Design Visualization

Visualization Goes Beyond Appearances

14 Feb, 2011 By: Brett Duesing

Creators of OXO gadgets unlock the marketing power behind digital rendering.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of Cadalyst, as a sidebar to the "Seeing Is Believing" feature article.

How have recent advancements in visualization affected international product development houses such as Smart Design? The award-winning firm, known for its reinventions of commonplace items, including kitchen gadgets from OXO, now relies predominantly on ray-tracing rendering to exchange visual ideas.

According to John Jacobsen, senior design specialist in Smart Design's New York studio, changes in the profession are happening on three levels: visual feedback, customer presentations, and conceptual designs for marketing.

Immediate Visual Feedback for Designers

Until a few years ago, a digital rendering of a 3D model was a project that required a few days and was so complex that you needed a software expert just to dial in the optical settings. But the new generation of ray-tracing tools generates a photorealistic scene in a few seconds.

Smart Design uses these new tools for its internal reviews of one of the firm's most commercially successful products: the OXO line of kitchen utensils. The biggest difference between the redesign process now and the original process 10 years ago is that designers now can better see the possibilities.

"Now very early on in our process we're looking at completely finished images of the product," said Jacobsen, who uses Luxion's KeyShot software. "The digital tools bring a new latitude. We're able to explore different variations and push the boundaries in a free way."

The realism of the rendering preview — complete with final materials, colors, and finishes — allows designers to make snap judgments as they're viewing all the elements holistically.

A KeyShot preview of an OXO toddler flatware set shows designers the play of light using different geometries and finishes.

Clients Can See the Options

Jacobsen says that clients are getting more accustomed to the visualization technology. Designers used to be concerned about introducing photorealistic examples too early in the preliminary discussion. The client might wrongly assume the design is complete and not open to changes. But that's not likely to happen, Jacobsen explained.

"Now that clients can see real-time changes in an application like KeyShot, they understand how fluid the technology is. They perceive the visualizations as more of a game. A rendered model is not final, but instead something we can play with."

High-speed ray tracing is now rivaling traditional hand sketching for spontaneity in the conference room. Loose conceptual sketches still have their role in designers' processes, Jacobsen said, but they have their limitations as well. "A sketch is a bit like poetry. Readers can make several different interpretations," he said. "Various interpretations might be okay for poetry. For product design, probably not. The reality is that clients need more certainties and less abstractions in order to have the confidence to make decisions."

Visuals Sell the Idea

The term among industrial designers and product photographers for a favorable product portrayal is the beauty shot. Accurate materials, studio lighting, and soft shadows on pure backgrounds seem to generate automatically in software such as KeyShot. Users can drag a few materials onto the surfaces, and a simple engineering model suddenly exudes the glamour of a glossy magazine ad.

Illuminated bulbs are rendered using an emissive material in Luxion's KeyShot in this image of a glass lamp design by John Jacobsen of Smart Design.

Couching new concepts in the same commercial sheen familiar in advertising and product packaging extends the purpose of rendering from mere visualization to persuasion.

As an industrial designer, Jacobsen's focus is the concept. For Smart Design, the focus is on understanding how people use products and on improving their everyday experiences. But to get to that point, people first have to buy it. Most of that decision-making — whether you're a retail buyer or a customer — rests on the visual experience.

"Visual information just has this emotional power that overshadows anything abstract you can say about a product. The image is what people come away with and remember later," said Jacobsen. So it's no surprise clients are starting to use renderings to prime the pump of potential sales.

About the Author: Brett Duesing

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