Blog: Secrets from the Chef

Swift 3D

Yegor GilyovAuthor: Yegor Gilyov
28 February 2006

I should confess of being skeptical as to 3D modeling in icon design. Really, on the 32×32 or even 48×48 scales these technologies have no room to swing a cat. Simple objects are easy to draw without modeling and complex objects will be a mess anyway. Slight mistakes in perspective building are not critical, whereas it is more important to match the lines with the pixel grid which is done only manually. Shades and highlights will look better in such a limited space if a skilled hand does that instead of a machine — and not at the expense of the result!

But times, they are changing.

Icons in Windows Vista will have a maximum size of 256×256! This cannot be ignored. Being a supporter of the illustrative approach, I’d prefer to retain the privilege of applying highlights, shades and all the visual things nice by myself, but at the same time I am ready to accept help in building the 3D “skeleton”. Let the result of 3D modeling be a half-finished illustration ready for completion in a vector-based editor. Are there tools in place allowing us to do so? Yes there are!

Two first products require 3DS MAX, which is painful. The price to enter the world of 3D icon modeling is way too high. And what about Mac users? Interface designers love working on Macs, and they have a reason to.

Swift 3D

Luckily enough, the third product — Swift 3D — is available both as a standalone application and as a plug-in for 3DS MAX and Lightwave 3D. Both Swift 3D and Swift 3D LW are available both for Windows and Mac. The technology which it is based on, RAViX, is also used in other 3D modeling and animation suites, including Maya! The developer, Electric Rain, has also created ZAM 3D, the tool for creating 3D interface elements, which was recommended by Microsoft to be used together with Expression Graphic Designer (specking of that, take a look at our glance at Microsoft Expression). ZAM 3D is worth another lengthy talk, so now we’ll give Swift 3D a try.

We are going to make a vector-based skeleton of the lock icon, using Swift 3D. The icon is taken from Windows Vista User Experience Guidelines:

Icon example from Windows Vista User Experience Guidelines

Swift 3D allows you to create scenes using 3DS files as basis. I guess this is a good thing when you need to create something more difficult then just a padlock. Our task for today will be okay with the features of the built-in modeler, which bears a proud name of Advanced Modeler.

The program interface won’t strike you with the best usability and convenience. You can feel it is best suited for creating rotating Flash logotypes for web sites. Notwithstanding the primary negative feeling, you really can use it. I modeled the padlock without too much effort:

Advanced Modeler

Apart from the object proper, you need to create a sun (i. e. a light source for the object to cast shadow), an earth (for the shadow to drop) and a camera to be directed to this bliss:

Scene Editor

The position of the light source and the camera, as well as the focus, were chosen by trial and error so that the result looked like our reference from the UX Guide; besides, they are a useful result of our experiment.

After the export to Adobe Illustrator the picture looks as follows:

Image exported to Abobe Illustrator

We only have to transform it so that the vertical lines were strictly vertical and parallel to each other:

Ready sceleton

The icon skeleton is ready. You can now make it nice and beautiful. Those who are interested are welcome to download the Swift 3D scene file and the Adobe Illustrator file that we have made.

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Should you need to handle more demanding modeling tasks, I’d have a look at Blender 3D. Runs on Win, Mac, and Linux. At an unbeatable price; $0.00 ;)

Reply Javier, 28 September 2007

Btw, I failed to mention that I have used 3DSmax from 2.5 to 8 (among other 3D applics), and I’m amazed at the features found in Blender 3D, considering that is free.

I love your web site I must say :)

Reply Javier, 28 September 2007

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