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

January 15, 2016

By Noah Nehlich

No viewer has ever reacted as strongly to a flat, 2D drawing as an immersive 3D experience.

Urban legend has it that early moviegoers drew back in alarm when the projected image of a train came hurtling towards them as they sat in the theatre. The reactions from these moviegoers offer designers a valuable clue in how to connect with clients. As essential as 2D plans are to designers, architects, and builders, no viewer has ever reacted as strongly to a flat, 2D drawing as an immersive 3D experience.

For clients unfamiliar with site plans and elevations, looking at a 2D rendering of a project can be as disorienting as looking at 3D chalk art (i.e. street art) from the wrong vantage point. When standing in the wrong spot, the optical illusion of a 3D waterfall will appear like nothing more than a meaningless smear of colourful chalk.

Similarly, when clients view design plans, the same features that make 2D plans valuable to designers and builders can hinder a prospective client from seeing the full value of a proposal. To avoid the possibility of a miscommunicated plan, designers are now turning to 3D renderings—not only to sell clients on designs, but also to ensure the proposed project is clearly understood by everyone involved in the build.

The start of 3D pool design

Up until the late ’90s, presenting two-dimensional drawings to clients was the norm. While some companies used 2D computer-aided design (CAD) software, the programs available at the time were expensive and had a significant learning curve. For big-budget projects that could support hiring a perspective artist, one might be contracted to draw the various raised elements of a proposed pool design. However, most small business owners could neither afford expensive software nor the frequent use of hired artists. Instead, most designers still drafted with pencil and paper.

Today, 3D pool and landscape design software is the primary tool used by designers, builders, and salespeople to design, sell, and build pools for their clients.


Up until the late ’90s, presenting two-dimensional drawings to clients was the norm.

The rise of the 3D perspective

As familiar and fundamental as 3D views are today, perspective drawings did not come into play until the early 1400s. The designers who hire perspective artists to help create pool designs do so for the same reason Renaissance artists began incorporating perspective into their work—viewers intuitively understand 3D perspective.

In fact, museums are full of the results of these artists’ discoveries. For instance, works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect credited with discovering how to represent 3D images accurately on a 2D surface, do more than just reveal realistic visual details. The discovery of linear perspective is also what makes it possible for artists to highlight—and focus viewers on—the most important visual, thematic, and emotional elements in a drawing.

In art, the transition away from the previous flat, two-dimensional style to a more realistic, three-dimensional perspective is what led, centuries later, to today’s 3D design software.

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[4],’ it required the use of MIT’s enormous and expensive TX-2[5] 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.

The Gardens of Versailles uses orderly lines and symmetrical design, which came to define the formal French garden style.

Early landscape designs

Long before landscapers and pool builders could begin using design software to create personalized projects for middle-class urban and suburban homeowners, it was typically used to build private outdoor retreats on estate properties.

While early landscape plans are plentiful in library and museum archives, as well as in printed histories of the field, those plans reflect the needs of the wealthy estate owners who commissioned the designs. Those lawns, sports courts, fountains, 
and gardens functioned as status symbols and typically required a dedicated staff 
to maintain.

As expensive and vast as many of those plans were, those early landscape designs set patterns that are still common today: green lawns with garden paths, room for children to play, and space for families 
to entertain.

For example, in France, the orderly lines and symmetrical plans for the Gardens of Versailles, designed by André Le Nôtre in the 1660s, came to define the rather formal French garden style.

In the U.S., Thomas Jefferson helped to establish the grid system, which is still used today. His plans for Monticello in Virginia helped to popularize the goal, still frequently requested by clients, of co-ordinating the landscaping to the architecture while incorporating impressive views of nature.

This is also true of most landscaping found in England. For example, Highclere Castle, which is best known today as the setting for the television series, Downton Abbey, was landscaped by one of the earliest famous landscapers, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. In the 18th century, he persuaded estate owners to embrace a naturalistic over a more formal style.

The ‘natural’ style of sweeping lawns, curving lines, and designs that match the landscaping to the style of the home remains popular with today’s clients.

Walking a client through an interactive design fully immerses them in the details, while also helping to connect them emotionally to their future outdoor space.

Three-dimensional pool and landscape design

During the 20th century, the same period 
in which homeowners started requesting landscaped lawns and private pools, also saw the emergence of computer technology that made it easier and more affordable for designers and manufacturers to offer these clients the outdoor living spaces they wanted.

As expensive and time consuming as early 3D graphics programs were, technological advances meant designing plans on a computer—instead of using pen and paper. This alternative was quickly embraced by pool and landscape designers.

Computer-aided design (CAD)

When first introduced, following Sutherland’s Sketchpad and other similar earlier software, CAD programs in the ’70s were cumbersome, costly, and had a steep learning curve.

Even with those deficiencies, CAD quickly became the norm in design-oriented fields, making it possible for a wide variety of users—from architects and engineers to landscapers and pool builders—to create precise, accurate drawings that could be rendered into 3D objects.

Benefits of CAD

The early popularity of design programs using CAD was based in part on the ease with which changes and edits could be made, compared with the difficulty of fixing mistakes on, or making changes to, freehand sketches and pen and paper drawings.

Design software, with its precise calculation tools, made technical drawings simple to achieve. Designers could add as much or as little information required, easily saving, updating, and duplicating designs. However, because early CAD software required an expensive financial commitment and time investment, only the biggest companies with the deepest pockets initially took advantage of the technology. That said, it took more than 20 years for early CAD software to become affordable for smaller companies and freelance designers.

By the ’90s, CAD software became flexible and affordable enough that smaller pool and landscape design businesses could afford a computer with a graphics card capable of running the software.

For landscape designers and pool builders, however, the 3D capabilities of early computer graphics programs were not developed enough for them to use as a tool to influence a client. For example, trees, fundamental to a landscaper’s design, took painstaking work, and often looked more like pixelated clumps of green triangles rather than realistic trees that would later become available in the 3D design software that was developed specifically for the pool and landscape design industry.

Incorporating familiar elements in a design, like the client’s house, favourite personal items, and even the family dog, help designers showcase the plans for the new backyard space.

Beyond CAD: Interactive 3D design presentations

For residential and commercial clients, outdoor living projects featuring pools, spas, and landscaping renovations typically require a sizeable investment of both time and money. Whether the proposed project is an upgrade to an existing space, a new installation, or a full renovation, it is rare for a client not to worry about the project’s budget or the contractor’s ability to deliver what was agreed upon.

After CAD became popular, software specifically created for pool builders and landscape designers introduced a new feature: Interactive 3D presentations.

Unlike perspective drawings or even 3D renderings, interactive 3D presentations take advantage of the same groundbreaking ideas those artists like Catmull had discovered decades earlier. By incorporating sound, light effects, and animation it allows designers to take clients on a tour of the proposed outdoor living space. This immersive experience serves to engage clients more intimately with the design, which helps create a sense of ownership to a proposal.

For designers

From early sketches to finalized construction plans, 3D design software offers designers an opportunity to reveal pool and landscaping plans in a format clients readily understand. Precisely realistic, to-scale 3D software features help designers reduce the risk of misunderstandings and deliver the project their client wants, while taking advantage of centuries-old proven artistic tools and modern technological advances.

For builders

The precision and accuracy afforded by professional design software serves as a useful safeguard against any potential miscommunication. Three-dimensional images not only help clients understand plans, but also serve as valuable references for the entire team. Along with the finalized plans, which modern software allows users to print with legends, labels, and measurements, the 3D views help make sure the team delivers the promised results to the client’s satisfaction.

Experimental controls are being developed that allow designers to interface directly with 3-D models, manipulating them with hand gestures rather than 
a keyboard, mouse, or tablet.

For clients

Like viewers of 3D chalk drawings, and those early astounded moviegoers, clients respond more passionately to realistic 3D renderings. Incorporating familiar elements in a design, like the client’s house, favourite personal items, and even the family dog, help designers showcase the plans for the new backyard space. Walking a client through an interactive design fully immerses them in the details, while also helping to connect them emotionally to their future outdoor space and realize why the proposed design is ideal for their needs.

The future of 3D design

Even the most intricate 3D designs are still created, edited, and viewed on 2D screens. Further, the most immersive 3D experiences that designers can offer their clients still involve flat screens.

Today, more than 50 years after Sutherland’s program gave designers the ability to interact directly with the computer, and more than 15 years after 3D pool designs became possible, innovators in 3D software are seeking ways to create an even more immersive design experience.

Visionaries such as Elon Musk, noting 3D objects are still created using 2D tools, suggest the future of 3D design is itself in 3D.

Experimental controls are being developed that allow designers to interface directly with 3D models, manipulating them with hand gestures rather than 
a keyboard, mouse, or tablet.

Perhaps, in the near future, it will be possible for pool and landscape designers to create far more immersive presentations. Moving beyond the visual and auditory elements commonly used today, future presentations in virtual reality—complete with haptic feedback—might soon be possible. These designs would appeal to all five senses, and 3D objects could be modified and explored directly with hand gestures, bringing forward the next wave of 3D design that will inspire and motivate clients.

Nehlich_Headshot[10]Noah Nehlich is the founder of Structure Studios. As the creator of Pool Studio Pool Design Software, he 
is into everything 3-D. With more than 16 years’ experience building the design software pool and landscape designers commonly use today, Nehlich’s goal is to improve lives through 3-D experiences. He can be reached via e-mail at[11].

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