Getting Started in 3D

How to get your bearings in a 3D modeling environment.

Traditionally, drafting has been about flat, 2D views of 3D objects. Modeling software is virtual space where objects can be created in all three dimensions. There are a bunch of great 3D modeling programs out there: AutoCAD, Vectorworks, Sketchup, Unity, Rhino, 3DMax, Capture… They each have some of their own quirks, but they share a lot of general concepts. Whether you’re new to it all or switching platforms, keep a few things in mind to stay frustration-free.


3D CAD software is more sculpting than drafting. Drafting takes place on a flat plane, but sculpting requires 360° of space and the ability to look at objects and scenes from different angles. Objects have textures and light bounces in a realistic way. Typically, there’s a virtual camera that defines your point of view in the scene—that way you can walk through a virtual space or get a birds-eye-view from overhead.


If you need a visual, add a Z to the idea of an XY axis. An XY axis gets you a piece of paper—left/right, up/down. But the Z axis is a new dimension that literally jumps off the page and creates a cube of three-dimensional space. Objects with a Z height—like lights—can now hang in space instead of sitting on the ground.


Working in 3D is fun and it’s possible to see a project come together quickly. It’s also possible to get frustrated as a result of sloppy object movement. Since computer monitors are flat screens, it’s easy to think you’re moving an object inches to the left, and wind up moving it feet away from you. There will come a day when we all draft in VR, but until then, be sure to learn how to recognize when you’re moving objects in the correct direction; some programs lock in to red, green, and blue lines to represent movement in the XYZ axes, for instance.


If something’s frustrating you about a program, you might be able to change it. In some cases, that function you really need but can’t find—like zoom out—is accessed by holding down a modifier key like shift or command. If the windows on your screen aren’t showing what you need to know, rearrange them and open new ones. Find yourself struggling to locate a certain tool? Create your own keyboard shortcut. 3D CAD software is powerful—and usually heavily customizable.


Casual users can get started in CAD on most modern computers, but calculating millions of shapes and light rays per second can eat up processing time and create a laggy experience. For example, placing a mirror in a photo-realistic room means that mirror acts like a mirror, so your computer needs to process the front and back of objects at the same time. If you’re shopping for a new 3D modeling computer, look for ones with the most powerful GPU (Graphics Processing Unit) you can afford.

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