Teaching 3D to 2D Students

Teaching 3D to 2D Students
By: Wayne Hunt


The basic principles of three-dimensional design can be taught to competent graphic designers through a series of exercises, each adding to the previous one. Combined with students’ existing graphic design skills, students can then move on to more complex environmental graphics challenges.  

The  Author

I am a long-term adjunct professor at Art Center College of Design. Also, I’ve been a practicing environmental graphic designer for many years working on interesting projects around the world. And I’ve seen hundreds of student portfolios and hired dozens of designers. Art Center is a top art and design school with an exemplary graphic design program featuring specialties or tracks such as motion graphics, package design and interface design, but does not have an environmental graphic design track. For the last few years my unique course, Typography in Three Dimensions, has served as Art Center’s environmental graphics option and introduction to the EGD field.

My Class

The class is offered as a three-credit elective and is typically taken mid-way through the graphic design curriculum. Like all Art Center studio courses, the class meets for four hours one day each week for the fourteen-week term. As a stand-alone EGD experience I approach the subject matter as an additive or enhancement to a solid graphic design education. That is, I am not trying to mint environmental graphics designers, but rather I desire to add some three-dimensional skills and general EGD awareness and vocabulary. 

My Approach

Additive is the key word here – I believe that most learning is adding on to and relating to things already known. Identifying a student-accepted design principle and adding to it or adapting it to new circumstance is an effective teaching strategy. So, going in I assume that the students are well-versed in basic graphic design composition, principles of rhythm, contrast, figure/ground, proportion, etc., and, of course, typography. On day one I commit to the class that I can help add a layer of knowledge to their design skillset – I can show them how to adapt their graphic design skills to the three-dimensional world. Note, this is not a class in symbol-making, metaphor or narrative – it is a form-based course.

My Four Three-dimensional Design Principles

Teaching true architectural-quality three-dimensional design is highly complex and requires much more than can be taught to graphic designers in a single class. Therefore, I have identified four principles or differences from 2D that serve as an introduction and that have immediate value and application to environmental graphic or 3D design. A competent graphic designer who understands and applies these principles can credibly participate in environmental graphic design.

My four principles:

1.    Dimensionality– physicality; multiple points of view.

While graphic design often simulates or implies three dimensions, it remains on a single 2D plane; 3D design, however, is tangible and has physical presence; it has a side view, can cast a shadow, and, importantly, can be viewed from an infinite number of vantage points.


2.    Relative Scale– relationship between physical objects.

Unlike a ‘graphic design,’ say a logo or web page, a 3D design or object inherently is bigger or smaller than other objects. As such, the designer makes size choices along with all of the other design decisions.


3.    Architectural Scale – relationship to human size and built environment.

In addition to object-to-object size relationships, 3D objects have inherent size relationships to people and architecture.


4.    Physical Context– relationship to surroundings.

3D objects also have contextual relationships with the environment. Such factors as sun and shade, field color, position above or below the horizon play roles in 3D design decisions. 


These are the primary differences between ‘regular,’ graphic design and 3D or environmental graphic design.

The Course

The class is organized to sequentially address each of the principals by means of a series of quick weekly projects. An assignment is due each week with no interim review or critique. The projects are pitched to the class as exercises, each conceived to show or teach one or more of the principles. While craft is important, slickness is not.

Assignment 1. Three-dimensional NumeralLearning objective:Dimensionality; evolving a 2D item into an interesting 3D object. 

The student creates a 3D version of a single digit numeral, presented in model form and within some dimensional limitations. Evaluation criteria is based on sculptural interest while maintaining some sense of the numeral. However, the more interesting and aestically pleasing, the less important the original numeral. Variety of side, top and front views is important. 


Note that these models have no symbolic scale; they simply exist as table top 3D objects.

Assignment 2. Relative Scaleand Physical Context Learning objective: relationship between physical objects and environments.

By means of photography or illustration, the student incorporates the model from the Assignment 1 into an actual environment, thereby introducing context and relative scale. Adapting the sculpture into a functional object or structure is encouraged.



Assignment 3. Architectural Scale Learning objective: implied relationship to human size and built environment.

After a brief lecture in scale measuring and drawing, the student makes a simple orthographic drawing of the sculptural numeral but using the implied scale and dimensions from Assignment 2.

Assignment 4. Urban Scale and Context Learning objective: Measurable relationship with urban and architectural scale.

The student selects a poem or song lyric to be applied to an actual place in the city, usually an urban alley. First the student measures the actual space and buildings as appropriate and with the help of satellite mapping creates a credible site plan and elevation drawings. The wording is then designed ‘into’ the space via the elevations and plan view, in scale. Over three to four weeks the design evolves into a finished design presented in a photo rendering and scaled elevations. 


Pre-design site research and documentation.



After executing the assignments the student is surprising empowered to bring his/her typographic and 2D skills to the 3D world and ready for more complex EGD assignments. Note, the courses work is supplemented by examples of professional projects, drawings, renderings, etc.