Making Civil Engineering Data ‘Pretty’ Isn’t For Everyone

Project visualization is unique in the engineering industry because the results are instantly understandable. Within seconds of looking at a rendered image or video, the viewer can already make judgement about the quality and even accuracy. Construction plans and other documents, on the other hand, require hours to digest and review to determine the level of accuracy. Even reports written by engineers take substantial time to consume and process.

For this reason, it is not uncommon for many to look at a nice 3D render of a project and say “Wow, that looks great! How can I get that software so I can do it to?”

Seriously, I’ve hear that phrase dozens of times.

In contrast, how many students have looked at a set of engineering plans for the first time and said the same thing? Probably not many, at least that wasn’t how I felt. I felt feelings more in line with overwhelm and confusion the first time I was tasked with scanning plans.

Although looking at a nice project visualization is enjoyable by most and even watching the process of modeling in 3D can feel more like playing video games than engineering, taking on the mantle of ‘project visualizer’ (if there is such a thing) is much easier said than done. I have come to this conclusion as I have watched many try to take the reigns of something like InfraWorks or even the 3D modeling and animation corners of Microstation only to come away less than enthused or, at worst, frustrated.

My final conclusion is essentially that, due to the great variety of personality types, the artistic side of visualization is easier for some than others. If you took a room full of engineering students and gave them a challenging assignment of striping, alignment and sign files and told them that they need to figure out how to get it from AutoCAD to 3ds Max or InfraWorks for a final render, only a small percentage would probably finish successfully.

Let’s face it, engineering is a mostly left brained activity. There are rules, processes and specifications in place that need to closely be followed to get the best design within the given parameters. Visualization, on the other hand, tends to be more of a right brained activity. It involves solving problems just like engineering does, but instead of solving the problems by following a manual or guidelines, you instead have to be creative in solutions and be even more creative in final output. Engineering is art but the engineering process and the artistic process are two completely different sides of the spectrum.

Additionally, the modeling of civil engineering design into 3D is a passion process.  I have noticed that there are some- like myself- that get a kick out of learning new ways to do this stuff, even to the point of spending nights and weekends learning and talking about it. There are others, however, that just don’t get it and get especially frustrated when you tell them there isn’t a manual or a single software program to do the job.

In short, I don’t know if it is possible to go out and find someone that will be good at visualization. Instead, it seems that those individuals that ‘have it’ end up finding and embracing it themselves.

If you are reading this, you probably have it. You are probably ready to take something technical and make it visual to communicate the design intent of engineering data.

I applaud you and hope that myself and the Civil FX community can help you on your way.

Note: I understand that there are some in the civil engineering community that might look at the title of this post and be offended saying “engineering data is already ‘pretty'”. I am sorry that I offended you.

Image credit: This awesome bridge was designed and rendered by FXFOWLE!