Software & Web Development

The Evolution of Design - From 2D to 3D to 4D

Like any current architectural project, the Egyptian pyramids required the designers and craftsmen to overcome significant technical challenges. The demands for precise geometry, the complex network of internal passages and the sheer scale required detailed and meticulous planning. Needless to say the method of communicating design intent was via 2-dimensional drawing. Today, although we have seen the adoption of 3D technology, the process of 2D drawing remains the preferred means of communicating and exchanging detailed information across many disciplines in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) fields.

However, 3D design technology has allowed designers in all disciplines to bridge a gap between the physical world and their own creative vision and design intent. Recent advances in the technology available means that as well as getting a photo-realistic representation of the design, functionality in simulation and analysis allows designers to optimise in terms of performance and behaviour. This has been used for some time in the manufacturing sectors such as automotive and consumer product design, but is now being used in the AEC industry. At the same time advancements in collaboration across all disciplines enabled by the cloud means that data is more readily available to an extended team dispersed geographically, working on a wide variety of devices, including desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile devices.

A further advancement to deliver additional value from 3D data is 3D printing. Once the domain of the high-end manufacturers, the technology is now being "democratised" with affordable printers entering the consumer market. Components of the design can be produced direct from the model data, ensuring high degrees of accuracy and quality, as well as a significant reduction in errors.

Of course, as 2D design led to 3D, a fourth dimension is being brought to the design process – that of time. It is an abstract concept to many, but ultimately it is about incorporating time as an additional element of the design process, and it is resulting in some really exciting developments in how we create things. It is the idea that traditionally static objects can be designed to change over time, whether that’s water pipes changing shape to increase capacity, or flat-pack furniture self-assembling when you get it home.

The possibilities for self-assembly are endless. At the moment, we’re creating simple objects, but we’ll eventually reach a stage where we have self-assembling structures, such as houses or bridges, cutting down on building costs and time. As a result, 4D is an area that Autodesk Research is investing heavily in, and our Project Cyborg software was recently used to design and simulate various self-assembling shapes, in conjunction with Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher and TED fellow Skylar Tibbits.

Beyond self-assembly, 4D is already having an influence on the building information management (BIM) tools used by the construction industry. When a building is being planned, adding the fourth element – time – to the 3D design process means that everyone involved in the project can see how the structure will develop. This allows the project schedule to be much more closely aligned to the design process, and makes it easier to anticipate problems before they occur during the building phase of the project.

From 2D to 3D, the addition of time represents the third stage in the development of the design process. We’re just beginning to see what 4D is capable of, but you can be sure that there is more to come. While physicists may argue about the existence of a fifth dimensional space, we’re exploring the ways that additional dimensions can be added to the design process, which could potentially lead us into the era of 5D design. But that’s a tale for another day.


Pete Baxter, Vice President and head of Autodesk UK


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Pete Baxter

Vice President and head of Autodesk UK

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