Illustration by Lidia Lukianova

Three-dimensional (3D) design continues to evolve since its earliest inception in the 1960s, which was led by Ivan Sutherland, creator of the world’s first 3D software called Sketchpad.

With the evolution of 3D design, designers now have the ability to create CGI objects or worlds, while making them as realistic as they desire. In addition to improvements made to 3D graphics, computer software used to create these elements has become more efficient and easier to use.

As a result of the advances in 3D design, designers have been incorporating 3D objects into their design work more than ever before. This includes logo design, animation, web design, and even user interfaces, especially with the applications available through offerings like XR products.

With so much going on in the world of 3D design, there’s a lot to understand. So, let’s begin our journey by learning what it is and how it is used.

What is 3D design?

3D design is the process of using computer-modeling software to create an object within a three-dimensional space. This means that the object itself has three key values assigned to it in order to understand where it exists within the space.

To better understand this concept, let’s picture that we are standing within a doorway looking into an empty and perfectly square room. Now, let’s place a ball somewhere in that room.

Since the room is not flat, but rather is a three-dimensional space, the ball has three important values that establish where it is located within the room: the x-axis, y-axis, and z-axis.

Visual of p-atomic orbital nodes (angular nodes or nodal planes).
Visual of p-atomic orbital nodes (angular nodes or nodal planes). Image credit Adobe Stock.

The x-axis refers to where the object is located horizontally. To better understand this, picture a bright green line that runs along the floor from the left wall to the right wall. Where the ball sits along that green line is the value that represents the ball’s relationship to where it is located on the x-axis. In other words, it lets you know how close the ball is located to the left wall versus the right wall or vice versa.

Now, picture a red line that runs vertically along the back wall of the room, stretching from the floor to the ceiling. This new line allows you to determine where that ball is located on the y-axis, which means that if the ball could float, you would now be able to tell where it is located vertically in the room as well as horizontally.

Finally, imagine a blue line that starts where you are standing at the room’s only door and runs all the way to the back wall opposite to you. This final line allows you to measure where the ball is located along the z-axis. By determining the depth of where the ball is located, you now know how far from or close to the ball you are compared to the wall at the back of the room.

Simply put, creating an object within a three-dimensional space means the object has three key values associated with it, which determines where it is located within the space. These values are the x-axis (horizontal), y-axis (vertical), and z-axis (depth). Understanding these variables provides the designer with the ability to determine where their 3D-built object can be moved and rotated throughout the space, giving it a similar perspective from what you are used to seeing in the real world.

Interestingly, a machine-learning tool has to determine these same attributes in the real world with its computer vision in order to safely drive a self-driving car.

These values are not only used to determine where our ball sits within the three-dimensional space but also in conveying its size and shape by defining the width, height, and depth of the ball as well.

Visualization demonstrating how a self-driving car detects vehicles nearby to safely drive.
Visualization demonstrating how a self-driving car detects vehicles nearby to safely drive. Image credit Adobe Stock.

Why use 3D design?

Now that you know a little more about the basics of 3D design, let’s discuss why to use it in your work.

Designers are often confronted with unique problems that can be creatively solved, so it helps to have as many tools available in your toolbox as possible. 3D design is one of those tools for designers that brings greater emphasis and visual variety to the elements in your design. This is especially important when considering the human factors associated with UX design because you want to make sure that our digital designs offer a similar experience to the products and systems used in the physical world.

3D design can even be used along with voice user interface design to add a bit of visualization in a largely auditory and typographic landscape. For Apple users, this can be seen whenever Siri is activated on their iPhone.

A photo of the 3D Siri icon used on an Apple smartphone.
A photo of the 3D Siri icon used on an Apple smartphone. Image credit Adobe Stock.

Tools for 3D design

There are a number of 3D modeling software options available, but for ease and simplicity, here are four to begin with, exploring which best fits your design work:

  • 3D Transform: This feature is available through Adobe XD as a way to turn flat icons and elements into 3D looking objects. If you already have Adobe XD, this is a must-have feature, which you can start learning to use today.
  • Blender: An open-source tool that is free to use and a wonderful starting point for any designer who is looking to get started in 3D design without committing to a subscription fee.
  • Autodesk Maya: A powerful tool, Maya is used by several notable animation studios such as Pixar Animation, and is great for those wanting to take their 3D design to the next level. This software offers a free trial for those interested in trying it out.
  • ZBrush: This 3D software is more reasonably priced than Maya and is a great tool for beginners and intermediate designers.

3D design trends to look out for

As 3D design software becomes more available and user-friendly for the general public and designers alike, we will see it being used in a variety of new and interesting ways. Some notable 3D design trends are its use in typography, characters, and isometric design. Let’s take a quick look at each of these.

An example of 3D typography being used in several ways on a poster.
An example of 3D typography being used in several ways on a poster. Image credit Adobe Stock.

3D typography

When 3D design software first became commercially available, there was an influx of 3D typography, so much so that it cluttered most websites in the early 2000s. Since then, 3D design has evolved and is now used more sparingly in order to work along with flat design rather than competing with it. As such, there has been a noticeable trend of using 3D design to emphasize typography on websites, apps, and more.

An example of 3D characters being used to show a couple texting each other using smartphones.
An example of 3D characters being used to show a couple texting each other using smartphones. Image credit Adobe Stock.

3D characters

When people think of 3D, they may associate it with 3D animated movies, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to discover that 3D characters continue trending in 3D design. This includes 3D mascots that represent a company or product, up to and including full-scale animations.

An example of isometric design which shows different scenarios within an office work environment.
An example of isometric design which shows different scenarios within an office work environment. Image credit Adobe Stock.

Isometric design

The wonderful thing about isometric design is that you don’t need any 3D modeling software at all! Simply set up an isometric grid for your Adobe Illustrator artboard and begin designing. Of all the 3D design trends, isometric design has experienced the most recent growth, often seen on websites, presentations, and more.

3D design tips and tricks

The scope of what you can accomplish with 3D design is endless which, while amazing and exciting, can also feel a bit overwhelming at the beginning. To help, here are some tips and tricks to consider when using 3D design:

  • Combining flat and 3D design: Often, 3D and flat design are presented separately. However, they really come to life when they are used together. When done correctly, combining flat and 3D designs can have an amazing and visually stimulating effect while also bringing unity to the overall design.
  • Emphasis using 3D design: Emphasis is a very important design principle to help ensure that users know where and what to click. Implementing 3D sparingly in an AR and VR application is a powerful way to help guide a person through a user flow without hampering their experience.
  • A reason for 3D design: If there is any tip you should remember, it is this: make sure you have a reason for adding 3D to your current design. Adding 3D for just for the sake of adding it could end up negatively impacting your work, not to mention drawing down your available resources, as it is very time consuming. So, if possible, determine the value of implementing 3D designs before executing them.

Variability leads to better designs

Good design is the product of an iterative and explorative process, which is why it is important for all designers to learn and test out different types of mediums for their craft. In doing so, you will discover there are many different tools to help you solve design challenges. 3D design is one of these methods and, when implemented correctly, it can elevate your design in ways you hadn’t thought of before.