Fake animals cause real empathy

William Hellberg Yanci BA

Illustrations for analyzing development of empathy of humans towards animals.

What factors lead humans to develop early in life a pro-social behavior outside their natural order? Within this project, we investigates these ideas in a series of illustrations depicting “fantasy animals”. These animals were developed aiming towards visually elaborating the major morphologies in nature, and combining them into mostly new depictions of life.

Karin Seiler

Cooperation Partner
Prof. Dr. Katja Liebal
Human Biology & Primate Cognition
Life Sciences, Institute of
Biology Leipzig University

The foundations of our persona develop throughout our younger years, eventually becoming part of our individual identities in later stages of our lifes. These thematics are just a few that the fields of anthropology and psychology must expand upon, and remain a contentious field of research. Understanding these fields are vital for us to understand how grown adults develop their sense of perception, molded as a product of their environment and circumstances. Such as in the development of this research and the field of anthropozoology, we can learn how our perception can change based of the different roles animals that play a in our everyday life.

In cooperation with the project “Children and Nature”, I try to better understand how the social, geographical and economic circumstances, may play a role shaping our cognition and empathy towards animals. My role within the project has been to develop the illustrations of fantasy creatures that will be used within a series of interviews, meant to understand the different perceptions based on the design of animals that children have never seen before. And with this you can also participate and discover; “What do you learn when observing an fake creature?”

01 Fantasy Animals

02 Starting Point

Research questions:

“How do we create neutral depictions of fantasy animals; in order to study how children create empathy towards existing animals?”

“What are the most optimal designs meant to address human emotional responses?”

  What was asked:
  • Neutral drawings of non-existing fantasy animals.
  • Manipulate the different dimensions (familiarity, similarity and usefulness); and 
how they impact childrens empathy and attitude.
  • Images must be composed in black-and-white; since color can create emotional 
  • Side perspective on all the images; more neutral composition.
  • No setting or staging.

Proof of concept
The Children and Nature research team had assembled a small collection of images to be used as examples for what they might want to use. The provided imagery could not present the predetermined parameters for a neutral study, it  was here where the use of design would aid in creating a series that could be used for later research.


The problem
When discussing the project with my mentor Prof. Dr. Katja Liebal, trying to figure the desired imagery it became apparent the difficulty that existed within the core of the project: How should one create “realistic “animals that do not resemble any preexisting creature, and can you create something new and real out of a vaccum?
In order to research and answer this question, there were three different methodologies employed to the creation of the animals.

03 Methodologies for development of the creatures


Whale into a modified version. Facial appearance retains much of the original character of a whale. And results in final creature with properties of a whale-like animal.


The first methodology for the development of the images was to use an existing creature and transform its character so that it might appear as being a distant relative of the original creature.
This small change would in itself give the new created creature the same traits as that of the original animal, therefore it was opted not to use it.

        Adding another set of tentacles on an octopus; the creature remains characterized as an octopus


The second methodology experimented with revolved using two different species of animals with similar traits, that could be combined into a plausible third species. This would ensure that the animal is believable to have existed and will be accepted by the children.
This method had to also be abandoned, as the children would recognized many of the features as belonging to their respective animals, and there wouldn’t be variation in the answers the children gave to the animals character.

The depicted animal on the right was created as an amalgamation of the physiologies of cats and dogs. The idea was that perhaps when the creature can not be solely identified as being a particular species, the resulting creature would be a completely new animal.
Although the children being interviewed could not acertain as to what particular creature it was, they still were certain it would retain the characteristics of a cat or dog like animal, meaning that the end animal was still too similar to a cat or dog.

As for the arthopod creature, although the possible designs of life can be diverse most arthopods convey the same emotions to the viewers, it therefore might appear distinct in appearance, but remains the same amagalmations of typical responses

“Absolute” fantasy

The final and chosen methodology focuses on using contrasting attributes of different animals, and combining them onto an entirely new animal. The aim was to overload the attributes on the depicted creatures in order to make it less ecognizable as to what the original inspiration was., and work intuitively while making changes to the animals overall appearance. This meant that the original animal would seldom retain too many characteristics of its original animal of conception.

Final image is composed from elements belonging within the phylogeny Order of Artiodactyla; primarily the cranial structure. It was then contrasted with the appearance of hair and odd body structure.
The resulting image worked most optimally, as the final creature is hardly recognized as belonging to its original animal of inspiration.

Why a fantasy creature has to be based on existing animals

In the process of creating the animals that would be used for the project it became clear that there were some limitations as to what could be possible.
A fantasy creature must be based on animals that we know, as creating animals from a vaccum is impossible.
This instead meant that in order to create new animals, it was necessary to use as many different traits from different animals and combine them into a new creature made of condensed elements and traits.

Present elements are held as a reptile inspired creature, head of a Gulper Eel, insect-like wings, chicken wattle-like structure. The resulting image is entirely new in character and it becomes more distinguishable.

05 Interviews

Some preliminary interviews were performed to assignt the preferences of the children that would be interviewed. The goal here was to get some perspective for how the interviewees felt of the images that were being depicted. The interviews would be performed by initially reviewing the childrens understanding for the depicted imagery, whether they recognize any specific features, and to the nature of what the animals would be capable of. It would later be asked as to the prefered animals and style, to later also be taken into accound for the later production of imagery.

Layout for interview:

  • Do you know this animal?
  • If not or if they do not answer:
  • Does it look similar to an animal you know?
  • Have you ever met this animal?

Attribution of cognitive (and emotional?) skills:
  • Can you imagine how the animal behaves? Which skills it might have? What can it do?
  • If they do not know, please ask a few of these more specific questions:
  • Where does it live?
  • Does it eat other animals or plants?
  • Is it fast or not?
  • Is it strong or not?

Elicited emotions:
  • Do you like this animal?
  • Why or Why not?
  • If they do not say much:
  • Is this a friendly animal?
  • Would you be scared of this animal?
  • Would you like to meet this animal?

Perception of the picture
  • Do you like the picture of the animal?
  • Would you draw it in a different way? How?

06 Imagery result

From the resulting imagery it was decided to review the usability of the imagery based on the review of the researchers. The team was asked to vote on their favorite illustrations based on two parameters;
  • Left: Creature design (How well does the animal fit the research project?)
  • Right: Illustrative techniques (Which illustrative style work best for the project?)

Images above were part of a final PDF review, wherein the researchers would cast their votes on their 5 best animal designs and illustrative appearances.
The results were averaged and calculated to try and assign which illustrations worked best for the project aim

For better visualization of the results, each animal
had been assigned a color coding, and ploted onto
both sets of graphs, in order to better visualize the
results. This allows me to understand from all the
different animal designs and illustrative techniques,
which would have been the more optimal path in order
to create the needed illustrations for the project

07 Review

The core intent of the project had been to find a proper methodology in which I could help answer the design question behind the “Children and Nature” project. I believe that the both the more useful and less useful illustrations hold a great importance in the frame of how I as a designer could understand how to develop the imagery for the team. By having each individual creature adhere to a particular animal Order or Family, I could try and learn both these parameters simultaneously.
This however also meant that I would be ultimately trying to answer two different questions at the same time. I believe that this had impacted negatively my later studies, as it could not allow me to follow a more consistent methodic, and properly answer my initial questions.
But as the learning process had become the focus of my project, I can still argue that there was much that could, and had been learned throughout. With the vital learned aspects there has been much that I could continue in the perview of this projects goals, and more convincingly create images more suited for use in the research that the “Children and Nature” team were pursuiting. 

Thank you
Katja Liebal
CaN group
2018 VSV-Class