What Is 3D Design? And How to Get Started

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Discover the breadth of 3D design, how businesses across industries use it, and the possibilities for achieving your design goals.

[Featured Image]  A person in a blue sweater develops a 3D design on their laptop. Mockups and other printouts cover the walls behind them.

What is 3D design?

3D design refers to using software to create a digital model of a three-dimensional shape or object. Organizations and professionals across industries use 3D design to communicate ideas, create products and customer experiences, teach concepts, improve lives, and more. For example, dentists can X-ray a damaged tooth and produce a 3D model of a crown to repair it, while the film industry uses 3D design to envision scenes and execute special effects. 

According to Verified Market Research, the 3D mapping and modeling market was valued at $3.64 billion in 2020 and is projected to reach $13.15 billion by 2028 [1]. This degree of growth may result from more industries using 3D design to address business challenges. 

3D design vs. 3D modeling 

In your research, you may come across the term 3D modeling. This concept is similar to 3D design in that both involve using software to envision three-dimensional objects. Definitions of these concepts may vary, depending on the brand, software, or company using 3D design or 3D modeling. In the list below, we’ve compiled some distinctions: 

  • 3D design involves the creation of a 3D object from scratch, starting with a sketch or concept, all the way to completion. 

  • 3D modeling is focused on building and fine-tuning the actual visual model of an object and may draw from a 3D designer’s initial sketches. 

Keep reading to explore the diverse field of 3D design and opportunities to launch a career, complete personal projects, and bring ideas to life. 

Types of 3D design 

Review what different types of 3D design are and how they differ.

  • Building Information Modeling (BIM) enables architects, engineers, real estate developers, contractors, and other construction professionals to collaborate on designing a building in 3D. BIM designs can include information about parts, materials, financials, logistics, and actionable steps.  

  • Product design refers to creating new products or enhancing existing products through 3D conceptualization, simulation, and design finalization before products are manufactured. 

  • Visual effects (VFX) refers to altering, creating, or enhancing media for live-action imagery, especially when capturing live footage would be dangerous, costly, or impossible. 

  • Virtual reality (VR) falls under the umbrella term extended reality (XR) and refers to creating immersive 3D experiences so that individuals, teams, and businesses can visualize concepts, collaborate, be entertained, and more.  

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  • Generative design refers to the process of finding multiple design options based on a concept. Designers or engineers input their design goals, requirements, parameters, and constraints into generative design software. Then, the software produces representations of different design outcomes for the designers and engineers to explore. 

  • CAD/CAM refers to computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing. Innovators, inventors, and machinists use CAD/CAM software to design and manufacture prototypes while expediting the process using automation. 

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What can you do in 3D design?  

3D design offers many opportunities to explore your creative and professional potential. In this section, we’ve organized a list of 3D design projects and jobs across a variety of industries so that you can begin charting a rewarding path.    

3D design projects 

  • 3D interior design refers to the use of software to produce three-dimensional representations of fully functional interior spaces, such as homes, offices, restaurants, and event spaces. 3D interior designers consider a space's internal structure and dimensions, so furniture, lighting, decor, and other design choices work together harmoniously. Need inspiration? Re-imagine your entire living space or a specific room using software like Planner5D, HomeStyler, and RoomToDo

  • 3D landscape design refers to the use of software to create 3D representations of outdoor landscapes, including yards, gardens, parks, and professional exterior spaces. 3D landscape designers determine how plants, trees, shrubbery, furniture, walls, stones, walkways, and other elements will fit into an overall design. Try 3D landscape design with software like VizTerra, SketchUp, and Plan-A-Garden.    

  • 3D molecular design refers to the use of software to create three-dimensional representations of chemical or biological systems, such as chemical compounds or DNA chains. 3D molecular designs can be used in classrooms to help students visualize scientific concepts. They can translate to physical objects that students can touch and hold, 3D graphics for use in educational videos, and more. Discover 3D molecular design with software like ChemDoodle or ChemSketch

  • 3D logo design refers to rendering logos so that they have a three-dimensional appearance. Depending on the brand, having a 3D logo can make a memorable impression on a target audience, by presenting a modern and dynamic look. Starting your own business or brand? Create a 3D logo, using software like SelfCAD, Canva, or Photoshop.   

3D design jobs

  • A 3D designer uses software to create renderings of three-dimensional objects, including models, animations, or physical products, and makes $58,484 annually, on average. 

  • A video game designer uses software to create 3D video game characters and settings and makes $86,125 annually, on average. 

  • A 3D printing technician prepares files for 3D printing and maintains equipment. Someone in this role makes $47,726 annually, on average. 

  • A graphic designer who works in 3D design uses software to create three-dimensional concepts such as logos, product renderings, and illustrations. Someone in this role makes $54,584 annually, on average.

  • A 3D animator creates 3D animations for video games, films, or other applications. Someone in this role makes $84,383 annually, on average. 

  • An architectural designer uses software to create plans for buildings and landscapes. Someone in this profession makes $65,988 annually, on average. 

  • A web developer uses software to incorporate 3D imagery and other elements into websites. Someone in this profession makes $82,640 annually, on average. 

*Salary data is taken from Indeed and Glassdoor and reflects the average total salary (including additional compensation such as bonuses) as of December 2022 for the United States. 

How to get started in 3D design

If you’re ready to begin your 3D design journey, follow the steps below to get the most out of this growing and evolving field. 

1. Clarify your 3D design goals.

What do you want to accomplish in 3D design and why? Having answers to these two fundamental questions can help you focus your efforts on the most important tasks. Here are some examples of goals to draw from: 

  • Use 3D design technology to create art.

  • Introduce 3D design skills to your current career in another field. 

  • Transition from your career in another field into 3D design. 

Read more: ​​How to Prepare for a Career Change: Step-By-Step Guide

2. Explore 3D design paths. 

Before committing to a particular path in 3D design, take some time to explore possible directions you might take. 

If your goal is to change careers or enhance your current career, search job listings on sites like Glassdoor and Indeed to get a feel for the kinds of companies hiring and the industries with a high demand for 3D design professionals. For example, Glassdoor has 24,805 listings for 3D designers (or similar roles) as of November 2022. The industries with the most 3D designer job listings are information technology and construction, repair, and maintenance services. 

For both personal and professional 3D design goals, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with software that may suit your purposes, including the programs listed above, as well as:  

  • Blender, open source software for modeling, animating, rendering, and more

  • AutoCAD, 3D design for architects, engineers, and construction professionals 

  • TinkerCAD, for 3D design, electronics, and coding 

  • Inventor, for professional 3D mechanical design, documentation, and product simulation 

  • ZBrush, for digital sculpting and painting 

  • Maya, for 3D animation and visual effects 

  • Adobe Substance 3D, collection of tools for flexible and seamless 3D design across devices 

3. Subscribe to 3D design brands, blogs, and resource hubs. 

Gaining access to 3D design resources can make it easier to navigate this vast field and get the most out of your 3D design journey. Look for brands that offer tips and best practices, industry news and research reports, as well as highlights of the latest software. You may be able to subscribe to brands for free via email or follow them on social media. 

4. Connect with other 3D designers. 

In addition to subscribing to brands, you may find it useful to participate in 3D design communities through courses, bootcamps, social media groups and forums, conferences, and networking events. Talk with other designers and view their work. Doing so can spark ideas for new projects as well as introduce you to career and educational opportunities.

5. Take a 3D design course. 

A 3D design course can be a great way to build skills in a structured, supportive environment. When looking for courses, consider factors such as: 

  • How the skills you’ll learn correspond to skills needed in today’s  business landscape and your 3D design goals and interests

  • The support forums, peer review groups, live events, and access to instructors that may contribute to your learning experience 

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6. Complete 3D design projects. 

As you build skills and become more familiar with resources and communities available to you, complete 3D design projects to discover the area of 3D design that best suits your interests. You may find that the more projects you complete, the more insight you gain into your true passions. 

7. Compile a 3D design portfolio. 

Whether you are pursuing 3D design for personal projects or career purposes, compiling a portfolio of your work can offer some benefits, including: 

  • Tracking how your skills evolve over time, as you complete more projects 

  • Showcasing your work to others who may want to hire or collaborate with you 

  • Applying for scholarships, internships, or admission into 3D design educational programs 

Read more: Tips for Creating an Impressive Graphic Design Portfolio

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Article sources

  1. Verified Market Research. “3D Mapping and Modeling Market Size and Forecast, https://www.verifiedmarketresearch.com/product/3d-mapping-and-modeling-market/.” Accessed December 1, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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