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Turning on Smart Ideas with KeyShot

The originators of OXO unlock the emotional power of digital rendering

By Brett Duesing, Obleo Design Media

How have recent advancements in visualization impacted international product development houses like Smart Design?   The award-winning firm, known for its reinventions of the commonplace like OXO kitchenware, now relies on raytracing for the exchange of visual ideas.  According to John Jacobsen, Senior Design Specialist in Smart’s New York studio, changes in the profession due to technology are happening on three levels:

1. Designers get immediate visual feedback on their designs

Up until a few years ago, a digital rendering of a 3D model was a few days’ project in itself.   But in the new generation of raytracing tools, a photo-quality scene generates in just a few seconds.

Use of the new tools in the internal review at Smart can be seen in the revamp of one of the firm’s most commercially successful products.  Over the last decade, the OXO line of utensils has become an essential of the modern kitchen.

Art in the everyday: “A spoon or a fork might be considered very mundane. They’re objects we might take for granted. But from a 3D point of view, they actually can be quite interesting forms and sometimes challenging to craft. There is a lot of art to the process,” says Jacobsen. (rendering in KeyShot, image: Smart Design)

The biggest difference between the redesign now and the original ten years ago, is that designers can now better see the possibilities.

“Now very early on in our process we looking at completely finished images of the product,” says Jacobsen, who uses Luxion’s KeyShot application.  “The digital tools bring a new latitude.  We’re able to explore different variations and push the boundaries in a free way.”

Jacobsen cites the idea of thin-slicing in Malcolm Gladwell’s popular book, Blink! A trained eye makes remarkably good assessments with just a thin slice of visual information.  The realism of the rendering preview — complete with final materials, colors, and finishes — allows designers to judge the product holistically.

How do I look? Previews in KeyShot raytracing show designers the play of light on different geometries and finishes, like the reflective sheens on the new toddler flatware set, OXO TOT. (rendering in KeyShot, image: Smart Design)

2. Clients clearly see the options

“In a client meeting, I present my initial model and image, but I am in real time adjusting materials and adding some texture, adding some color, or even quickly adding a pattern to the surface.  I may not even know how I’m going to go about it at the outset, but I can extemporize.  I can make a change, get a reaction, then make new adjustments based on that.”

Jacobsen says that clients are now getting more accustomed to the technology.  There used to be a concern about introducing photorealistic examples too early on in the preliminary discussion.  The client might wrongly assume the design is complete and not open to changes.   But that’s not likely to happen, Jacobsen explains.

“Now that clients can see real-time changes in an application like KeyShot, they understand how fluid the technology is.  They perceive the visualizations as more of a game.  A rendered model is not final, but instead something we can play with.”

High-speed raytracing with is now rivaling tradition hand sketching for spontaneity in the conference room.  “Some people say:  pen and paper  — there’s nothing more fluid than that.  But the hardware and software are converging to this point where the response is so immediate.  The technology becomes transparent and you’re simply communicating your ideas.”

Loose conceptual sketches still have their role in designer’s processes, Jacobsen says, but they have their limitations as well.

“A sketch is a bit like poetry.  Readers can make several different interpretations,” he says.  “Various interpretations might be okay for poetry.  For product design, probably not.  The reality is that clients need more certainties and less abstractions in order to have the confidence to make decisions.”

Utensiltarian: The iconic OXO utensil line is getting a design overall after more than ten years. “Essentially this new redesign is more minimal and pure in form relative to the original set which was more generous in both form and material,” says John Jacobsen. The redesign takes in account changing consumer sensibilities which favor more efficient, lighter-weight forms. (rendering in KeyShot, image: Smart Design)

3. Visuals sell the idea outside the design process

The term among industrial designers and product photographers for a favorable product portrayal is beauty shot. Developers of KeyShot seem to have set up the rendering environment to generate beauty shots almost by default.  Accurate materials, studio lighting, and soft shadows on pure backgrounds seem to generate automagically.  Drag a few materials onto the surfaces, and a simple engineering model suddenly exudes the glamor of a glossy magazine ad.

Couching new concepts in the same commercial sheen familiar in advertising and product packaging extends the purpose of rendering from just visualization to that of persuasion.

“I’ve seen it with our business.  In the very early stages our clients are asking for a certain kind of imagery so that they can sell the idea internally in their company, or that they can communicate the idea to outside stakeholders,” says Jacobsen. “They might just want their sales team to know the next thing they’re going to be selling.  They might show it to a buyer at Target to get an early commitment.  The physical product’s not ready yet, but they can start to set the stage.”

As an industrial designer, Jacobsen’s focus is the concept.  Especially at Smart Design, the focus is on how people use products and improving their everyday experience.  But to get to that point, people have to buy it first.  Most of that decision-making – whether you’re a retail buyer or just a customer — rests on the visual.

“Visual information just has this emotional power that overshadows anything abstract you can say about a product.  The image is what people come away with and remember later,” says Jacobsen.  So it’s no surprise clients are starting to use renderings to prime the pump of potential sales.

“That has become sort of the new thing.  We really didn’t consider imagery as its own deliverable in the past, but the fidelity of the images that we produce now and the speed with which we can produce them makes it a very viable request.  It works for everyone.  If I can get the client and their team excited, it helps them to get their buyers excited, and it makes my efforts even more successful. Not only that, I may even get some feedback from the buyer, so it plays a real pivotal role in the design and development of the product and on many levels,” says Jacobsen.

“At the end of the day, an application like KeyShot is an incredible tool.  We designers don’t talk about it that way as it’s a part of our job, but when you sit back and reflect about the role it’s playing, that’s not unrealistic statement.”

A version of this article was printed in CADalyst.

About Smart Design
Smart Design creates informed and inspired design for people and memorable brands for clients.  The award-winning Smart Design team has been turning insight and innovation into successful consumer experiences for over 25 years. Smart Design’s approach integrates product development, interactive experiences, brand communication, and strategic insights to ensure winning design solutions.  Smart Design’s consistent results are delivered by its multi-disciplinary, international staff working in teams across offices in New York, San Francisco, and Barcelona.  For more information, please visit: www.smartdesignworldwide.com.

About Luxion

For more information about Luxion KeyShot for photorealistic 3D rendering, please visit: www.keyshot.com

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