What 3D modeling software should I use to make infographics?
November 29, 2010 11:28 PM   Subscribe

What is the best 3D software (preferably for Mac) for doing stuff besides modeling motorcycle parts and video game characters? I'm primarily interested in creating things like infographics in 3D.

I don't necessarily mind if they ALSO do things like making parts, but if there's software that's made more from an artist angle than from an engineer angle. On the other hand, maybe to do this kind of precise infographic work I need a tool made for engineers. tl;dr I know nothing about 3D software, and I'm ready to learn whatever's the "best".

I don't think I have any budget constraints on new software, so let me know any and all suggestions.

I'm also curious how things like this are designed/created. I imagine some sort of 3D modeling software, but I could be mistaken (and I have no idea how they'd export it to be able to be printed/cut/folded)

Any tips in terms of representing data in 3D forms would also be appreciated.

Thanks a bunch,
posted by ejfox to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In the olden times, many of the graphic designers I knew at school learned (what I am perhaps incorrectly calling) "packaging design" (the essential skill involved to create the items in your second link, if those are paper) with paper, cutting tools and bone folders. I learned to draft the 2D projections of 3D objects in my high school drafting class — a skill one needs to create 3D objects/volumes with material that is flat (think sheet metal). I doubt anyone does this anymore.

SketchUp plugins are available which allow one to transform SketchUp models into paper models.
posted by Dick Paris at 3:57 AM on November 30, 2010

For generating pre-rendered animation: If you're willing to deal with a steep(er) learning curve to save money, try Blender, an open-source 3d content creation tool. It definitely comes from the artistic, rather than the CAD (computer aided design) tradition. If you're willing to spend a few thousand dollars and get a Windows PC, there's also Maya. Both apps have APIs through which you could import data and programmatically generate meshes/textures. Blender's is in Python; Maya last I checked used a Lua-ish language called Mel. Be forewarned that learning anything in this space will be a significant time commitment -- there's a lot of complexity in any of these packages!

If you're interested in interactive data-vis and/or would rather program than push polygons around with your mouse, there's also a whole suite of "Creative Code" environments that do programatic graphics and are widely used data vis: Processing if you like Java, OpenFrameworks or Cinder if you like C/C++.

Check out VisualComplexity for one source of spiffy infographics and animated/interactive data visualizations, some of which are in 3d.
posted by Alterscape at 5:41 AM on November 30, 2010

Best answer: Maya runs on Mac, but I use Cinema 4D. Less expensive than Maya, much easier learning curve than either Maya or Blender and plays well with a multitude of formats and data types. The MoGraph module would be a good add on for dataviz. Shoot me a memail if you have any questions about it.
posted by Scoo at 6:24 AM on November 30, 2010

Best answer: That infographic site you linked to absolutely reeks of Adobe Illustrator. The mockup graphic they use at first gets perspective so wrong that there's no way "proper" 3D software was used. They basically drew one pyramid and then duplicated it all over the black thingy.

I'm guessing they did all of that work in Illustrator. They probably found or created a pyramid papercraft template and used a clipping mask to make their artwork fit it perfectly. Then they scaled the pyramid model up and down as needed.

I'm big into 3D, and there have been some great software suggestions here, but for infographic work, you should know that a LOT of people are just using Illustrator. Take a look at the examples on this page for a broader sense of the use cases.

Kevin Hulsey ("wow" example there) is a technical illustrator who does 3D work in Illustrator.

Doing 3D infographics in proper 3D software is nice and all, but Illustrator is all about using shortcuts to get to your result fast. With something like Maya or Cinema4D or Blender, you will have a heck of a conceptual learning curve before you start working on principles of design, but in Illustrator you're learning principles of design right out of the gate.

I've taught classes in both Illustrator and various 3D software packages, and that's just my opinion. Were I to teach a "3D infographics class," I would mention 3D software but start my students off with Illustrator.
posted by circular at 7:20 AM on November 30, 2010

Best answer: illustrator will do that. take a look here for some tutorials.
sketchup is a very simple cad package and free.
rhino. is what i use a lot for making pretty things.
posted by gonzo_ID at 7:50 AM on November 30, 2010

Best answer: I am a mac user and use Maya and agree that the learning curve is steep. Recently I have switched to Modo as my job is more product design driven and Modo has tons of great features that are geared for this. I can see them also being really useful for infographics work. Check out some example work here. Good luck.
posted by pleuroma at 9:02 AM on November 30, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the great suggestions.

Thanks for the tips, I do the vast majority of my day-to-day infographic work in Illustrator, and I definitely saw the influence, it was the folded pyramids that really threw me off. I've never really experimented much with 3D in illustrator (a lot of the stuff I've seen has leaned a little too close to cheesy for my liking) The tutorials you linked are definitely interesting and helpful though. The idea of learning a new application & skill was really intriguing to me, as I'd love to have another tool in my arsenal. Looks like now I might have 2 (Illustrator 3D and normal 3D)

@Dick Paris
That plugin to change sketchup models to 3D models looks really awesome, that's pretty much what I was talking about. Is this kind of thing common? Or available in other 3D applications?

Surfing the web while waiting for answers led me to download and try out Modo, and it seems pretty cool. I can't figure out how to do anything though! Haha... now I'm watching a couple youtube videos and trying to dig through the manual.
posted by ejfox at 12:29 PM on November 30, 2010

The community on the luxology forums are great. People will answer questions and try to help you solve problems in a reasonable time. After you learn how to model ... there are a good bit of material textures that come with modo to get you started.
posted by pleuroma at 1:24 PM on November 30, 2010

Best answer: "Normal" 3D is a great hobby. If this is for commercial work down the road, you might also acquaint yourself with 3D model resources sites like TurboSquid.

As for paper models --> You might really like Pepakura Designer then. It's made for turning 3D-on-screen into 3D folded paper. And it has some really convenient features to help with assembly.

I actually design paper models myself, and I found that polygonal convert-from-computer-3D tools aren't necessarily the best way to go. Sometimes they're really quick though.

On the recommendation of a talented friend, I bought an old book on sheet metal drawing, and now I do all my paper craft work by drawing in Illustrator. And my conical sections no longer look polygonal. :-)

All the professional papercraft stuff is usually done by hand or with the assistance of non-polygonal CAD software.
posted by circular at 3:04 PM on November 30, 2010

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