Seven 3D design trends that point to the future of visual culture
To mark the launch of our 3D trends report, produced with Adobe Substance, we take a look at how this rapidly developing discipline is changing the landscape.
Is it just us, or are things looking a bit… real lately?
Wherever we turn – from the boom in digital clothing to the popularity of gooey, melting typefaces – visual culture right now feels physical, detailed, tactile and textured. More precisely, it feels three-dimensional. From animation to advertising, contemporary design is being led by artists and designers who are blurring the lines between the solid and the virtual, creating work that models itself on reality. And they’re doing it with 3D design.
If you’re not familiar with it already, the world of 3D design possibly seems a touch inaccessible. It’s only recently that technological advances have made it possible for creatives of all backgrounds to engage with it as a medium, despite its emergence as a specialist discipline a few decades ago. These advances have changed the landscape completely, with cutting-edge software now increasingly affordable and user-friendly. This democratisation has precipitated a flurry of new work from a diverse range of perspectives; work that is changing the landscape of visual culture for good.
To get a better understanding of where this culture-shift is heading, It’s Nice That has partnered with Adobe Substance 3D to create a first-of-its-kind 3D Trends Report. We’ve surveyed the length and breadth of 3D design – from the surreal edgelands of digital art to the visualised data of scientific modelling – and spoken to some of the creatives who are leading the charge, in order to take a temperature read of a creative field in the midst of an explosion.
Our survey has pointed towards a handful of key trends that we believe describe the way designers are thinking about 3D design right now. Below, we’ve shared the low-down on a couple of these trends, but for the real scoop – and to get a deeper understanding of where things are headed – you can download the full report today.
When surveying the landscape of 3D design for our trends report, it became clear early on that one conceptual thread linked a huge amount of the work being created. 3D design is a medium that gives designers the ability to replicate the real world with astonishing levels of detail. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the trend that emerged as the most prevalent was one concerned with imitating, and warping, reality.
Reimagining Reality is the name we’ve given to a wide range of work that captures the world in hyperreal detail, and then reshapes it. From photorealistic humans with unfamiliar features to tactile fabrics with a life of their own, this is a visual language that plays with our expectations and loosens our grip on reality.
The trend is likely the result of a few things. Conceptually it makes sense that as our lives drift further into the digital realm – as we sit on the cusp of the Metaverse and a fully-integrated virtual future – 3D would become the go-to for designers who want to express the modern world: a place where the boundaries between digital and physical selves are dissolving. But there are also practical elements. 3D modelling has its roots in product design and VFX, where it’s used to simulate real world elements. Today, new creatives are taking these blueprints and experimenting with them; not only simulating reality, but warping it at their will.
Within the report, we’ve broken down Reimagining Reality into a handful of sub-trends. These will offer a more detailed view of the work being created, and inspire you to think about how you can use 3D to disrupt the nature of our lives. Below we’ve detailed two of them. To discover the rest, download the report.
Images above and below: Copyright © Harriet Davey, 2021
For new designers entering the world of 3D, many of the most readily available models – free to download from libraries – are everyday objects: chairs, lamps, cars, and so on. Perhaps this explains why so many artists are using 3D design to recreate the most ordinary items of daily life, only to give them weird and wonderful new spins.
From children’s toys with glowering faces to monkeys riding desk chairs, designers across the medium are faithfully recreating everyday items, only to adapt and distort them in a variety of ways. Their work is helping us see these objects in a new light, offering opportunities to rethink our relationships with “stuff”, particularly the plastic and disposable.
For inspiration, look to the work of Thai artist Saratta Cheungsatiansup, who creates tableaus of 3D objects to satirise modern culture, or Laurent Allard, a Paris-based artist whose work takes a disturbing look at innocent-seeming items.
Textures and Materials
Another hugely prevalent trend we've identified in our report is the popularity of virtual materials and fabrics. One of the most exciting things about working with 3D software, such as Substance 3D, is the pinpoint accuracy with which textures can be replicated – from the imperfections of brickwork to the smooth sheen of silk. Many designers are running with this opportunity. If 3D design allows artists to reimagine the fabric of reality, then nowhere is this truer than of fabric itself.
This trend has obvious roots in product design. Whether a pine coffee table or a glass bottle, 3D is the perfect medium for mocking up potential designs or experimenting with different materials in prototype form. Yet, just as with our Everyday Objects trend, what starts as a straightforward, practical use can also offer scope for the surreal.
For examples of how 3D designers are using materials to bend our perceptions of the real, check out the work of Vincent Schwenk, who makes curtains dance and cushions walk, or Shane Fu, who places digital textures in real-world settings.
These are just a few of the trends outlined in our survey. To get a better understanding of these trends, and others that are leading the way, download and read the full report now, produced by It’s Nice That in collaboration with Adobe Substance 3D. We’ve delved deep into these and others, alongside an interview with 3D designer Christina Worner (founder of female-led 3D design studio Dada Projects) and expertise from the Substance 3D team.