Artists like Alex Ries often look into the lives of aliens they create. I find this very useful when designing an alien race for gaming or even sculpting. It's easy enough to use the rules of cool and just make something that looks neat, but when you start looking into the how and why of your aliens (or fantasy races) then you really start to make them breath.
The images I have included with this post were done by artist Alex Ries and show glimpses into the lives of the alien races he created, the Birrin. Aside from being one of my absolute favorite alien species out there, I love how Alex paints more than just alien warriors or combat machines. His artwork shows his aliens at play, relaxing, dealing with life, even discovering their past.
When I am creating an alien race, I cannot help but think about where they come from. Why are they the way they are? Simply saying they are blood-thirsty warriors that rampage across the universe is seldom good enough for me and I feel the need to justify their motivations, even if they are the villains. How do they live their lives? Do they have families? Why is it that they are the unspeakable evil they are.
While the true nature of Alex's Birrin is yet to be determined, he is cool enough to accompany his Deviant Art postings with explanations of the scenes he portrays. From these we have learned that the birrin are much like us. They have their pastimes and their strife. They are curious about us and they fight for their beliefs. While their bodies are much different, and their tools are shaped with a different alien aesthetic than ours, we can still see some familiar forms.
Much of this may not seem all that relevant to miniatures design, but it can be. Culture determines everything from clothing to affectation, even strategy, weapon choice and military organization are determined by cultural elements. While charging into battle with little care for one's own safety with a blade flailing over your head may seem crazy to us, to an alien species that valued the personal experience of combat or lusted for the blood of its enemies this might be perfectly normal. This then translates into miniatures with energetic poses with melee weapons.
A diminutive alien race with little physical stature might need to adopt heavy use of technology when facing enemies other than itself. While fighting each other might prove doable with simple guns and body armor, keeping up with the "Alien Joneses" might require power armor, cybernetic, or fighting from light vehicles in a way that makes them alien to us who are used to tromping around on our feet. Make the race equipped with natural body armor and they may not even bother with flak vests.
When I get down to creating an race, I tend to doodle them. While I start with their anatomy and then their battle gear, I often find myself doodling scenes of their personal lives. Families, mates, young, dealing with death, holy men and symbols. These are all things that pop up on my sketch pad and eventually make it into their final design someplace. It can also work in reverse. Sometimes, you have the final alien in mind and then you just fill in the blanks.
Give it a try some time and for more of Alex's work check out his page at AlexRies.com.