Photo-realistic Renderings & Learning New Software

A colleague recently started a thread for a kitchen design group on a popular social network with the following statement: “It may be time for me to change to another design program-which does beautiful renderings/realistic and is not too hard to learn?”  At the moment, I have been struggling with the same scenario and have decided that, at this point –that statement is basically an oxymoron.  How you say?  Well first of all, any new design software undertaken is going to be a learning curve even for the most experienced design technophiles.  When you add the component of creating beautiful and realistic renderings, you’ve opened up a whole new can of worms! Sorry my friend, their is no ‘easy button.’ 

That being said, design software is but a tool –a bit more intuitive and a bunch more complex than say a pencil or pen– but a tool just the same.  It is also usually bundled in with components that are integral for other aspects of the design business and specific to a particular industry (such as mechanical engineering, graphic arts, game design, commercial architecture  –or in this case: residential kitchen and bath design).  After one has invested a substantial amount of dollars in the virtual art and design media, one must also make a substantial commitment of time, energy and a host of other attitudes (such as patience, perseverance and tenacity) in order to master it. 

As kitchen and bath designers, we usually go into the business because we have a passion for one or more aspects of the profession.  It might be the challenge of problem solving, crunching the numbers and writing the specifications.  It might be a propensity for artistic illustration and creating photo-realistic renderings that evolve into a beautiful space.  For some it is making the sale, understanding the psychology behind it and seeing the delight and appreciation on the faces of happy customers. (They don’t usually cry because they are overcome with emotion like on HGTV… Usually they’re just relieved that it’s FINALLY DONE and they don’t have to file for bankruptcy.)  For others it’s orchestrating a project and seeing it evolve from the ether to an actual tangible and functioning piece of art.  (This reminds me of a recent plumbing fixture commercial where the designer is standing on a podium with wand in hand, like Mickey in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, while the sinks and tubs with running water dance in unison to orchestra music and to the delight of the prospective homeowners. –LOL I want one of those wands!)  While some might find the minutia of design work and extreme attention to detail tedious, there are those who thrive on it and love the process as much as the finely crafted finished product.  In order to make a living in this business, you have to be proficient in all of these areas. 

So just exactly how “photo-realistic” do renderings have to be?  Do you really need color renderings to sell a project anyway?  From the business standpoint, I believe it really has to do with many different things.  While those in the kitchen design business have to wear many hats, they usually wear some better than others.  I’ve worked with someone who, as one person put it: “could sell you back your ex-wife” but just freaked out when you put him in front of a computer, and couldn’t sit long enough to draft a complete set of plans with accurate specs if his life depended on it.  Yet he never once asked me to do a color rendering in the years we worked together because it just wasn’t a necessary tool he needed to sell a project… a simple line drawing perspective and set of plans was all he ever needed.  He was that good.  –Of course the housing bubble hadn’t burst yet.  Could photo-realistic color renderings have increased his already impressive closing ratio?

I’d have to say, if he hadn’t retired, that yes there were projects that could have been won with a little more investment of time and resources in producing some renderings.  Since the remodel industry is in such dire straights (especially here on the West Coast) since the Recession began, no one (I don’t care how good they are at sales or any other area of the Kitchen and Bath Industry) can afford to forgo any tools or talents they may have to be competitive.  So YES, color renderings are necessary to compete in today’s market.  And since others are rendering projects now, the more photo-realistic and professional looking they are, the more competitive the presentation.

I now use a couple of types of software and have used others in the past.  The following is my review of the software packages I use:

I have current versions of both 20-20 Design and Chief Architect.  20-20 is more expensive than Chief both in terms of initial outlay and maintenance.  All of the renderings on my site: were done in 20-20.  Not because I prefer it over Chief -but because that was what I was using the most at that time.  20-20 has the largest selection of manufacturer-maintained cabinetry catalogs. This is not necessarily an advantage over other design software as many stock cabinet manufacturers now provide quoting programs.  My experience has been that (as indicated by the 20-20 sales rep) the ideal of sifting a quote out of the design drawing is too simplistic. There’s a lot of other steps I have to undertake to get accurate results.  So for me, it’s just as easy to do the drawing in 20-20 or Chief and do the quote using the manufacturer’s quoting software to create accurate specifications.  Chief Architect now has several manufacturers’ cabinet catalogs and are actively soliciting other manufacturers to create Chief catalogs.

20-20 renders much quicker than Chief.  This is because it uses a different rendering engine.  Chief’s is POV Ray (uses ray-tracing technology) which is extremely slow in comparison because of how it handles lighting in order to create photo-realistic images.  (Chief also has a set of rendering options outside of POV Ray that include pencil sketching, painting and watercolor effects.)  Because kitchens and baths intrinsically use a lot of lights, ray tracing these spaces becomes very slow (hours instead of minutes).  And because time is money, this aspect of Chief has not been cost effective for many in the K&B industry.   Most frustrating for me has been running a ray trace overnight just to discover I ended up with a terrible rendering.  20-20 on the other hand is (and always has been) really ‘glitchy.’ This glitchiness usually shows up at the point you don’t want it to the most–like when you are at the end of creating a model and are trying to add in all the fine details– then POOF.  File all gone… start over from scratch =(   So hair-pulling hour for hair-pulling hour, I’m not sure one is really faster than the other -or less frustrating if you use either 20-20 Design or Chief Architect as a stand-alone design solution. This I have never done as there are many programs out there to make the process more successful. With 20-20 I’ve found the layout function nearly useless and use a PDF writer to pull my drawings into a plan set.  I also touch up drawings with Corel Paintshop Pro (poor-mans version of Photoshop).

At present, I’m leaning towards Chief because I’ve learned that you can now export drawings in .3DS and VRML formats to a different rendering engine (free program) called Kerkythea that does absolutely fabulous renderings and at a fraction of the time as POV Ray.  To do this, you need to have an intermediary program to convert the files.  Google Sketchup (free) modifies the .3DS files or Accutrans ($20) converts VRML into Kerkythea’s XML.  Chief renderers have been talking up Accutrans lately because with it one can use the lighting originally created in the Chief model, with Sketchup you have to redo the lighting.  In both 20-20 and Chief you can easily import materials into your library.  With Chief you can make (or have one of the Chief genius’s make) symbols.  And last, but certainly not least, ChiefTalk is fabulous -it has many wonderful veteran users and it also has the participation of the program’s developers which is unique.  Relatively speaking, the user forums (IMHO) for Kerkythea and 20-20 Design are wretched on a good day.

Having been a user of 20-20 and Chief, I know that I will have more options for details and freedom to be creative with Chief. There will be a learning curve no matter which software I choose.  But then time is money too, right? How much time you have to devote to becoming proficient in a particular software may ultimately be the determining factor in the choices you make.  Since business is a bit slow… I’m in learning mode.


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