From Sketch to AR: Creative Process for Aerospace Design

Tomas: I’ve been drawing since I was small. I went to art school, then studied in Finland at Lahti Industrial Design. That’s where I first encountered 3D software. But I hated it – the precision of it, the mathematics; I thought it wasn’t my thing. But somehow with time I found myself getting into it. Right now, I’m a design consultant working with different clients helping to build brand value by generating new design ideas or beautiful 3D models.  

Justin: I’m Justin Patton, Lead Creative Director and 3D Generalist, working at Adobe for the past five years. I came into the 3D field from being an artist who finds endless intrigue in how art and technology interplay and drive innovation in one another. I learned how to draw perspective from a computer program as a kid in the 90s, and now I can sculpt 3D models in real-world space with motion controllers in virtual reality. I get to do this and much more on the Special Projects team within Adobe 3D&I. 

Tomas, can you tell us more about the seat design? How did the project start and what were you aiming to achieve with the model? 

When I worked with London design agency Tangerine, we did a lot of transportation projects such as train interiors, aviation interiors and automotive. I can’t share any material I worked on with clients, so in this article I’m sharing something I designed on my own in order to reflect the skillset in transportation design. 

The seat project showcases robust design decisions, great sense of proportion, sketching, and surface design skills. I took the idea from scratch to a fully detailed model in just a couple of weeks. 

Tell us more about the design process. What tools do you use and how do you go from an idea to concept and eventually to a 3D model? 

Everything starts in your mind. I first doodle some sketches; if I ultimately see some value in these, I go and refine the idea some more.  

Then I take that idea into 3D and see how it keeps improving there. This sketchy 3D proportion study is done in CATIA Imagine & Shape. That’s when you start to understand whether the concept works or not; I keep improvising and rapidly tweaking the shape. 

When I’m happy with the rough proportions, I may overlay it with more detailed sketches done in Photoshop. At this point it’s starting to look more refined and finished:  

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And finally, I refine the model in CATIA Imagine & Shape. My aim is to make a model that should look better than the sketches, giving another loop of creativity while still maintaining the design intent. This data can be CNC milled, 3D printed and visualized, or sent to engineering for a feasibility check. 

Justin, how did you plan out your workflow to obtain the desired results? 

I generally try to extract as much as I can in terms of creating a story around the projects that I work on, and this becomes something that can be presented to users as an idea or example for workflows as well as feedback for the teams who design the tools. I will work within the context of Adobe’s toolset as much as I can and augment it whenever I need to.  

For this project it was really an exploration of how someone coming from industrial design could utilize our toolset for material design, iteration, and presentation. Within it I was able to test our geometry conversion for CAD content, explore material design within the industrial design context, evaluate our batch processing abilities for rendering and post, and try new methods for iterative feedback and final presentation. 

How did you go about the material design for the seat?

This was a mix of utilizing Substance Source for gathering high-quality assets that were already close to what we needed, as well as using Substance Designer to create custom elements where I needed to match a specific pattern. We were focused on nuanced detail; since the seat asset is more or less pristine, the design was all in the minute details of the materials used. 

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Materials were applied to the seat using Substance Painter. The obvious benefit in Substance Painter is the speed with which we can iterate on designs and the flexibility it gives you in the methods for applying and modifying those materials. 

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For certain elements I created custom assets so I could swap out the designs as they were applied. Here is an example of an asset for the UI elements which were applied as a decal on the glass surface: 

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Elements like the stitching were applied using a custom brush that allowed them to be quickly painted on: 

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Once you finished the texturing process, explain your layout and visualization process in Dimension. 

There’s an output template from Substance Painter that exports the mesh and maps together which will import directly into Dimension, ready to go. The Substance .sbsar files are also directly supported, so you can import a material that you’ve created in Substance Designer into the app and have access to its parameters as you’d expect. 

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Once the model is in Dimension it becomes an exercise in lighting and framing. In the context of the seat the scene is quite minimal, as we’re so focused on its design. For lighting in this controlled context one of the main goals is to accentuate the shape of the subject. Highlights and shadows are placed in ways that help create depth and, in some cases, to lead your eye to certain details.  

This is done using Dimension’s lighting tools where you can create and position light shapes on the environment light. One of the most useful features is the option to place a light on a surface. Since the lighting process can be very indirect at times, this is a very useful option to have because it allows you to place highlights very precisely on the surfaces of objects. 

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When choosing shots I generally look for an interesting detail to focus on and then work to frame it in a way that creates a nice composition. I found this process very easy with Tomas’s seat design because it has a lot of strong angles and shapes that interplay with materials and light very well. It was fun to point the camera at it, and create a piece of art. 

The main shot is straightforward, for which I also had reference from a previous project. It presents the seat as a whole and at a slight angle; this reveals as much detail as possible and shows its full 3D form. 

I used different approaches for the others. Here I used a longer focal length to flatten out the image. With the seat in profile it turns the elements of the seat into two dimensional shapes which I use to divide up the frame. The outer seat frame is well lit but with minimal detail. This cuts a very interesting shape out of the image frame. The seat elements are brightly colored and detailed, which creates visual separation and draws the eye. These two elements cut out another shape in negative space from the background. 

The 2D shapes isolated: 

In a shot like this there are some obvious elements that lead your eye to the details of the speaker. The leading angles of the frame and lighting highlight draw you straight to it. Still, there are more details to explore which are not the primary focus. The secondary elements where the light casts onto the seat in the background and the seat number in the foreground both add visual interest to an otherwise simple composition. 

For the layout of the interior of the plane, I had received individual sections of the plane interior from Tomas which only needed to be repeated to create the scene. For efficiency, in Dimension there is an option to paste an object as an instance, which is very useful for keeping the size of the scene at a reasonable level. After duplicating the objects, the Align and Distribute feature is used for quickly placing the assets in sequence. 

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To light the interior of the plane the intent is to create more of a natural-looking scene. As such, the lighting approach becomes an emulation of what happens in the real world. I have light coming through the open windows which gives a nice soft falloff as it spreads through the cabin. I learned from Dimension’s rendering team that the best method for lighting interiors through windows in Dimension is to fill the windows with an emitting plane for optimal sampling. This can be done through the material of any object with the glow attribute. 

In realistic scenes I look for plausible in-scene lights that I can use to control the lighting further. Here I assume that the overhead lights can act as practical sources of illumination. And it’s still okay to cheat with an off-camera emitting plane for a direct light in cases where your options are limited. 

For framing the interior, I use some of the same methods and rules I apply to the minimal scene, but I approach it more as a photographer in the real-world would. I may choose an angle from eye level where someone could actually stand. This gives a more realistic perspective of someone walking through the scene. When I set attributes on the camera I’ll consider settings that are plausible for that environment in terms of focal length and depth of field. 

The layout complete, how did you use cloud rendering and why? What were the benefits of seeing the model in the context of an airplane interior? 

The cloud renderer allowed me to render every shot at once, as opposed to in sequence on my machine. Each image was taking twenty minutes or more on my machine so it would have taken several hours to see all the results. Rendering on the cloud allowed me to see results in a fraction of the time, and it also kept my machine free to work on other things, including working in Dimension. 

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I rendered the images at around 2.5K. It’s reasonable to process at this resolution and it will look good on almost all screens. I always render images to 32bit in order to preserve details in any overexposed areas. 

Visualizing the seat in the context of the airplane interior is important as a step in the process of iterating towards reality, which I believe is crucial in industrial design, as this is the ultimate goal. Creating stylized visualizations in controlled ‘studio-like’ setups is useful for isolating and presenting a design idea in a very focused way. It may be a more inspirational representation of the idea. Creating more realistic visualizations such as the interior give a practical perspective that may be overlooked in the stylized version. 

The interior scene also serves as an evaluation of Dimension’s capabilities. Scenes like this have not been a priority in Dimension’s design scope up to this point, so creating the scene in this way reveals areas where the app needs to improve and creates ideas for new features. 

Post processing: how did Photoshop come in handy here? 

Photoshop of course is useful for all matters in color grading and compositing. I used it here for some simple color adjustments and emulated camera effects like bloom and chromatic aberration. Tomas also had a 2D design accent that I added here as well. To streamline this process for the many renders I was generating, I recorded my adjustments as a Photoshop action. This allowed me to apply the same adjustments to the consecutive renders very quickly by batch processing them with that action. 

For the final part of your process, please explain how you prepared the model for real-time viewing in the augmented reality app Adobe Aero? What are the benefits of seeing your model at 1:1 scale? 

David Larsson, a member of the Special Projects team, has been putting together a tool that links Simplygon and the Substance Automation Toolkit together to automatically optimize models for real-time use, so we’ve been using this as one of the testing assets as he iterates on the tool. The process would typically take hours or longer for an artist to create a low-resolution version of the mesh, and then project the high-resolution mesh and material details onto it with much lower resolution textures and fewer maps. With the tool, we take the assets straight from the Substance Painter export and let the tool do all that work, which is a huge time saver. 

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Visualizing the asset in AR or VR is another step in iterating towards reality. It allows you to evaluate elements of scale and perspective that you don’t get from looking only at renders. It’s even possible to make the content interactive with sound and animation to create dynamic experiences that were not possible before. 

How did you use Adobe Spark to present the project? 

Adobe Spark allows you to publish and share content to the web in a variety of templatized formats. It’s basically drag and drop, and you get a professional-looking presentation to share anywhere, so it’s very handy for exactly that. It takes little effort and people are always impressed by the results, so it’s an easy win for artists who are looking for a clean way to showcase their work. 

If you’re interested, you can check out the Spark page here.

How did Adobe XD help in iterating faster with Tomas? 

XD is extremely useful for sharing and iterating on content. It allows you to freely build your own layouts and has a built-in design review system for when you publish and share. I created an image grid that linked to the individual high-resolution renders and Tomas was able to leave detailed feedback directly on the web with the published link I sent him. 

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Whenever a change was requested, I would update the XD doc with the new renders and update the same link. I even built in an A/B comparison button so he could compare new iterations with the previous version. 

I was also experimenting with using XD for the final presentation, where I created a configurator that could switch through colorways and patterns. It can be published as a presentation only, so there are no extra UI elements on the web interface, to create a clean experience.

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Tomas, was this your first experience working closely with a design visualizer? How was this experience, the iteration process and, of course, are you happy with the results?  

It was great to work with Justin; even with him being on the other side of the world, having this workflow worked out fine. For me, it’s important to have as many loops as possible before reaching the final result; Justin made that possible with the latest Adobe tools. 

Aero is amazing. I can work from anywhere and see the model at 1:1 scale, look at different areas, and make design decisions right there. What else do you need? I think it’s the future; we designers should be spending more time in XR-type interfaces rather than being stuck to screens. 

Want to try Aero yourself? Download the optimized seat model for free and get to play with it in AR by downloading the Aero app on your phone!