March 12, 2018 at 03:00 PM EDT

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Ryan Meinerding, the head of visual development at Marvel Studios, has an Instagram account that’s essentially a record of what could have been. On the page, unused designs for a bearded Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok live alongside takes for a more tech-infused Rocket in Guardians of the Galaxy. While the sketches may just seem like a fun “What if?” they’re actually essential to the making of the MCU.

Marvel’s design process, which Meinerding runs, borrows something from the early days of Disney. To nail down a character’s look, artists like Andy Park and Josh Nizzi draft hundreds of pieces of concept art. During these first steps, they’ll dream up a wide variety of looks for Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther suit or James Spader’s Ultron, pinpoint which elements work — pending filmmaker approval, of course — and then continue in that direction.

“We’re just always trying to make it better,” Meinerding tells EW, describing the character creation process. “It’s as simple as that. It’s looking at what we have and figuring out different ways and creative solutions for trying to improve it.”

Ryan Meinerding/© Marvel Studios; Jay Maidment/© Marvel Studios
Ryan Meinerding/© Marvel Studios; Zade Rosenthal/© Marvel 2016

With Captain America: The First Avenger, the story helped dictate the final character designs. Steve Rogers’ (Chris Evans) U.S.O. costume is a symbol of America (hence its star-spangled nature), but he becomes more militarized when he goes to rescue Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).

“He covers up his costume with a leather jacket and a helmet, and it feels like he’s trying to be more of a soldier and through the process of rescuing those soldiers, the jacket gets a little more torn up and the star starts to poke through a little bit,” Meinerding explains. “I think at the end of that journey, he ends up realizing that there’s a value to be had in not only being a soldier but also being a symbol. It’s the idea of those first two costumes being combined into the final look in that movie.”

In one alternate design that didn’t make the final cut, Meinerding drew a concept of Steve donning khaki-colored cargo pants with a blue leather jacket (shown above). “I think the reason why that blue coat version was not chosen was he didn’t feel as much like a soldier in that costume,” he says. “He still felt like he was a little bit more showy.”

Ryan Meinerding/© Marvel Studios; © Marvel Studios

For Vision, played by Paul Bettany in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Meinerding remembers drafting several possible looks for the android, including one with a gold faceplate and graying body. That design nearly became the character’s final look before the producers settled on a more classic appearance.

“[Director] Joss [Whedon] really wanted Vision to stay human-colored,” Meinerding says. “He really wanted him to look like Paul Bettany with the bit of styling on him, and when we did versions of that, it seemed hard to make that look cool and interesting.”

Andy Park/© Marvel Studios; Jay Maidment/©Marvel 2014
Andy Park/© Marvel Studios; Jay Maidment/©Marvel 2014

There’s a range to how heavy a creative lift each character will get for Meinerding and his team. For example, Vision and the Guardians of the Galaxy — who have changed looks dozens of times — are much more difficult to crack than, say, Captain America. (As long as there’s red, white, blue, and a shield, he’s good.) The Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World, however, went through roughly 200 different designs before their final looks were chosen.

“In my opinion, it’s much, much more difficult to find the first version of the character — more or less because the tone of those movies are still being worked out,” Meinerding, who’s been working with Marvel since the first Iron Man, says. “We have to do a bunch of versions just to get in the ballpark of what the visuals are gonna be and what the tone of the movie is gonna be.”

Andy Park/© Marvel Studios; ©Marvel Studios 2017

Ultimately, designing these characters comes down to one priority, according to Meinerding: bridging the gap between the original comics and “the story world that the filmmakers are trying to create.” Kind of like the movies themselves.

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