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Digital Creativity: a Practical Guide

Turning digital into physical

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

Turning digital into physical

Whilst "digital" creativity might often seem focused on digital content (and maybe physical devices and hardware, like screens or VR headsets), one area of digital creativity is creating digital artefacts that can then be turned into physical items. This might range from areas like 3D printing, digital cutting, and machine embroidery to using more traditional 2D printing to create posters, postcards, and more. These outputs might sit alongside digital ones, or they might be the final creation after lots of digital work.

What kinds of digital things can you turn physical?

Lots of things that people make have some kind of digital creation first. For example, this could be a digital design or drawing as a plan or to use as a pitch about the item in question or a digital model that is then created physically. You might use a touchscreen to draw out something you're going to make or use a spreadsheet or other tool to create patterns for cross-stitch or knitting.

The words Live Laugh Love as coloured in cells on a Google Sheet that could be used as a sewing pattern

In terms of using digital technology to turn something digital into something physical, there are lots of things out there now, like regular inkjet and laser printers, 3D printers, digital cutters, and more specialised machines designed for specific purposes.

So, what kinds of digital things can be made physical?

  • Bitmap images (i.e. images like photos and digital drawings that are made up of pixels) can be printed using "regular" printers that can print on paper and card, or might be printed by a particular service with more complex printers that can make things like banners and posters and even mugs and t-shirts. They can also be cut using digital cutters, but you may need to make the image into a vector image first and make it less complex.
  • Vector images (i.e. images that are made up of points and lines, like logos and diagrams and graphics) can be printed on paper, or they can be cut with a digital cutter to create card, vinyl, and other material shapes.
  • 3D models can be printed using a 3D printer to create a physical version in materials like plastic, resin, metal, and even clay and chocolate (if you have the right kind of printer).

You may have other examples too - there's lots of digital things you can make some kind of physical thing from!

How to get started with physical making

If you don't already have the equipment needed to turn something digital into something physical, you might need to see if you can get access to relevant equipment. Sometimes there are spaces called things like makerspaces that have a range of equipment for making and this often includes equipment for turning digital into physical like 3D printers and digital cutters.

At the University of York, there is YorCreate, a makerspace based in the Library and open to all University students and staff.

You can also get creative using regular desktop/office printers if you don't have access to any other equipment, or see if there's any local spaces that run workshops involving these pieces of equipment.

Paper printing

Printing on paper might not seem like the most exciting option for a digital creativity project, but there are lots of useful and effective ways you can use printed material. For example, you might print off augmented reality (AR) trigger images or QR codes to stick up around a physical environment, or create a poster about the process of creating your digital creativity project.

Paper posters, postcards, a coaster, a business card, and a page with a QR code on
A range of printed materials used for digital creativity events and projects.

When chosen purposefully (rather than just printing things on paper for the sake of it), printing can supplement digital outputs or give you a new way of getting people to engage with your digital creativity project.

3D printing

If you are creating or using any 3D models, 3D printing is a great way to display them for engagement and outreach, helping audiences to visualise how these digital 3D models would look in the physical world. They might be to scale or be scaled down versions that people can pick up and handle. 3D printing is a great way to have versions of digital things available for those who are unable to or have difficulty seeing them.

3D printed antler headdress front piece from Star Carr
A 3D-printed version of a 3D model from University of York Archaeology, of Star Carr frontlet 116483. See the 3D model on Sketchfab.

3D printing can also be useful for making specific items and parts you might need as part of your digital creativity project or making prototype examples for things like board games.

Digital cutting

Digital cutters allow you to create digital designs on a computer and then have the machine cut out that design on your material of choice, like card, vinyl, and iron-on transfers. These creations can then be added to other things, for example adding a vinyl transfer to a mug or an iron-on transfer to material like a t-shirt. This makes digital cutters a great way to be able to make more complex custom objects without needing to create the whole thing from scratch, and also an effective way of turning digital art and design into something physical.

A Cricut Maker 3 digital cutter which is a long white rectangle with some tools sat in the side.
A digital cutter, a Cricut Maker 3, in the YorCreate makerspace at the University of York.

You can cut out text, images, and patterns, making it a versatile way to turn digital designs into physical things. They are also a great way for people interested in crafting to explore the world of digital image creation.

Vinyl with the word YorCreate cut out of it
An example of a vinyl sticker created with a digital cutter.

For anyone at the University of York, there is a Cricut Maker 3 in YorCreate, the makerspace in the Library, which you can use once you've had a YorCreate induction (which also covers 3D printing and the space in general).