2D, or not 2D?

“Previously, on Jeff’s blog…”

When last we spoke, I gushed on about some advancements in design technology — specifically, the use of computer-aided drafting software like Vectorworks and image manipulation software like Photoshop — and how I have enjoyed starting to learn these programs that take my design work to a new level of professionalism and that allow for such easy editing. [Click in the sidebar to read the last blog post, “Old dog, new tricks.”]

But guess what? I still like to build physical models. Despite all of the ways I can now create and share detailed and precise design ideas on a computer, there’s no substitute for walking into a production team meeting with a three-dimensional scale model of a stage and scenery — or of a museum space filled with a newly-envisioned exhibit.

In college theater design classes, we learned to build full-color 1/2”-scale scenic models that showed every proposed paint color and texture, and although I typically stick to white models now (sometimes 1/2”-scale and sometimes 1/4”-scale), I still include lots of details like trim & moldings, representational furniture pieces, and even some textured materials. Yes, this can all be done as a manipulable digital rendering, but that’s just not the same as having a physical model that can be brought to a meeting and discussed around the table.

Often, whether I’m working with a museum staff or a theatrical production team, there are people involved who just don’t have much experience looking at a ground plan and being able to translate those two-dimensional representations into a three-dimensional concept. A model allows me to show and discuss, with less chance of misinterpretation, how each element of the design fits into the given space as a whole, and how each element relates to one another. It gives a clear indication of whether the space feels cozy and intimate, or expansive and grand. When I add teeny little scaled people standing around (or little paper kids running or crawling in my children’s museum exhibits), the designs truly seem to come to life. Then I can also understand (and show others) how many visitors can comfortably enjoy that exhibit space, or how many pit musicians can fit on one platform, or how much space the actors might have for crawling around behind that couch.

And there’s also something magic for me about the actual process of creating the model. It’s a tangible, touchable object that literally takes shape in front of my eyes. Sometimes I just can’t decide how large certain components should be, or what shapes of walls and platforms might work well together, until I cut and re-cut pieces of mat board and strips of balsa wood — and stick it all together with my trusty hot glue gun. The smell of hot glue permeates my basement studio area at times, but that smell means that CREATIVITY is happening!

Yes, I like the tradition, the utility, and the visualization opportunities that this hands-on method gives me over digital renderings. A model can also be put on display for the team or the public to reference throughout the rest of the design and construction period. Digital renderings are a fantastic supplement and have advantages of their own, but for me (for now), the model is still my primary building block and inspiration.

White models are spilling off the shelves of my studio. Bits of foam core, mat board, and string get tangled in the shag carpet. The cat gets startled every time I burn my fingers on hot glue and curse loudly, but I just can’t yet see myself giving up my modeling career.