Article / Which design software should I use?

A question often asked by students but also by veteran trades people and interior designers who rose in times when computers where not widely available and used is, which is the best design software on the market. This article hopes to give some guidelines in the world of design software and help you formulate and answer the right questions one needs in order to make a correct choice in the variety of offers on the market. This article is oriented at the uninitiated.

Although a very valid question, it is inevitably a very vague question. However if you are new to this subject matter and IT is not your cup of tea it is perfectly understandable the vast and overwhelming information and possibilities makes you utter no more then ‘what should I use?’

As with many things, before one invests into something new a little research is required and some essential questions need to be asked and answered.
Typical questions would be:

- What line of work are you in?
- What do you want to do with the software and how do you think it can help you?
- What computer platform are you using, PC or Macintosh
- What is your basic computer knowledge and how much time do you have to invest?
- And last but not least how much money are you prepared to invest?

Although the question ‘what do you want to do with the software?’ seems to be quite straight forwards, if however you have no idea what design software can do, you may not be able to answer that question adequately and leave out many of the things that might be possible but did not considered. Therefore let’s run quickly through what sort of packages are out there and what their possibilities are.

For the sake of easiness and to make the article accessible to the uninitiated I will categorize certain software functions. This is by no means a recognized or official categorization but will make the explanations in this article easier. Most programs are not limited to one function and depending on the user group the program is targeting it will incorporate more or less functions or will incorporate only a moderate limited version or a more advanced version of certain functions.

Drag and drop function

Probably the simplest function and probably the most economical solution in interior and furniture design software but naturally the most restrictive in terms of possibilities is what we could call the ‘drag and drop function.’ Software based around this concept makes use of predefined objects (chairs, cabinets, tables, kitchen units, sinks, taps, doors, windows, etc) stored in categories or some sort of database. These items can be dragged or imported into a scene and dropped into place. Often the program gives some basic possibilities to layout the walls and floor of the room/scene and with (limited) possibilities to apply some texture or colour to it. View a demo

Depending on the software, the database of objects can be extensive or limited, ranging from only a few models of every category (ex: 10 different models of chairs) to databases who will carry almost the complete gamma of certain manufactures. Many models can also be found on the internet.

Imaging you are a kitchen designer who works with a set number of suppliers. If you always buy your taps form brand A, your sinks from brand B, your kitchen furniture from brand C, etc. then it would be just a matter of dropping the right items into place if the items of these brands would be stored in a database. Some software will even give you a list of the order numbers of the parts you have used and even an estimate price of the totality of your design. Depending on the refinement of the software, parts can be as detailed as cabinet doors, cabinet knobs, door hinges, drawer gliders, etc. Since manufactures are aware of this they will nowadays often offer a 3D download model of there products, which the designer can then import into his software, enter an order number and a price for it and use it immediately as a drag and drop function.
Again depending on the level of software, these programs will then allow you (some more successful then others) to add some lights and texture to the components and scene, and render and print a perspective view, elevation or floor plan with measurements of your design. Some incorporate a management for clients, project progression, supplier orders, etc.

This type of software is orientated towards retail outlets or interior designers who work with a predefined number of product suppliers to complete their designs.

Drafting functions

The architectural scene is still very much dominated by the AutoCAD software and if, as an interior designer you work together with or for an architectural firm or office, AutoCAD or a similar program may well be the software you’ll be using for your designs.

The most basic versions of this type of function is merely a sketching function which allows you to sketch, either freehand on a digital tablet or more linear with an orthographic crosshair and will allow you to save, print and export your drawing.

Gradually from there more advanced software:

- Will integrate drafting on layers allowing you to draft walls, electrical plans, plumbing, etc. each on a different layer, very much like overlays in the paper world.
- Will include a library of standard components, wall types, window and door types, stairs, etc. which can be easily inserted into the floor plan.
- Will draw floor plans with measurements, etc.
- Will create a bill (list) of materials, etc.
- Will generate (but often limited) 3D renderings of your design.

The new evolution of software however splits its package in modules. Every module is responsible to perform a certain set of tasks. It is probably a feature borrowed from the solid modelling packages (see below) which have been working along those lines for years now.

One module will for example be responsible for drafting and drawing out the main layout, another module will be responsible for the plan and section views and a third module can be responsible for 3D views, etc.
Since the modules are all interconnected a change or adaptation made in one module will immediately be carried through in all modules, which makes changes and adaptation very straight forwards and avoids mistakes.
Online demonstrations of this can be found here Revit tutorials

Solid modelling

In 3D modelling software, one makes often a distinction between solid modelling software or surface modelling software. In solid modelling software solid shapes are created and manipulated by either joining them, adding to them or cutting away from them and are calculated by there volume unlike surface modelling which is calculated by its contour. Primitive solid bodies are often made up by extruding revolving, lofting or sweeping 2D shapes. From these solid primitives, faces can be altered, holes can be drilled or other primitive shapes can be added or subtracted to form more complex shapes. As this is a fairly exact science this type of software is often used for engineering purposes and product development.

Many solid modelling software are parametric. In parametric software the properties of the modelled component can be defined, as well as all their features and the relation these features have with there surroundings. If for example the dept of a hole in a 50MM cube is defined to stay 10MM away from the opposite face so it doesn’t go all the way through, thus making a hole of 40MM deep, and one would decide in a later stage to change the cube’s dimensions to 25MM instead of 50MM, then automatically the hole will change to a depth of 15MM in order to fulfil it’s parametric property to stay 10MM away from the opposite face. Like this all properties and dimensions can be parametrically controlled, which makes changing and adapting models much easier. Most software will also keep a tree structure of the changes that happened to a model, making sure that one can access and modify at anytime previous changes.

As described above solid modelling software often works with modules. A module to build your part, a module to assemble your different parts into a product, a module to reproduce movement for moving parts and a module to make different views, plans, elevations, sections, etc. of the part or assemble you have drawn. To view a graphical layout of the different modules take a look at this video.

But solid modelling will go much further then that. More advanced solid packages will provide a whole range of information and testing capabilities for your parts or models. This ranges from basic information of automatic volume or area calculation, weight calculation, centre of gravity calculation, to mould flow and heat stress calculations, inertial properties, etc.

Surface modelling.

Surface modelling software concentrates on the construction of surfaces. Surfaces are built up by connecting a series of curves. Often these curves have control points by which the surface can be manipulated and controlled. This way of modelling allows for very complex organic shapes. But since the model is empty or just a shell it is less apt for property calculations as would be possible in solid modelling. Also generating accurate dimensional drawings is more complicated with organic forms. This type of function is mainly used in organic modelling packages for the automotive, animation, film and gaming industry.

View an example of surface modelling

Another example can be found here in a 2 part tutorial to model a tap.

Combi packages

Some packages are solid modelling packages with capabilities of surface modelling. Most often they are fairly advanced and also fairly expensive. View a demo of a combi package.


Most software will have some degree of rendering capabilities, thus meaning that it can place textures, lighting and shading effects to the objects and scene to make it look more realistically. Basic drag and drop software have often only basic rendering capabilities, so creating life realistic 3D images of your designs may be reduced. Animation software has often a superior rendering quality with many more lighting/shadow setting and texture capabilities, but is naturally much more complex to use. These programs will also allow complex animations of your designs.
Examples can be seen here.

What software should I use?

Now that you know a bit more about design software capabilities we can start asking the different questions stated earlier. Although by answering these questions you will get a better idea of what kind of software directs itself more towards your needs, one package however will unlikely completely satisfy your desires, hence the reason why many designers use several programs in their design practice.

So let’s recap the orientation of the different types of software out there and like this answer the questions stated earlier.

If you have an interior design practice linked to specific brands (ex: using consistently the same brands in your design), represent a specific group of suppliers offering your clients also the service of design layout (ex: kitchen installer of brand X) or are mainly an installer but like to give your clients a quick view of what the installation will look like, then a drop and drag package may well be the answer. Most often these programs have basic custom modelling capabilities to draw walls windows, countertops, etc. and most often will also import basic structures designed in another program and are fairly easy to learn and not to expensive.
SketchUp for example is a program available for free online which allows users to search the internet for models already designed by other people. Often though you will not find the exact 3D models you will use in the actual installation and may have to settle for ‘look a likes’ in your 3D presentation. Another software package is called Fusion by the software company Planit. The company has contracts with major brands and provides a comprehensive 3D database of these brands, readily to be placed in a 3D environment. Other publishers of programs competing in the same segment are MicroCad Software , Compusoft Group , Articad. Mainly PC oriented, only a few Mac versions available.

If however you need a more architectural approach to design, and are more technically inclined and require more control over your design, building specifications, electrical and plumbing layout, etc where accurate floor plans and measurements are more important than quick visual output, you may be more interested in AutoCAD packages. They are more expensive however and will require a considerable longer learning curve. Mainly PC oriented, however some Mac versions are available.

For those who are more product oriented and want to be able to control every little detail, such as production furniture designers, solid modelling is probably the answer. However if you want to be more creative and need to model very organic shapes (ex: for injection moulding) than probably surface modelling is what you are looking for. Just remember that control and accuracy will be easier with solid modelling than with surface modelling.
Both types of programs have little limitation to what you can design with it. Mechanical engineers and prototypers will most often go for a solid modelling package like SolidWork, Inventor, SolidEdge, or formZ(also for Mac), car and transportation designers will be more inclined to use a surface modelling package such as Alias. Both types of modelling programs don’t come cheap and have a considerable learning curve. If however you want the best of both worlds with lots of extras you can opt for something like Catia. A magnificent piece of software but with an equal spectacular price tag.

If absolute photorealistic rendering is needed you will be looking at rendering and animation software like Maya and 3D studio Max. Both surface modelling programs with state of the art rendering capabilities. These program will however not produce technical drawings, but it is perfectly possible to import models drawn in other software and make spectacular renderings with them. They require a fair bit of learning and are not cheap either. A more economical solution for rendering would be Artlantis. A fairly cheap package with reasonable rendering capabilities for architectural and interior purposes.

For more information please visit the individual program publishers on the Design software page of this weblog. You can also try YouTube which have many tutorial videos on the packages listed.

© Copyrighted by Lizzy Design
About the author

Interior designer Lizzy Van Lysebeth

Lizzy Van Lysebeth is a belgian furniture and interior designer living and working in London.

Before moving to London he worked with GK-Design in Tokyo and for various companies in Spain. In barcelona he was course director of a master in furniture design for an associated college to the university Ramon Llul.

In 1999 Lizzy became freelance and started Lizzy Design. In 2006 he moved to Chiswick, London were he lives with his wife and newly born son (Aug 08.)

Lizzy Design, Interior and Furniture Design
London, UK

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