Digital Technologies: Commercial: Interior designers weigh in on digital design tools - June 2017

By Beth Miller

Online design tools continue to evolve at a rapid pace. Designers use several third-party tools for rendering 3D models and designing project documents, along with social media for visualization purposes, as well as the design services offered by the bigger suppliers in the industry. Interior designers are uniquely combining these resources to accomplish their project visualization needs. Floor Focus reached out to four commercial interior designers across the country to find out what tools they utilize when designing a project, why they use them and what developments they would like to see in the next generation of design software.

While Autodesk has to some extent cornered the technology market when it comes to digital visualization tools, since it is considered by many the industry standard, the tools mentioned span a wide spectrum ranging from SketchUp and Autodesk’s Revit to hand-drawn sketches and social media.

Versatility in software and photo-realism of project modeling play a huge role in the technology used by Deborah Elliot, president, and Andrew Fordham, senior designer, of ID Studios based in southern California. SketchUp Pro and Revit are the primary tools they use to create 3D models. However, the pros and cons of each, according to both Elliot and Fordham, have pushed software creators to introduce other tools, such as plug-ins like SU Podium that allow for photo-realistic rendering, as well as Photoshop for image enhancements.

According to Fordham, neither Revit nor SketchUp are stand-alone tools capable of producing the various documents and images needed for each project, though the combination of the two tools does meet most of their design needs. Fordham admits that Revit is not efficient at creating presentational images; however, this is where SketchUp comes in. “When I’m doing dimensioning and notation and cross-sections and other very technical drawing aspects, Revit is the tool we use,” says Fordham. “SketchUp does not do that for us. SketchUp is for those presentational images, and those are usually where we want good imagery of the carpet or tile so that we can input it into this program that gives us ‘pretty pictures.’” To present their projects with a photo-realistic look, other third-party programs, plug-ins and extensions are incorporated.

SU Podium is a software plug-in designed to work with SketchUp to produce photo-realistic renderings. Photoshop is used to add in more realistic lighting, people and atmosphere, and, says Fordham, “It’s a quicker tool to use.” In addition to the plug-ins, numerous third-party extensions exist for SketchUp that allow designers to add landscaping features to a project and various other visuals.

Despite the limitations of the programs, cost continues to be a point of contention for many designers who find free or more cost-effective solutions with other digital products. Many third party tools like Revit can be expensive, but the advantages tend to offset the cost. Free tools do exist, but many software providers have transitioned to charging monthly or annual fees. In 2006, Google bought SketchUp, which at the time was a free 3D designer tool, then sold it to Trimble in 2012. Trimble in turn created SketchUp Pro, a more sophisticated version, though it still offers a free, scaled-down version of Pro called SketchUp Make.

For Elliot and Fordham, the introduction of manufacturer tools comes in when working on large, complex, build-to-suit projects. In an example of one of these projects, Elliot says, the floorcovering becomes more and more varied, adding, “Many manufacturers have gotten so vast on their offering within carpet tiles that the combinations are endless.” Elliot says that due to the many variations with the carpet tile specifications combined with the spectrum of manufacturer offerings, it only makes sense to allow the manufacturer to run the pattern. “They use their own internal visualizer to set up the combinations of patterns and the color combinations, and they’re running the corridors for us,” Elliot says. “They’re running the open office look for us, they’re running what a typical office connected to the open office looks like, and they’re providing us those images for us to show our client. And it’s saving us hundreds of hours. Not only are they running it, but they are running it realistically with that exact color and that exact pattern.”

Fordham admits the downfall of relying on manufacturers to produce project images is that “we relinquish some control.” Due to the complexity of the floorcovering offerings and project specifications, miscommunication between the designer and the product representative can become an issue. This leads to images being incorrect and, ultimately, lost time. Fordham admits that despite any communication issues, “I think because these manufacturers are being tasked with fleshing out our floor plans for us, they understand what is needed because now it’s their problem. They understand that these images that they provide on their website are critical for us to use.”

Fordham continues, “Manufacturers can produce these images themselves. It gives them the understanding of how we would produce the images. So manufacturers have come a long way, but I think the better they get at producing images, the more they also make their carpets more complex, which we like. But it can be more and more difficult as they raise the bar. Now that the carpet is so complex, it’s hard for manufacturers to keep up with their own product.”

Fordham offers a solution to carpet manufacturers’ online tools that he imagines to work much like the video game Tetris, allowing carpet tiles to be flipped and turned any way needed within the visualizer tool. Elliot and Fordham would like to see a program developed that could take the accuracy and technical capabilities that characterize Revit and combine them with the presentational ability that SketchUp offers, eliminating the need to constantly import and export files from one program to the other.

While many interior designers rely heavily on third party visualization tools, Shawn Alshut, an architect and interior designer and the owner of Studio A2 based in Decatur, Georgia, has a unique approach to specifying client projects. Alshut’s approach can be characterized as resourceful and efficient, finding a way around expensive third-party tools. At the top of her list is Pinterest. According to Alshut, Pinterest is a place where she draws inspiration, allowing her to create a collage of ideas and products, or “virtual clipping files,” as she refers to them.

Clipping files are actual physical files with a collection of newspaper clippings on a specific topic. There may be only a few articles or clippings all the way up to hundreds in a file. In the digital age, “clippings” take on a whole new meaning. Essentially, the entire Internet is a system of files full of “clippings.” Alshut has figured out how to use Pinterest to save time and money when presenting to a client or project team, “It’s a good way to send information off to people and have a conversation with them about concepts and details,” says Alshut, who feels that it is a quick way to determine what a client likes or dislikes.

Alshut prefers to hand sketch her projects and concepts when working on individual projects, and spends a great deal of time working with a client using these sketches combined with the Pinterest “files” she organizes. When it is time to move into creating a 3D model, for much larger projects Alshut outsources this work to someone in the field who does this solely or makes use of the many online manufacturer tools like those offered by Shaw and Interface.

“I do a lot of searching on supplier websites based on what I’m looking for,” says Alshut. “When I’m working with suppliers to specify floorcovering for a corporate project, I’m working with the suppliers in terms of the tools that they have.” According to Alshut, when she’s involved with these much larger corporate projects, it is more efficient for her to reach out to manufacturers and those on a collaborative team to produce a 3D model. This frees her up to do all the footwork in terms of reviewing specifications. Of these manufacturer websites, Alshut says, “I will spend as much time in there as I need to, digging around, finding the information, getting the visuals.”

Alshut admits that, despite technology’s rapid growth, “You can always find a way to use the information that you’ve been given or the information you’ve acquired or the knowledge you’ve acquired in a slightly different way to assist you. Of course, you always have to keep adding. Never stop. Always learn.”

When deciding what online resources to use in specifying a project, Tamara Bopp, director of interior design with Hahnfeld Hoffer Stanfeld out of Fort Worth, Texas, starts with streamlining her workflow and efficiency. The firm was introduced to MyResourceLibrary (MRL) last fall and is considering it as a replacement for bulky project binders.

According to MRL’s website, it is a virtual library where designers can locate manufacturer pricing for products as well as the up-to-date specs for each product. Since the software is Internet-based, designers can access their libraries anywhere, anytime and share with anyone. According to MRL’s website, the program allows for “complete customization” through its premium versions. “I can tell them what manufacturers I want, and they will create a Hahnfeld Hoffer Stanfeld library for us,” explains Bopp. “We can use that to put packages together to present to a client.”

“In the past, you had to come up with your own template, cut and paste things from the website to put into your specifications, and then go and find the website for each one,” says Bopp. The choice to go with MRL simply eliminates these steps and creates a more fluid workflow.

Despite the popularity and continued refinement of digital visualization tools, Bopp says that she and her team begin with inspiration drawings and images along with an “inspiration palette” filled with products the client can interact with. However, once the client has determined what floorcoverings, wall finishes and furnishings they desire, a 3D model is created using Revit.

“[Revit] is a great tool for designers,” adds Bopp. “Instead of relying on your mind to try to visualize it in 3D-where materials stop and start, what you need to have for a transition-you can actually pull it up.” If a client decides they want to cover an area with carpet tile instead of LVT, the 3D image can be manipulated to remove the LVT and replace it with carpet tile.

Bopp notes that the majority of the employees in the studio are 30 years old and under, and they use Pinterest a great deal to pull together images and color palettes for clients. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes starting point when beginning to pull together a project for a client, the presentation always starts with product samples for the client to view and touch.

As for the future of visualization technology, Bopp would like to see virtual reality goggles that would link to Revit software, allowing designers and clients the ability to walk through their project.

Physical binders and files may be going digital, but sketches and product samples still remain a part of a designer’s presentation to the client. The tactile experience continues to be a core aspect of specifying floorcovering for a project. However, the tools used to accomplish the digital sketches, 3D models and photo-realistic presentations are varied and span a wide spectrum from supplier tools to technical drawing software to visualization tools. It seems that each combination of tools has its own issues, but they provide timesaving solutions that offset those issues.

Autodesk offers two primary products that are geared toward architecture, engineering and construction: Autocad and Revit, and both can be used for 3D modeling and project visualization. Autocad is a CAD (computer-aided design) drafting program that can produce sophisticated construction documents, and Revit is BIM (building information modeling) software designed to work in conjunction with Autocad or as a stand-alone program. However, Revit has rapidly been incorporated into the design world as a way to produce 3D models and easily change various elements within the model to represent what the client has envisioned for their project.

According to Autodesk’s website, “BIM is an intelligent 3D model-based process that equips architecture, engineering, and construction professionals with the insight and tools to more efficiently plan, design, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure.”

Trimble’s SketchUp is a drawing tool created for architects, designers and engineers. While it is capable of many of the same functions as Revit, it possesses the one feature that Revit does not-the ability to produce presentational models.

Copyright 2017 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:ID Studios, Interface, Coverings, Shaw Industries Group, Inc.