spongebobevolution spongebobevolution

The Evolution of TV Cartoon Characters


To the average cartoon viewer, SpongeBob is SpongeBob and Bart Simpson is Bart Simpson, but cartoon connoisseurs recognize that characters evolve over the years, not just personality-wise but graphically. Buzzfeed, of all sites, has posted an interactive feature showing the design evolution of characters from The Simpsons, Doug, Rugrats, SpongeBob SquarePants and Hey Arnold!

I usually gravitate toward the earlier versions of characters when the design and animation are looser and haven’t been locked down through repetition. Below is a look at the Flintstones, not included in the Buzzfeed article, which also underwent significant streamlining during the show’s original run.

  • Roberto Severino

    That’s always the saddest part about a lot of TV cartoons, especially the more cartoony ones and the SpongeBob and Flintstones framegrabs are quite telling. I do think cartoons like Ed, Edd n Eddy even its change in the animation process managed to have some really cartoony animation throughout its entire run amazingly enough and not have as much of this problem.

    A lot of the ones I know of get stiffer, less inventive, blander and more sterile overtime and I’m really hoping that with all the progress that’s been made with programs like Toon Boom and more cartoons being animated in North America that maybe that problem will become less of an issue. I understand that cartoons change and evolve overtime, including in their design but sometimes, that change really isn’t for the better.

    • Jonathan Wilson

      It’s mostly to save time & money.

      • Roberto Severino

        I understand that in many cases but early H-B stuff was done dirt cheap so really no excuse there for the cartoons to get so blanderized overtime visually.

    • As a long-time fan of Spongebob Squarepants, as in the “this show is the only thing that I have from my childhood that I’ll love forever” kind of fan, I can tell you that the writing quality of Spongebob has gone waaay, waaay down after around Seasons 4 or 5. Defenders say that they’ve just shifted their writing to a lower age group, but if that’s true then I hope those kids are watching something else. It is GRATING to watch episodes like “The Frozen Faceoff.” I’ve discussed it so many times with friends that I’m surprised it isn’t more common discussion around here, but again, I guess we just grew up with it. (One of the only things our current generation of nerds has separate from the previous one is Spongebob.)

  • I think it depends on the shows how they evolve their designs. Like most of them, they have no full idea of what the full rules were for the designs, but as they have progressed, the demands and quality tightens over time.

    I do enjoy the earlier stuff, as you mentioned Amid, when it was loose and not so tied down, not just with the outlines…but with the colors. The colors went too digital to where they didn’t keep the color schemes consistent to the earlier styles (which I really missed). I do like some of the progressions though, like the Simpsons and the Flintstones…but others I don’t like as much. Like Family Guy – I felt that its progression was to show how limited their animation could be (some others follow that model too).

    • Ryoku240

      The trouble with sorta loose cartoons is that they aren’t always consistent, so to some non-cartoon buff viewers it can look “amateur” and turn them off.

      Its interesting how back in the “Golden Age” designs generally got better as animators worked on them, streamlining Donald Ducks eyes, giving Bugs a more appealing look, doing frankly wonders with Woody Woodpecker after his ugly first design,

      Even then a few of those 90’s cartoons got a little better, some stiffer, if anything its good that they’d change things up visually. It can get boring drawing the same things for so long.

  • Brown 25

    The difference between watching animation and watching model sheets.

  • Alex Dudley

    It’s a shame that this seems to be the fate of all cartoons that if they run long enough, their animation and designs just get more stiff.
    Ed, Edd, Eddy, like Roberto mentioned, is the only cartoon I can think of where the animation actually improved and got cartoonier over time.

    • Debergerack

      cough toons these days cough

  • May1979

    That’s funny but I actually like the later Flintstones. They had more definition and smoother, rounded out appearance. But this doesn’t always work out. To my mind, Hanna-Barbera’s early Tom & Jerry looked far better than in subsequent years when awards, popularity and bigger budgets allowed them to “improve” their dynamic duo. Same with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. That raw, gritty appearance carried a certain charm. Rather than cute, they had an element of looking like the animals they were supposed to be–but, with personality. It seems to me only the Flintstones made the better transition. But that’s just my 2 cents.

  • Kirby

    Sadly enough I see this now with adventure time. Less expressive as season one. Though their good writing has somewhat remained!

    The Simpsons are infamous for both the personality and physical changes. There’s a phase the fans call “Jerk ass homer” when he underwent ‘flanderization’.

    • Josh Moore

      We should include Regular Show and the Amazing World of Gumball too. Regular Show’s first 2 seasons had more fluid character designs with slightly bolder outlines compared to the more cleaner/stiffer look in the newer ones. As for Gumball, it was the crew’s decision to change the character designs to be more simpler with Season 2 and so on because they would be easier to animate. You could tell why they chose to do this because Season 1’s designs, even they were more wilder and more expressive, had some visible animation errors for them (for example, a lot of the characters eyebrows disappear every now and then).

  • Mister Twister


  • OdysseyTag

    Wonderful article which provides a great amount of nostalgia. One thing I picked up on and was really impressed by were the little details which got carried through the lifespan of those characters. Little things like Marge and Lisa having 4 eyelashes on each eyelid while Maggie has 3, Tommy having 2 dots at either end of his head from front view and things like that. It’s warming to know that animators in most cases look back at the original character templates although there are a few examples where the liberty of “artistic licence” was used.

  • Kyle_Maloney

    I knew Spongebob was looking particularly off model in the hand drawn portion of his new trailer but couldn’t put a finger on it until seeing them side by side like this. Wow, what a change. And not for the better.

    The Flintstones however got better if you ask me.

  • This is an interesting topic. You should go more in depth about it.

  • Josh Moore

    A comparison of the Fairly OddParents character designs should had been included too. The Oh Yeah! Cartoon shorts had some really scary designs compared to the newer ones. Also Timmy’s parents had no seen faces as well.

  • Ben

    They seriously couldn’t find an old pic of maggie better then her wearing her starfish jumpsuit that covers most of her head?

    • They appear to only use that Christmas episode as it was the first episode of the show. Any first season episode would do, though I would’ve went with the Tracey Ullman shows myself.

  • Ryoku240

    Imo his first redesign was the best, basically a streamlined version of the ugly first one. After that Woody got blander largely from lowering budgets.

  • TStevens

    I heard Matt Groening speak at a festival back in the nineties and he mentioned that there were no model sheets at all in the earliest days – they were basically looking over each other’s shoulder to figure it out. When it became its own show I think Dan Haskett was the one who created the first defined model pack. Unfortunately, because of overseas production, things have to be spelled out on the models. Things like the exact placement of Lisa’s spikes on her head becomes scientific for consistency.

    • Ryoku240

      Thank you for the info, sounds like it was a matter of increasing efficiency and reducing confusion in the work place, and most watchers won’t mind the different animation.

      I do like how the series has experimented a bit more with animation, with John Ks bizarre opening and the recent LEGO episode. Credit for trying to appeal to animation buffs in another way.

      I just wish that the writing was a little better, there are times when the dialogue for the jokes has to make the gag a bit too clear.

      • VariousVarieties

        The fan-website Dead Homer Society has published a few blog posts comparing the animation in old and new Simpsons episodes. On the page linked below, scroll down to the analysis of Homer Goes to College, followed by the comparison of old and recent versions of what Mr Burns looks like naked:


        • Ryoku240

          Checking that site out now, thank you for sharing it!

  • No to mention the TV-grade animation in the first film, I thought Total TV worked on it!

    Of course their first appearance in the comics was also quite rough as well.

  • Funkybat

    The first couple of seasons of The SImpsons were indeed fun with the rough-and-tumble character designs and gonzo animation, but I would say the third-sixth seasons is really the sweet spot. That’s after they finalized the models into something more standardized, but still had pretty loose animation and expressions. They looks a bit too streamlines in the late 90s-era, and post-2006 (post theatrical movie) they got incredibly rigid and lost a lot of life.

    Some revision is needed sometimes, first and second season Simpsons and same seasons of Family Guy were really kind of amateurish and ugly, but they had a certain charm. The tightening of the models helped Family Guy, but hurt the Simpsons after a certain point.

  • MagcargoMan

    New SpongeBob looks bland, but I kinda like how he looked in Season 2/3 compared to Season 1. It was modernised, but it didn’t look “dumbed down” like current Spongey is.

  • Marc Hendry

    Basically- the poses stiffen, the colours get more saturated(except for doug which seems to have gotten washed out), and any kind of texture is eliminated

  • Marc Hendry

    Basically- the poses stiffen, the colours get more saturated(except for doug which seems to have gotten washed out), and any kind of texture is eliminated