3D Limits, or How to Avoid Killing 3D with 3D applications?

I’d like to discuss 3D. The following 3D Perspectives blog post “Do Designers Really Want to Communicate in 3D?” got me thinking about when and how 3D is efficient and how to apply these practices in our implementations. There is no debate – 3D inspires! We can see what we are going to design, visualize engineering analyses, present and explain problems in a way that we cannot do in plain English words. But are limits for 3D? How can we collaborate efficiently on 3D and non-3D information?

There are a few basic types of communication in the design world. You can communicate to:

1/ present the design of product;

2/ describe a problem;

3/ discuss a particular solution.

What are the key decision points designers need in order to communicate in 3D? I think that the main point is around productivity. If 3D helps them improve their productivity, they will definitely take the “3D story” seriously and use it as an instrument for their daily work. But even if sounds like 3D is appropriate for a regular designer’s life, is 3D-orientation really that obvious?

I will try to delve into a typical designer’s activities and will figure out where 3D could help as well as harm. In other words, where are the limits of 3D?. 

Designer Activity

🙂 🙂 🙂

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1.     Search specific design assembly/part/…  


3D is good because you can see what you’re searching for

3D is bad because it might show you 150 visually similar parts? I’m not sure that’s so helpful…

2.     Collaborate – i.e. discover a specific problem together?


3D is good because you can see the problem in 3D visually… I really like being able to see this…


3D isn’t always good in this case because the problem can’t always be represented visually. Sometimes you need the right balance of 3D together with textual information

3.     Co-design


3D is great!  Collaborative design is only possible in 3D…

But 3D is not always ideal, as design requires a good combination of visual and non- visual capabilities in order to keep records of discussions (i.e. IM with SolidWorks; 3DLive with buddy-list)


4.     Demo product, communicate with customer


3D is good as a picture is worth a thousand words, however….

3D isn’t always ideal in this case, because if  customers are interested in particular non-visual aspects, they will need to get access to these characteristics as simply as possible.

 So, my conclusion is that 3D is very important in the way we can provide a context for discussion and communication, – the ability to visualize and actually co-design our work. In certain cases, using non-3D user experience is the only way to work for designer to make right decision. Also, presenting non-visual information can be easily understood – sometimes too much 3D information creates an information overload. And ultimately, Excel-like communication, in many cases, can be the only efficient way to present a problem or issue.

So, to measure user productivity and work on the user experience is the only real way to find 3D limits. I’d like to hear your feedback about your personal experience with 3D.



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  • Michael Reitman

    First, concerning the discussion in original post (“Do Designers Really Want to Communicate in 3D?”), I support the comment by Rachael – the main criteria about which means to use for communication is “ease of creation and communication”.
    At the moment it is easier to create 2D images in PowerPoint, graphs in Excel, some sketches. And the easiest environment to put together graphic and non-graphic info is PowerPoint (and also Word).
    Plus performance issues related to communicating those heavier documents are being resolved. And I see rapidly growing usage of graphic info in all kind of communications.
    The only limitation for using 3D (except for its size – that is not big problem already and will become less of problem soon) is the ways to create it. It is still not as easy to create 3D graphics compared to sketching or adding shapes in ppt, or creating graphs in Excel.
    But once it is easy to create 3D, it becomes the preferable choice for graphic info to communicate.
    E.g., capturing movies from CAD tool session and communicating them as part of discussion becomes popular. Even more popular (almost commodity) are snapshots of CAD tool window with 3D view of object in it.
    So if creation of 3D is one pick away and embedding it to “communication means” is another pick – the designers would definitely chose to communicate 3D.

    Now concerning the analysis in this post. Pretty nice attempt to classify basic types of communications and design activities and try to look at usage of different info types in each case.

    Two comments here.
    First, comparing 3D vs textual info is not the only (and maybe not the essential) comparison.
    One could also compare 3D vs 2D (sketches, graphs, basic shapes) if objective is to assess the usage of visual communication means; or, alternatively, visual (all kinds) vs non-visual (text, tables) info. This can add interesting new dimensions to the analysis.

    Second, I do not fully share your conclusion that 3D is mainly to provide context for communication (ability to visualize the object).
    In general case I would not say for sure what provides the context and what defines the essence of communication.
    • In some cases 3D is the essence of communication and the main criteria for decision to make (e.g., aesthetic criteria for body surface of product). And textual info is just a context of communication (version of product, release level, cost, weight, manufacturability considerations)
    • In other cases, indeed, 3D is needed mostly for visualizing the context of communication
    • And in yet another (rapidly growing) class of cases you cannot say for sure what is context and what is the essence – since visual and non-visual information must be considered together and provide two equally essential “views” on the object of discussion.

    Note two trends going on in parallel:
    (a) Attempts to visualize textual info (various graphs instead of tables, showing textual properties in 3D context when relevant, annotation-type);
    (b) Growing interest to technologies for analyzing 3D objects to capture their properties in non-graphic attributes – to provide all kinds of “indexing” for 3D objects, categorize them, tag by “shape”, “fit” and even “function”.

    It seems to me that these two trends are converging to one common point where it will be neither purely 3D view nor purely textual view.

    One can fantasize about the ultimate definition of object used for design communication that combines 3D views (maybe sound?), movements, simulation of physical functioning – with relevant textual info directly encapsulated into this “virtual reality” (as annotations, or graphs/tables “on the glass”).

  • Michael,

    Thanks for your comprehensive feedback. I agree with your view on trends related to 3D. It becomes cheaper and easier to handle from all standpoints. So, I’m with you on the side saying in the near future we will see more and more attempts to provide tools to create 3D for wider audience. I’m also see part of the tools will be provided by non-CAD software vendors.

    In the second part, I think you made right point by saying sometime essence of communication is to provide 3D model/information. This is what I called co-design, but you emphasized it very well.

    At the same time, I tried to analyze and see if 3D can become universal language for communication and provide context similar to geo/map/location role in Google Map and all applications related to Map services in general. I cannot say that I see people tomorrow move to total 3D, but there is definitely trend toward higher acceptance of 3D in communication.


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