Why creative professionals are joining the 3D revolution

Image by Jon Vio made with Adobe Dimension, House of van Schneider.

It only took 60 years, but 3D has evolved from being a movie theater novelty to ruling the cinema with CGI. Similarly, we’re seeing the explosion of 3D in graphic design. It’s a move that’s impossible for creative professionals to miss.

Trend articles are rife with how 3D is permeating graphic design — whether it’s simply the look of 3D as seen with neumorphism or complex visual effects that defy what exists in real life. Illustrations, animations, and even typography are evolving to include 3D elements as seen in isometric design, combinations of 2D plus 3D, or mixed media like video with animated 3D illustrations. And brand identities aren’t exempt either, as evidenced in BBC Two’s rebrand.

Memory Palette” by Khyati Trehan made with Adobe Dimension.

This trend is no accident — many forces are at play that are bringing 3D to the forefront of design. This traditionally hard-to-master and expensive-to-produce art form is now benefiting from artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning technology that makes it more accessible and intuitive. For example, the democratization of 3D tools allows designers to easily apply textures and light sources based on real-world physics. But the outcomes don’t have to be real.

The increasing power of 3D in design

There are countless benefits to this 3D boom. For starters, 3D in design helps increase, enhance, and accelerate creative expression for creatives and graphic designers, all while making graphic design more efficient.

“3D is a medium that can truly reflect the real world,” says Jeanette Mathews, Adobe product manager and digital artist. “That realism — being able to share an idea in its truest form rather than an abstract representation — makes a world of difference for understanding a concept.”

But 3D isn’t limited to reality, she says. “3D also enables you to do things that would be impossible otherwise. You can have a car made out of ice cream — this creates an interesting mix of impossible but realistic-looking scenarios.”

For the team at Elastic, a creative design studio that specializes in crafting next-level title sequences for feature films and TV shows, 3D has been a critical factor in their success. Anyone who has gawked at the opening title sequences for HBO’s Westworld, Game of Thrones, or His Dark Materials or has seen some of Apple’s and Google’s more eye-popping advertisements is familiar with the studio’s work. Elastic used AI-powered tools like 3D texturing software Substance 3D to create these epic visual experiences.

Image source: Elastic TV.

“3D allows us to take strong creative concepts and develop them beyond the limits of 2D into something fuller and more fleshed out that clients can connect with instantly,” says Elastic creative director Clarissa Donlevy.

Luke Colson, Elastic’s executive producer, adds, “With our design process, before going into animation, we’re building more in 3D first. That way, when we pitch ideas to our clients, they can see what the finished product is going to look like — as picture-perfect, beautiful, competitive frames that are nearly as complete as the final sequence that airs — before we’ve even started the process. This is a huge improvement on how things were previously, where we were asking our clients to take a huge creative and imaginative leap of faith on a concept. It’s made things quicker and easier — and with much more firepower.”

Breaking into the 3D revolution

But not all designers come to Elastic knowing how to use the power of 3D right off the bat because 3D has traditionally been a difficult medium to break into.

“It is full of opportunity, but there are also so many technical hurdles to it.” Jeanette says.

Anna Natter, who trained as a traditional animator and worked as a designer in the television industry, was deterred by not only the technical learning curve required for 3D, but also the price tag. “I tried different 3D software during my career, but they were too complicated and not affordable for normal people,” she says. “When I started freelancing, I couldn’t just pay $3,000 or $4,000 for something that I didn’t have clients for.”

Crystal Castle” by Anna Natter made with Adobe Dimension.

Not too long ago, graphic designer and visual artist Khyati Trehan recognized the power of 3D but found herself standing on the outside of the medium, looking in. “It started with wanting to manipulate photography,” she says. “Then I realized that instead of hunting for the right kind of pictures and distorting them to fit a form I wanted, I could just create all of it from scratch, exactly the way I wanted it.”

But the barriers to entry were high, starting with learning to use the 3D tools of the time. “When I opened the tools, they were very, very intimidating. It definitely took a lot of self-discipline to do it regularly. I had to be almost religious about it,” she remembers. “The hardest part was realizing that the actual task at hand was to understand reality and how to re-create it. It’s the arduous process of understanding how light falls. It’s looking around you at textures and then translating those to 3D.”

Fortunately, barriers like this are exactly the things that can be overcome with new technology.

Overcoming barriers to 3D with AI

The increase of AI and machine learning in creative tools is simplifying the experience of creating 3D designs. Using tools like Adobe Dimension and Substance 3D with features powered by Adobe Sensei (Adobe’s AI/ML technology), creative professionals can better adapt to include 3D design in their visuals, storytelling, and experiences in multiple media.

“Using Substance and other tools that use AI has become more about shortening a task that is typically long and tedious — like creating a specific movement or behavior or creating lighting that has a lot of depth and smoke and atmosphere,” says Clarissa. “They let us realize our vision much more quickly, usually in real time.”

Dimension lessens learning curves and eliminates many tedious tasks that typically accompany the 3D process. For example, a designer can instantly place a graphic on a 3D model in perspective. Traditionally, this might require UV mapping and creating 2D textures that are then rewrapped on a 3D object, a process that could take hours and requires specialized training and extensive hands-on experience.

“When we’re out in the world, humans aren’t just interacting with color,” says Nathan Carr, research director at Adobe. “Objects shine. They reflect. Surfaces are glossy — they have different appearances. Using these [3D] solutions, designers can play with light and material in interactive and delightful ways.”

“For example, we have an AI-driven system — Image to Material — for generating 3D materials from single source photos,” explains Tamy Boubekeur, director of research, 3D & immersive at Adobe. “With it, you can transform a simple photo into a physically based material.” This AI system, he says, also uses a procedural mechanism, which utilizes a rule set for some feature extraction. Procedural mechanisms are therefore complementary to AI, make 3D much quicker, and have the benefit of being nondestructive, so users can precisely adjust them down the pipeline.

Image to Material, he adds, can de-light source images, remove shadows, and detect highlights. AI enables the solution to distinguish what darkness and shadowing is caused by ambient light and what is caused by intrinsic color variations. What’s more, thanks to its high-quality training set, Image to Material generates extremely accurate normal and height maps.

“There are really two technologies at work,” says Tamy. “One is the procedural graphics technology that synthesizes everything. And the other one is AI — this is the learning piece. When you mix synthesizing and learning with state-of-the-art technology on both sides, you get an expressive power out of a single artifact or asset, which is huge.”

Democratizing creativity with AI

Not only has the evolution and expansion of AI in design enabled experienced teams to push their creative bounds, but it’s also allowed individual designers and artists to upskill and expand.

“I can say comfortably that any user can sit down in front of Dimension and make a photorealistic composition in 3D — including a model, a graphic, materials, and lighting — in a couple of minutes,” says Jeanette. The product is integrated with Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop, she notes, so 2D graphic design elements can easily be inserted into existing workflows.

Dimension also has the capability to instantly composite a 2D background image with a 3D scene in a cohesive, photorealistic manner. Using built-in AI and ML features, Dimension automatically detects the horizon and lighting in a background photograph, and aligns the 3D scene to match both the perspective and lighting. This automates a difficult step in the compositing process — the level of realism can take hours and still might not be possible to get the level of cohesion between the photo and the 3D scene in other tools. Now it can be done in a second.

“If you get the lighting wrong on the object, then the shadows will go in the wrong direction, and then it won’t look like part of the scene,” Nathan says. “This AI technology takes a multistep process and makes it doable with a single click.” As a result, Nathan adds, when you put objects into the image, they look like they match.

Next steps in the 3D design revolution

As new AI-powered 3D tools democratize the use of 3D for designers, the possibilities for brands for the foreseeable future are boundless. Kirk Shintani, the head of Elastic’s 3D team, sees a need to apply these powerful new and existing tools to create a more engaging customer experience.

“How do we leverage all that technology in a unique, creative way that actually gives it purpose beyond just executing for execution sake?” he asks. “I think there will be more growth in how we can integrate creative across main titles and commercials and other media to make it a better experience for the audience.”

Khyati sees more leaps in AI-assisted 3D tools that will continue to subsume the more menial tasks of the designer. “I wonder if the next big thing is for designers to be able to easily scan physical objects around them and modify them in the computer to create a 3D model,” she says. “When that happens, it could really disrupt the 3D modeling pipeline.”

Nathan agrees.

“I think there will be continued advances in understanding the depth and shape of objects in a photo. You’ll be able to load a photo and quickly align 3D shapes to the surfaces — it’s basically a deeper composite.”

When this happens, he adds, “It’s no longer a collection of 3D triangles. It’s an automobile or a wheel that spins. Being able to auto infer such semantics and operate on 3D shapes at a higher level makes tasks easier for designers learning to create in 3D.”

AI has also proved very efficient at “denoising,” Tamy notes. “Denoising — removing noise from renders — is a tedious process that AI has proved to be fairly efficient at,” he explains. “In the future, real time experiences, such as AR and VR rendering, could be largely supported by AI technologies.”

For now, though, AI is empowering designers to create anything they imagine, with a freedom that can only be enabled by 3D tools.

“Ultimately, 3D in graphic design adds dimension, depth, and an element of realism. It’s a more immersive, enjoyable experience,” says Clarissa. “That, in turn, creates more buzz and excitement from the audience, and that’s exciting to us.”

Discover more about Adobe Sensei AI and machine learning, and how Adobe Dimension and Substance are revolutionizing designing in 3D.