Hear Me Out: Sketchup Is Great

When I was struggling through the throws of architecture school, not many people knew about SketchUp yet. To everyone (especially our professors), it quickly became the ‘easy way out’ to produce rough 3D models of our projects without suffering through the cumbersome and asinine 3D modeling interface of autoCAD. The few students who used SketchUp to produce the final visualizations for their work were promptly torn to shreds by onlooking reviewers, architects, and tenured administrators looking on.

Because of that, SketchUp developed a deep seated stigma throughout the design community. It was like using Duplo blocks instead of Legos, and didn’t have the precise technical capabilities to produce work worthy enough of a professional design degree.

Thankfully, times have changed, and SketchUp has improved in ways that earns it a spot among some of the 3D modeling giants like Rhino and 3DS Max. And while you still won’t have as robust a toolset as some of these more well respected pieces of software, for certain applications there isn’t a better tool to not only design, but produce realistic renderings and visualizations to boot. I love SketchUp, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it.

Let’s take a closer look at a program that trudged through the harsh criticism of the design community and came out clean on the other side.

Grassy Roots

SketchUp was conceived in the basement of Boulder, Colorado designers and best buds Brad Schell and Joe Esch. The two were tired of struggling through the steep learning curve that at the time was commonplace in the 3D computer modeling community - especially for architects who were already cramming their feeble minds with building code compliance, structural efficiency, and the ever-moving target of managing client expectations. There had to be an easier way to go from sketch to computer.

It turns out, there was.

In the year 2000, the two launched SketchUp from their startup company @Last Software with the aim of presenting a piece of software “that would allow design professionals to draw the way they want by emulating the feel and freedom of working with pen and paper in a simple and elegant interface, that would be fun to use and easy to learn, and that would be used by designers to play with their designs in a way that is not possible with traditional design software. It also has user friendly buttons to make it easier to use."

Thanks, Wikipedia. That goes a long way to say it allowed obtuse architects hell bent on taking their mechanical pencils and drafting tables to the grave something to invite them into the digital age of 3D visualization. Brad and Joe tapped into a massively overlooked market within the design community that was hungry for straightforward tools to let them quickly assess progress in three dimensions. With a basic understanding of a few modeling tools, even the most “old guard” of designers could quickly engage with the future of the industry.

Growing Pains

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, SketchUp wasn’t such a welcome addition to the software pool for die-hard CAD, Rhino, and Maya users who felt as if the lack of discipline required to effectively use SketchUp rendered it obsolete. And to their credit, the quality of output SketchUp was capable of at the time made their argument for them. This was not a refined tool you’d be wanting your clients anywhere near at risk of looking like you’ve been designing their multi-million dollar beach house with a children's toy. While it managed to be useful as a design tool, a visualization tool it was not.

However, as the years crawled on more and more design professionals shifted to using SketchUp as a primary 3D modeling tool. As support swelled, renderers started taking notice and developing plugins that worked seamlessly with your model. SketchUp worked hard to shake its stigma and present itself as a truly legitimate all-in-one piece of visualization software.

In steps Google, who purchased the SketchUp license and immediately plugged it into their ever-growing database of real-world 3D models - also known as Google Earth. Now, not only could you create a 3D representation of your architectural designs, you could export them with the click of a button to view in actual context of surrounding buildings and landscapes. If there was ever a quick and easy way to impress your clients, this was it.

Is There Anything it Can’t Do?

Well, yes. There’s plenty SketchUp can’t do, but this question all depends on your design and design visualization needs. If you’re an architect looking to quickly manifest your plans in real-world three dimensions and analyze space in an efficient way, there isn’t a single piece of software I’d give a more glowing recommendation. However, if you are an animator for Pixar, I wouldn’t even utter the name “SketchUp” in your presence for fear of getting your life-size Buzz Lightyear statue pushed over on top of me.

As with any tool, if you don’t know how best to use it you will probably yield less-than-desirable results. But rather than focus on SketchUp’s shortcomings, I want to explain the single-most important and useful application of the program.

Your Clients Will Love It

And, they’ll even be able to use it (probably...maybe). At least early on in the design process. Most early conceptual meetings I have with clients don’t happen in a conference room, they happen at my desk as I make them huddle up behind me and stare at my monitors as I zip and zoom around their model. To them I’m some kind of computer design architect wizard guy who conjured their new building out of gigabytes and pixie dust. Of course, this can be done with most other 3D modeling program, but only with SketchUp will you be able to transfer that wizardry over to your client (with relative ease, anyway).

SketchUp is free, and can be installed on even the most archaic machines. I will give my clients the model to take home with them, give them a few simple pointers for how to navigate the model, and watch them gleefully and clumsily pan around their building as if they designed it themselves. Empowering your clients to be involved in the process this way leads to improved trust, and a longer leash.

One of the Guys?

I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably never be able to convince the dedicated 3D rendering artists that SketchUp can or should replace Rhino or 3DS Max. And even in it’s current, most refined state, it really doesn’t hold a candle to those programs in terms of modeling capability. However, I do think it’s earned its proper place atop the mantle of go-to programs among the design community. It might still carry with it some of those stigmas that were attached to it early on, but those who use it understand the value in having such a user-friendly design tool.

I rest my case.

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