Have you seen that car commercial - I think it was Ford, but it doesn’t really matter - where the design artist is carefully sculpting a clay representation of the latest and greatest model in an attempt to lure your curiosity and sell you a car? You probably have because it has been run nothing short of a million times between Monday Night Football and rerun episodes of The Big Bang Theory. I watch that commercial and wonder if that is how companies ever work anymore. Are there product designers out there who actually live outside their computers and prototype concepts with real life hands and tools?
Of course there are! But, as we move 3D modelling and 3D rendering software further into the future, we are becoming more and more reliant on the capabilities of product rendering and 3D visualization to develop our projects. And that is definitely a good thing.
I bring up the car commercial because the automotive industry has long been at the forefront of using product visualization to advertise and move merchandise. That stunning Jaguar interior you saw in last month’s Esquire? Not real. Rendering artists are getting so good at turning out life-like images and animations, that advertisers and marketing teams are relying on digital imagery almost exclusively to promote their products. It might sounds disingenuous to show someone a rendering of a product they might be interested in buying, but when have you ever known advertisers to be an honest folk? Of course, I am kidding (or am I?). It is, however, a philosophical question not lost on this writer, but perhaps one better left for another time.
For the layman, product rendering and visualization is the digitisation of what a company is selling and the creation of images that represent that product in a number of different ways. Whatever that thing is, it is modelled in a program such as Maya, Rhino, or 3DSMax, then rendered using a variety of plugins and rendering engines including VRay and Maxwell. At the surface level, it is a computer created representation of a real life product - something that can be bought, sold, or traded for fox pelts.
But the rabbit hole goes much deeper than simply showing you what you might be interested in buying. I mentioned how advertisers use these images, but the process for developing a digital content starts just as the design itself: from the beginning.
Concept artists get the first stab. Take, for example, project X. Project X begins in brainstorming, where teams of artists, engineers and designers throw ideas at the wall and see if anything sticks. It is a chaotic time in the life cycle of a new product, and designers need to be able to maintain flexibility while also producing concepts that are real. They have to look real and feel real and live by the same rules and physical constraints that the product itself will someday have to live in. Computer software lends a helping hand once again. A hundred different versions of the iPhone must be thought up before the actual product hits the factory floor, and most of those iPhones live exclusively in the digital form. Designers hand ideas to concept artists who turn out realistic renderings that can be critiqued, talked about, and ultimately refined.
This is the process of a modern day product designer. The computer-driven components of the design are there from the beginning, and go through change after change and iteration after iteration before becoming something real. This is the benefit of having a team of talented artists and software technicians on staff. Product rendering is there every step of the way: from conception and prototyping to realization and advertising.
We’ve already gone through how product rendering and visualization is used throughout the design process to quickly represent ideas with real-world results. But the potential of application goes much deeper than that. Let’s go back to the example of a car. A car is made up of thousands of parts, pieces, valves, tubes, fans, columns and pistons and wires and...well...you get the idea. There’s a lot going on, and a lot to account for. It’s easy enough to make sure a car looks good, but making all its parts come together in mechanical and electrical harmony is another thing entirely.
This is where building things digitally has such enormous upside. Engineers can work closely with artists and technicians to develop parts that must be visualized within the totality of the automobile. Teams can create detailed diagrams and exploded views of assemblies, showing lead designers how each part is interfacing and working together. These days, car manufacturers have a pretty good hold on what works and what doesn’t, but the ability to build things digitally before they ever have to be built physically lends the design process to exploring innovation and progression in ways not previously possible. Just ask Elon Musk, who’s taken car manufacturing to unparalleled heights, and used technology in digitization and visualization to dream big every step of the way.
Many companies operate in the same way: relying on computer models to not only teach them something about the specific part they are designing, but about what the end product will be as well. Many of these realizations are purely aesthetic, but once you begin introducing more technical, physics-based inputs such as air flow, fluid dynamics and ergonomics, the digital model can reveal a treasure trove of valuable information to designers and engineers. People can begin to understand a product before a physical prototype is ever constructed. The process is faster, more accurate, and gives companies a wider net to cast when getting to the root of what makes a design work.
Product design firm MINIMAL works on a wide variety of products, and values greatly the process of design. Industrial designer at MINIMAL, Daniel Brown, knows all too well the importance of digital prototyping.
“At MINIMAL, we begin rendering very early in the design process with quick 3D models that capture basic mechanical or aesthetic thoughts, which are presented to clients in the form of photorealistic renderings,” says Brown. “We continue to update renderings during development as new features are added or other changes are made to project requirements. At the conclusion of a project, we typically provide high-fidelity renderings for our clients’ internal use.”
Daniel is speaking to the iterative process of refinement and evolution, culminating in a final digital product that mirrors the physical product that clients will ultimately be purchasing and using.
One can only imagine what Don Draper would’ve come up with if he had access to VRay. While I may well be the only one who’s ever imagined that, it can’t be denied that advancements in rendering technology and product visualization have had a profound influence on the progression of advertising. Take a walk through Times Square and you’d be hard pressed to find a single outlandish billboard plastered with anything other than glorious digital imagery. Even real photographs are often bombarded with touch-ups filters and superimpositions because - whether you like it or not - the real world just ain’t moving merchandise like it used to.
Much like product designer during the conceptual development phase, advertisers and copywriters work closely with rendering artist to produce imagery focused on showing consumers what a product can do for you. Just as with the prototyping phase, you might think these renderings serve a purely superficial purpose. Sorry to tell you this, but you’d be wrong again. And if you’ve ever seen Mad Men like I clearly have, you’d know how important the art is to conveying not just what the product looks like, but the lifestyle it embodies. Apple, for example, isn’t in the business of selling phones and computers. They are in the business of selling you the person you want to become. To do this, they need content that reinforces more than just how the thing functions. This isn’t easy to do, and something rendering artists work hard at to achieve.
Those final images can come in just about any flavour you could imagine. The state of technology today plants the limits firmly in the sky, giving artists the tools to make a product be anything they want it to be. It’s not as simple as creating a realistic representation of the thing, it’s more about taking the art to areas that reveal something important about the product. The copy is important, but with the attention spans of millennials everywhere whittling down to a nub, the imagery is becoming the most important. If you can’t make the sale at an initial glance, you’ve already lost.
Professional looking images and animations have become the baseline for companies looking to develop and sell their products these days. The next step is a bit harder to predict, but I’d guess it starts in the realm of virtual and augmented reality. Companies like Valve and Samsung have recently released consumer ready VR headsets that mark the beginning of the virtual reality era. It’s only a matter of time before companies start producing VR specific content that to promote and advertise their products. Rendering technology will make this transition as smooth as can be, but there will be a transition period as more and more people adapt the technology. I’m no fortune teller, but with the economic force building rapidly behind the VR train, it’s hard to imagine a future without a VR headset wrapped around the head of a significant chunk of the population.
Augmented reality is a bit tougher to predict, due mainly because the technology is so new. Engineers on the bleeding edge of visual technology are just now starting to develop systems that digitally manipulate the world as we see it. If you don’t know exactly what augmented reality is, imagine an incredibly sophisticated holograph that reacts and changes based on your physical interaction with it. Sounds like science fiction right? Before you run and put in a pre-order for a light saber just yet, we’ve got a long way to go before this tech is consumer ready. But when it is, you can be assured that every product designer, advertiser, and marketer will be frothing at the mouth to get their hands on it.
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Product design itself has come a long way in the last 20 years. Of course our style and preferences are always evolving, but in many ways the things we buy and the things we use are shaping that style just as much as anything. The exponential advancement in rendering technology and product visualization has streamlined that development at rates not previously seen. It’s all a bit scary, to be honest. The effectiveness of advertisers to sell us something without uttering a word reveals a world where we seize control of our ability to make decisions for ourselves. Awareness is key, because ultimately the better the product is, the better we’ll feel about buying it. Everything I’ve talked about in this article is part of a massive, well-oiled machine that involves everyone from the man in the suit at the head of the table to the guy in the basement with a hand full of paper cuts. Computer technology touches it all.
Next time you think about buying something, think about the work that went into putting it on the shelf. It might make it easier to spend 300 dollars on a phone that does everything or 1000 dollars on a TV that puts your real eyes to shame. You might be buying the thing, but you’re also buying the thousands of hours that went into making it great.