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Digital Creativity: a Practical Guide

3D modelling

A practical guide to getting digitally creative and using digital tools and technologies to explore work, ideas, and research.

3D modelling

You might be used to working in 2D digitally, but what about 3D? We'll explore how to make things in three dimensions on a computer, from finding models to building your own.

What are 3D models?

You're probably more used to working in 2D on a computer - maybe you've made 2D images or presentations or worked on documents or videos. However, you can also work in three dimensions (3D) in ways which allow you to utilise all the space that the object would take up. 3D models are computer-based creations that exist in 3D, i.e. they have depth as well as existing horizontally and vertically.

These models can be used for a wide range of functions. They can be put into presentations in PowerPoint, used as assets in games and virtual reality experiences, and used with 3D printers to turn the virtual model into something physical and tangible.

3D Modelling 101

Take a look at the Creativity Lab's 101 video, which covers some ideas on getting started with modelling and some of the key terminology you might come across:

Introduction to 3D modelling

Our Introduction to 3D Modelling workshop gives an overview of 3D modelling, some of the key concepts and some suggestion of tools you can get started with. The slides from the session are below:

Full Introduction to 3D modelling slides on Google Slides

3D modelling tools

To start creating 3D models, you will need to use a 3D modelling tool. There are many out there and they can be expensive, but there are also free and open source options, some of which we'll explore below. Bear in mind that some of them can have a steep learning curve, so some of the more simple options can be a good starting point for getting to grips with the concepts.

Some tools are designed for CAD (computer aided design), e.g. manufacturing and making physical things, and others are designed for 3D modelling, e.g. making 3D objects for games and films. However, there can be overlap and lots of tools can be used for a range of 3D models.


Blender is a free and open source 3D modelling tool that can be used as a desktop application on Windows, Mac, and Linux. It is a commonly used tool and you'll find lots of help and guidance for using it online.

Autodesk inventor

Autodesk Inventor is a piece of CAD (computer aided design) software that is good for creating 3D models that you want to use in the real world, for example for 3D printing. The IT Services Software page for Autodesk Inventor explains how you can get educational access to it whilst you're at the University when using it for educational purposes.

If you're using a Mac, you cannot get Autodesk Inventor, but you can get Autodesk Fusion 360 with the Autodesk educational access, which is also good for creating 3D models for printing.

Other free 3D modelling tools

Tinkercad is a web-based free 3D modelling tool that is a great way to get started with 3D modelling without even having to install an application on your device. It's made by Autodesk, who make more complex 3D modelling software too, and has a range of learning resources on the site as well.

On Windows devices, Microsoft's 3D Builder tool is another good starting point for 3D modelling.

Start in 2D

When getting started with 3D modelling, you may need to play about with with curved or complex shapes to get exactly the outline shape you need. Sometimes it helps to first draw the outline shape you want first, using a 2D drawing tool. You can use the in-built paint or drawing app on your device, draw the shape in Microsoft PowerPoint, or use an open-source drawing tool like Inkscape.

Screenshot of 2D grand piano outline next to a 3D version

Once you have a 2D outline shape, some tools like Microsoft's 3D builder and Tinkercad allow you to import in a 2D image file, where it can then try to convert this shape into 3D for you. It's not always perfect, but can be a good starting point to then add more 3D shapes to it.

Other ways of getting 3D models

As well as making 3D models yourself, you can find 3D assets that others have made or scan physical objects using 3D scanning devices or apps.

Finding 3D assets

Just like with images, audio, and video, you can find a range of free-to-use 3D assets and models online, which you can use according to the licence/terms given on the website. You might want to use these models to edit (if that's allowed for the model in question) and customise. You can also use these models if you're learning other skills like game design, animation, and virtual reality, so you don't have to create all your 3D assets from scratch.

These sites can also be focused on 3D printing, for example the site Thingiverse has a range of 3D models that are mostly designed with 3D printing in mind.

Getting assets from 3D scans

Another way to get 3D models is to use a 3D scanning tool to scan physical items and turn them into 3D models. You need to pay attention to file types and whether or not you want to capture the colour/texture of the original item.

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