Moving beyond boring old “real:” some future uses of 3d digital modeling and rendering for designers. (Installment 1)

Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring some implications and uses of 3d digital environments and visualizations outside of the largely accepted commercial uses: CG animation, architectural renderings and the like. I’m sure some of you out there on the interwebs have opinions on the subject- feel free to share your ideas! The three or four topics I’ll cover are sure to only scratch the surface.


The industry that has grown up  around 3D computer visualization since its commercialization in the late 1970’s is an impressive one by any measure. Across a wide swath of image intensive industries (entertainment / animation, product design, architecture, etc), computer graphics have gone from an academic novelty to the totally undisputed standard in the course of only three decades.  Critics were at first skeptical of this new media because of its expressive limitations (according to these critics it had an inescapable synthetic character), and as a result CG was born pushing against the perception that its limitations in terms of “realism” made it aesthetically inferior.  Adherents, meanwhile, have seen this problem- pretty accurately, as it turns out- as a very temporary technological barrier.   So, for a long time the dominant technological goal of CG has been increasing realism. And man, people getting good at that:


This is a CG image from an artists named Jian Xu, a Society of Digital Artists member from Shanghai. This work is representative of what is now technically possible with 3D digital tools but it is by no means unique. There are plenty of examples of hyper-realistic CG images out there, and the technology gets better constantly. Nor is the idea of hyper-realism really that new. The emphasis on the emotive qualities of stark realism present in the CG Avant-garde reminiscent of the work of artists in other media, as recent as Chuck Close(1), and as distant as sculptors of classical antiquity.


Chuck Close, Big Self Portrait (1968), Greek bust of Aeschylus

Also, the computer’s ability to render intense lighting effects (through tone mapping techniques, for example) has lead many of these artists to produce images reminiscent of Baroque Flemish still life painting. All one has to do is compare the trajectories of Pixar films from the period 1995–2008 (ending with what is, in my opinion, the studio’s visual high water mark, WALL-E) to see the incredible rate at which CG image technology has improved, in terms of expressive latitude. Physically accurate rendering of the interaction of light with material is making the computer capable of creating images that are not only indistinguishable from photographs or moving pictures, but in fact have the potential to transcend the technical limitations of the film entirely. (Why does an artist’s image have to live on a two-dimensional plane? Can a painting or a movie be a navigable imaginary environment, accessed through some future human interface?) But, as I said in a recent blog post, I think it’s better to ask what a tool (in this case the computer) can do for the fundamental meaning of an artwork than ask how real we can make it look.  As a result of the sophisticated ability to simulate the behavior of light and materials, these days we can make images that look pretty damn real—but who cares? To borrow a phrase, Take a picture, it’ll last longer. The greatness of Chuck Close, or of Lysippos, or of the folks  over at Pixar, is obviously not related only to technical abilities. Narrative, composition, form, color, texture, subject: Remember those?

So, what does any of this tell us about new directions for 3d media?

For one thing, I’m reminded that designing things requires the creation of a lot of process images. In addition to technical drawings, we make a whole lot of sketches and doodles. Some of these images help us understand how to organize a problem (diagrams), others help us communicate our ideas to clients and the public (renderings). Some designers make another class of sketch altogether- images that help communicate abstract or emotive ideas in a poetic voice outside the purview of the strict diagram. One master of this genre is Steven Holl.


Steven Holl, Chapel of San Ignatius design drawing

Holl’s images help to communicate the poetics of a given project in a way that is simple, clear and emotive. Whether the images are made for Holl’s own concept development, or to communicate those concepts to a wider audience, they are seemingly integral to his personal design process. As a marriage of the diagram and the rendering, these images can help the designer to think through the technical and experiential aspects of a design problem simultaneously.  To be meaningful or useful these drawings will have to stand on their own, but also communicate a network of ideas about the project they describe- ideas related to light, materials, spatial configurations, rhetorical voice, etc.

And so finally I’ve gotten to the point (!): 3d CG imaging tools allow us to conflate the real (accurate simulations of materials and light, the interactions of energy and matter) with the abstract (totally unconstrained compositional possibility within 4 dimensions) with unprecedented ease. One great advantage here is the potential for happy accidents (every artist and designer swears by them, whether willing to admit it or not). Of course, there are already people exploring the implications of this potential:


“QCC” Still Image by Zeitguised  watch the film at:

The artist/designers behind Zeitguised are working in a genre some people are calling “digital surrealism.” I’m not sure I fully agree with this moniker—historically, surrealism has been a vehicle for exaggerating the real toward a specific end—because I think that the potential of CG goes far  beyond this. Digital images can model the properties of the physical world (or not—why not invert them and see what that looks like?), but the point isn’t necessarily exaggeration. I’m not sure that the rhetorical voice of a short film like “QCC” really cares at all about a particular relationship to reality, because the film is a self-contained universe. We can import or export ideas from it, but it doesn’t need to make specific cultural references to be interesting. Ultimately it’s much more primitive, or rhetorically pure than that.

Recently, I’ve been working on a few projects in which I have been, in an iterative fashion, moving back and forth between conventional sketch diagramming and 3D models of these diagrams, to which I apply materials and then render. There is always a danger that a designer will move too literally from diagram to formal solution: Frequently the information you get from a good diagram is too abstract to translate well into a solution that also answers all the other issues present in a given design problem—and this process exaggerates that danger. But some very interesting things can happen: A well planned and edited diagrammatic idea can begin to assert itself in the design solution on multiple scales, and not only formally. This kind of diagramming enables a clear visual explanation of the implications of all kinds of material properties—translucency and opacity, hardness and softness, color, etc.—as well as formal properties—darkness and light, lines, curves, angles, proportions, small spaces and large spaces, figure and ground. What’s more, in this world diagrams can become dynamic, responding to the fourth dimension (which is the one designers most frequently ignore). I believe there is great promise in this for designers of all kinds of things, as well as the designers of un-things.

_Daniel Meyers

(1) To be clear, Mr. Close apparently isn’t too keen on computers: “Some people wonder whether what I do is inspired by a computer and whether or not that kind of imaging is a part of what makes this work contemporary. I absolutely hate technology, and I’m computer illiterate, and I never use any labor-saving devices although I’m not convinced that a computer is a labor-saving device.” (Chuck Close, from an April 1997 interview conducted by Robert Storr)


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