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The Digital Eye: Design Visualization and Prototyping in the Digital Age

This month for "The Digital Eye," Autodesk's Chris Ruffo describes how 3D tools are being used by architects and engineers for digital visualization, enabling clients to "experience before they build."

Image courtesy of Deron Yamada. © 2004 DYA367.

We're in an era where design is being redefined. Design has become so much more than just the geometry of what you see in a drawing. It's about the information inside, outside and around an object, whether it's a building, car, product or infrastructure project. With digital prototyping, customers can visualize, simulate and analyze their designs before they actually build anything. And a big part of digital prototyping is visualization. In this article, I'll explore how visualizations help get rid of the guesswork.

Design Visualization vs. Visual Effects

With the near ubiquity of 3D software applications throughout the architecture, manufacturing and automotive sectors, what were once considered the tools of high-end 3D filmmakers and visual effects artisans are now becoming standard in design visualization. Growth in all types of specialty visualization has translated into higher production values with more boutique facilities and in-house 3D specialists across a variety of sectors in non-entertainment markets.

In feature film, game and television computer graphics, 3D artists are concerned primarily with aesthetics, or the visual parameters that uniquely characterize an object. But for architects, engineers and other design professionals, there is more to 3D design than meets the eye -- form, function and context are all essential.

Form involves building both the outer shell (aesthetics) and the inner-workings of a model, such as the engine and interior of a car, mechanics of an MP3 player, or a building's infrastructure. Function is ensuring that once these pieces fit properly together, everything is engineered properly for optimized functionality. Context involves showing the object in its environment, making it much easier to understand and experience the design. Autodesk develops a suite of tools that not only help create stunning visualizations, but also ensures that beautiful objects can be designed with accuracy.

From Concept to Visualization

A leading toolset for entertainment and games customers, 3ds Max also lies at the heart of Autodesk's design visualization solutions. 3ds Max is a powerful tool for expanding the visual context of a design concept to enable more conceptual exploration, effective design validation and visual communication. Building concepts developed in AutoCAD Architecture and Revit Architecture link directly into 3ds Max, facilitating the transition to a design visualization process.

Autodesk customers employ design visualization tools to rapidly prototype creative ideas that take both form and function into account. Architects and engineers can change and rearrange concepts or expand and contract approaches with infinite possibilities. Designers are able to experience what these design concepts will be like before they're made real.

Architects and engineers are also using design visualization tools to generate contextual studies with far greater detail and a much larger scope than has ever been possible. They can refine a particular design as they study how it relates to light and material properties with physically accurate light simulations and shadow studies. Current tools also enable architects to look at a design in the context of its total surroundings to see how people and all environmental components will interact with a given structure. They can visualize Revit building information models -- with support for huge data sets on an unprecedented scale -- to study what their designs will look like and how they will perform long before ground is broken.

Chris Ruffo.


Boston-based Neoscape creates architectural design visualizations specializing in luxury condominiums and hotels. Using 3ds Max, the firm visualized New York-based The Plaza's $350 million renovation and rebirth as a private residence.

"On the Park Plaza project, the architectural detail, mood and other elements took us into uncharted territory," said Rob MacLeod, Neoscape co-founder/vp. "Without Autodesk 3ds Max, the detailed ornamentation alone would have been a daunting task. We have embraced 3ds Max because it's the best and most universal tool for design visualization."

The facility has tremendous in-house production capabilities, all of which depend on AutoCAD and 3ds Max to integrate seamlessly with clients' architectural pipelines. "AutoCAD and 3ds Max is the language all of our clients speak," says Nils Nogren, Neoscape co-founder/vp.

The company takes a different approach to design visualization, utilizing a cinematic visual style. Many of the techniques that make films successful also make architectural projects successful, and industry leaders like Neoscape are moving the visualization business to a cinematic storytelling art form. Like film artists, Neoscape uses cinematic techniques to create innovative visualizations to bring their clients' projects to life.

Armstrong White

Armstrong White in Detroit presents a unique example of a facility that has built its business around design visualization for the automotive industry. The studio is helping to change the game of how car manufacturers use 3D in design visualization for the marketing, sales and advertising of new models.

On behalf of auto giant DaimlerChrysler, ad agency BBDO Detroit contracted Armstrong White to create two 30-second animations to be looped continuously throughout the North America International Auto Show in DaimlerChrysler's exhibit space. The animations highlighted the inner workings of Dodge's HEMI and Cummins engines. While the HEMI animation took attendees on a 30-second thrill ride through the engine, the Cummins animation illustrated an exploded view of every engine part, then flying audiences through the engine before rebuilding it by bringing all the pieces back together again.

With just eight days to complete the animations, the Armstrong White artists began with actual engineering data of the engines they received directly from DaimlerChrysler. Tapping into the interoperability of Autodesk software packages, the data was translated into a format 3ds Max could work with before textures and surfaces were applied to the models.

The engine was animated with two dummy objects -- one on the crankshaft and one on the camshaft. Using the inverse kinematics (IK) capability in 3ds Max to control all of the engine parts, the animators were able to animate components in each engine with the confidence that all the relevant parts would move with complete accuracy to illustrate -- in the virtual realm -- exactly how the engine would be performing in the real world.

Experience Before You Build

Design visualization allows our customers to develop concepts in whatever way is appropriate for the stage of the design process they are in, ranging from non-photoreal, basic animations and interactive walkthroughs to full cinematic presentations of products, buildings, cars and more.

Architects, designers and engineers are able to use visualization, tapping a skill-set similar to visual effects artists, to bring a building or product concept to life and to unveil a client's concept before it's built. They can work out design issues before construction crews break ground, reducing the need for physical prototypes, and accelerating their design process from idea to realization.

Chris Ruffo joined Autodesk as the design visualization industry manager for Media & Entertainment in January 2006, as part of the Alias acquisition. Prior to joining Autodesk, Chris worked at Alias for nine years in a variety of key roles, including the building and management of the publishing wing of Alias's website and community which drove traffic to record levels. Chris also played a leading role in managing the Maya Personal Learning Edition program and led the Maya marketing team. Following this, Chris worked as industry manager for the film, video and DCC markets and later as industry manager for digital publishing, helping to drive new users from the graphic design community to 3D.