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Making the transition from pen and paper to 3D design software

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Before computer drafting programs became a viable design choice, designers and architects relied on pen and paper to draft projects.

Pen and paper drafting

Before computer drafting programs became a viable design choice, designers and architects relied on pen and paper to draft projects, using many of the same tools and techniques employed by Renaissance artists in their perspective drawings. However, the pencil or ink on vellum that is perhaps most commonly associated with architectural renderings and construction drawings are only part of the story.

From hasty sketches dashed off on napkins in 
a moment of inspiration to beautifully detailed watercolour renderings completed on cold-pressed paper, the best presentation drawings have always been more than plain design proposals. Visually dense renderings with rich colours and personalized details also function 
as an opportunity for designers to engage clients emotionally.

Creating visually rich pen and paper presentations requires more than a steady hand and eye for detail. Client-pleasing presentation drawings, which use artistic details to reveal the proposed project to inspire a client to select the designer’s vision for their outdoor living space, tend to be a time-consuming process. Even for fast-working artists, any requested changes or errors could mean an entire drawing would need to be scrapped and started over.

Early 3D graphics

The ability to create a convincing illusion of 3D space on 2D paper takes considerable skill. For designers seeking to help clients understand how a flat image could transform into livable space, the promise of new technology not only meant faster drawing times, but also the potential for more accurate and detailed representations of designs that would minimize miscommunication and help clients fully understand a proposal. However, early computer scientists found it challenging to develop ways to use computers to help make drawings more accurate, reproducible, and detailed.

The tools that are common in design software today, like texture mapping, user-friendly interfaces, and fast 3D rendering, took considerable time to create. Moore’s Law, the prediction from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that computing power would double every two years, has become a familiar truism, often used to say technology advances at a seemingly ever-more-rapid rate. Where it previously took a computer the size of a building to create basic line drawings, current professional design software can now render 3D plans instantly and make them readily available on a laptop.

The first interactive graphics software

One of the first graphics programs built was completed by Ivan Sutherland for his 1963 doctoral dissertation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Ma. Called ‘Sketchpad,’ it required the use of MIT’s enormous and expensive TX-2 computer.

Wesley Clark’s 1957 write up of how his team created the computer on which ‘Sketchpad’ ran, states that it took nine engineers one year, plus 
the “shop facilities, drafting facilities, and a good number of knowledgeable, experienced technicians” to build.

Described at the time as a “graphical communication system,” Sutherland’s program served to introduce many ideas that have now become common in software. It helped lead to the graphical user interface (GUI) familiar in today’s 3D software. It also used a stylus (i.e. light pen) to draw objects directly instead of typing in written commands.

Three-dimensional animation

While Sutherland’s program allowed users to draw 3D objects (e.g. a cube) and later use a head-mounted display which allowed viewers to experience the objects in 3D, they were neither animated nor lifelike.

Nearly 10 years later, one of Sutherland’s students, Ed Catmull, who later found Pixar Animation Studios, was one of the early computer scientists seeking ways to realistically render curved objects.

In 1972, it took Catmull 10 weeks to digitize his hand opening and closing. Presenting his results 
in a four-minute video, Hand, at a 1973 conference, Catmull admitted “those four minutes of film had taken [him] more than 60,000 minutes to complete.” At the time, the four-minute video was the first moveable, lifelike 3D animation created on a computer.

Today, designers do not need a doctorate in computer science to create spectacular 3D visualizations. The tools and ideas developed by early innovators like MIT’s Sutherland and Pixar’s Catmull broke new ground and introduced the tools pool and landscape designers now use to create interactive 3D presentations, complete with animation, sound, and other special effects.

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