended for acrobatics are constructed using different materials and construction techniques then light duty meet-and-greet style characters.  For active mascot costumes, the materials need to be more flexible, durable and put together using industrial strength threads and stitches.  A professional mascot costume manufacturer will pay attention to these details and ensure the costume is not only comfortable for the performer, appealing to the audience but also durable enough to handle the rigors of constant activity.

Famous mascots

Many mascots have the proud distinction of having earned a special place in our hearts and minds.  They take up space in our memories whether we like it or not!  Some of the most famous food and beverage mascots include burger clown Ronald McDonald, Coca-Cola’s nameless polar bear and cereal purveyors Snap, Crackle and Pop.  Seriously, the sheer amount of corporate mascots that have invaded your brain space is astounding if you stop to think about it.  Here’s just a handful we can name that you will know for sure:

  • Tony the Tiger
  • Geico Gecko
  • The Burger King
  • Toucan Sam
  • Grimace
  • Hamburglar
  • the Quaker Oats guy
  • Capt’n’ Crunch
  • Jolly Green Giant.

Later than most people think, it wasn’t until the 70s that professional sports teams started adopting mascots.  Let’s take a look at some of the most famous in their respective sports.

The Famous Chicken

In 1974 the San Diego Padres adopted a mascot for their team they simply dubbed the “San Diego Chicken” and also known as “The Famous Chicken”.  This mascot was lively, energetic and tons of fun.  Sporting News selected the big yellow bird as on of the Top 100 Most Powerful People in Sports For The 20th Century” which puts this mascot in the same company as Babe Ruth, Muhammed Ali, Jesse Owens and Wayne Gretzky.  And the Famous Chicken will always hold the title of being the first ever professional sports mascot in US history.

Famous mascots: "The San Diego Chicken" AKA "The Famous Chicken"

Harvey the Hound

Not too far behind was Harvey the Hound, the first mascot to appear in the NHL.  This mascot is a white furry dog with a floppy red tongue has been getting the crowd going since 1983.   Over the years Harvey has had many a memorable moment but none more so than having his tongue yanked out of his mouth by an irate Edmonton Oiler coach.  Ouch!

Harvey the Hound Mascot

Phillie Phanatic

Another icon amongst professional sports teams icons is the big green “Phillie Phanatic” named aptly after the legions of fanatical Philadelphia Phillies followers.  Designed by a studio recommended by famous muppeteer Jim Henson who created a mascot costume design called the Phillie Phanatic.  Green, furry and cheeky, the Phanatic is only one of three mascots in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Phillie Phanatic

Naturally there are LOTS of professional sports mascots that have made their presence felt in professional stadiums but we can’t explore or give a nod to them all!  I mean, there’s only so much room on a web page you know?

Wrappin’ it all up

All in all, it’s fair to say that the presence and impact of mascots on human culture is understated and taken for granted.  From the dawn of man we have embodied our ourselves, our gods, angels, demons, enemies and adversaries in many different mascot forms.  Mascots have been with us from the very beginning and it’s the position of this writer that they will be with us until for a long time to come.

If you think I missed anything, made a mistake or anything … lets hear it in the comments.

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