Creating a compelling visualization that communicates your design intent and gets stakeholders on board is no easy feat. While designers have plenty of visualization tools to deploy— from powerful rendering engines to the simplicity of pen and paper — there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to visualization. As your design evolves, you may need multiple renderings at various levels of detail.
According to Jim Kessler, Director of the Visual Media Group at Jacobs, "When a design is in flux and conversations with the clients are taking place, a photorealistic rendering signals completion of the project and that design changes are no longer possible. Whereas, a non-photorealistic rendering visual suggests a sense of flux and has a huge artistic element to it, which architects gravitate towards."
Jacobs provides innovative solutions and bespoke communications for a wide range of industries including everything from aerospace to architecture. After identifying a critical need for holistic media solutions for Jacobs, Kessler created the Visual Media Group, which is responsible for introducing the company to new technology, visually communicating a design or telling a story, and generating compelling visualizations.
The group has three service lines: 3D visualization, videography, and interactive media. The 3D Visualization line handles the modeling of a design, the integration of BIM models into a design, the creation of renderings, and real-time game engine development. They are considered the premier AEC partner for Epic Games. The videography line works with everything from developing the script, storyboarding, filming, and even has some FAA-certified drone pilots on board. Finally, the interactive media group delivers on web development projects, virtual and augmented reality, digital real-time solutions, and mobile app development.
"I’ve always been interested in the use of computers in the design process. I picked up SketchUp around the time it was originally released," he said. "It was so easy to use and the learning curve was really low. The ability to quickly model design options was unlike any other tool I had used before. I advocated for its use to several of our Senior Principal Designers because I knew the positive impact it would have on his team's workflow." Because the group’s responsibilities encompass everything involving visualization, they rely on a wide range of tools — one of those being SketchUp.
For a typical project, Kessler's Visual Media Group (VMG) develops the foundational design in SketchUp. Then, they export the 3D model and clean it up, stripping out all of the entourage and unnecessary components. When finished, only raw geometry is left. The team then imports the image into 3ds Max or TwinMotion to use tools such as V-RayToon for textures on flat surfaces, further remodeling it in other software to show imperfections (like rust on a metallic surface, for example). At this stage, VMG would typically add entourage back in from their large render-ready in-house content library. The final step is to run a high-quality visualization export, for which they have a render farm of about 30 dedicated computers.
"Every year we submit a visualization project to the American Society of Architectural Illustrators (ASAI), Architecture in Perspective Competition. This last year we submitted our designs for the Tyndall Airforce base and we won an award for excellence," said Kessler. The foundation of this design was done in SketchUp, and rendered in 3ds Max. The style they chose was based on hyperrealism — a notch above photorealism, and currently a popular theme and style in the industry.
"Our style is very mood-based. For this particular image, we focused on a rain shot. We were trying to capture a torrential downpour in the Florida region at around 3 p.m. You will notice stark reflections and shadows that help tell this story. We also incorporated basic design principles such as having a foreground and background, and applying the rule of thirds," he said. When it comes to the style of a project's visual language, Kessler says that "it really depends on the project."
“I enjoy non-photorealistic renderings (NPR). These styles allow a designer to communicate early-stage designs before many key architectural decisions have been made. I think SketchUp is an excellent tool for this. For every project, I develop a custom style in Style Builder. For example, on a project for Fort Bliss (located in El Paso, Texas), I focused on a pastel watermark for the skyline and worked with desert colors like the tinge of sand to get a feel for that environment.”
While creating stylized representations can be time-consuming, the Jacobs team understands how important this process is in helping to communicate design ideas. They've also taken steps to streamline their visualization workflow to help speed up their process. VMG relies on SketchUp and myriad rendering engines and tools to improve the quality of output. By deploying the right visualization style at the right time in the project lifecycle, they effectively communicate their design intent and get stakeholder buy-in faster.