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Dart Frog Creative finds success with 3-D rendering

Firm can combine renderings with photography to ‘fill out’ a visual promotion.

February 22, 2013
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Dart Frod Creative finds success with 3-D rendering
Dart Frog Creative's team includes, from left, Jon Cervin, production artist; Gordon Whiteman, manager and senior artist; and Mark Custer, director of growth initiatives. Photo by Michael Buck
If you’ve flipped through a Crate & Barrel catalogue recently, chances are some portion of the room you were admiring wasn’t real.

That’s because more and more companies — and industries — are turning to 3-D renderings for their marketing needs, and Crate & Barrel is one of them.

Dart Frog Creative, located in Grand Rapids, works with Crate & Barrel to develop marketing materials utilizing 3-D technology, actually creating entire rooms filled with furniture on a computer screen.

“Corporate America is quickly realizing how much they can use 3-D technology in their businesses,” said Mark Custer, director of growth initiatives at Custer Workplace Interiors, which owns Dart Frog.

“3-D work in general can assist in creating new products for literally any industry that is out there. So anything that you want to try to create, design or visualize, you can. The new 3-D software has come so far so quickly that it is very easy to visualize things now in 3-D. You don’t even have to have a product manufactured yet or prototyped. You can do everything in 3-D now and develop products a lot quicker.”

Dart Frog Creative works specifically with contract furniture companies, the residential furniture industry, and architectural and design firms, but Custer said there are many industries where 3-D is catching on, including the automotive, construction and medical fields. It’s also changing the process of product development.

Dart Frog was founded in 2006, following Steelcase’s decision to sell off its in-house 3-D rendering division. At that time, many firms were starting to find the cost of keeping these types of divisions in-house was too expensive.

“It requires a huge investment because of the software and hardware you need and the level of the computer that you need,” Custer said.

Many firms began outsourcing these services, and even those that have retained a rendering department tend to still outsource some aspect of the process.

Custer bought the digital assets from Steelcase, and Custer Studio was born. The business worked exclusively with Steelcase creating renderings to support sales opportunities for the company. Soon, however, that work led to some marketing pieces, as well.

“A 3-D rendering for a sales opportunity doesn’t have to be at the level that a marketing rendering has to be at,” explained Custer. “A marketing piece has to be much more like photography, where there’s some artistry behind it and a real creative blend of lighting, shadowing and texturing. Those are the three big areas of 3-D rendering.

“We really saw that as our niche, because we had very talented 3-D artists.”

The company decided to focus on producing marketing materials and began seeking out other office furniture manufacturers as well as architecture and design firms. It quickly realized its name was hindering its expansion.

“We wanted to create our own identity. If it’s tied into the furniture dealership, our name has very good local recognition, but it definitely limits us going around the country or even the Midwest in expanding our business. … A lot of people will automatically assume that we only do office furniture renderings or we are a furniture design company or that we design furniture for Custer, our dealership, so there were a lot more negatives or threats to keeping the Custer name more than advantages or opportunities.”

Today, Dart Frog has settled into its niche. The firm has nine core employees, all located in Grand Rapids, and 20 contract artists who are spread out across the country.

“Our artists tend to do everything,” Custer said. “They do all the 3-D work — they are 3-D artists at their core — but they also manage customer relations, project management, manage the contractors they are using on their projects. They basically do everything.

“Other 3-D companies tend to have layers in their process, where one department only does modeling, another only does texturing, another only does lighting, and then the other will do the shadowing. It’s almost like a manufacturing plant. We run it the other way, where our people do everything in the process.”

Custer said he thinks running the business this way makes for better customer service.

“The customer experience usually is better because they talk to one person and they can talk to that one person about anything.”

3-D work is a growing field; therefore, there is still somewhat of a trial and error aspect to it. For a while Custer said marketing materials were either exclusively done with photography or rendering. Now, the tendency seems to be to blend the two.

“I think the fact that we can blend it with photography is cool,” he said. “A lot of people like taking a picture of a scene, so using photography for that, and then having us insert the 3-D rendered product into that picture. That is a technique that is becoming more and more popular too.”

By using a blend of photography and rendering, companies are able to utilize the best aspects of each.

“A lot of people still like the beauty shots of photography and what it can capture in the moment. Photography also does human beings really well, where 3-D rendering does not do a good job of putting human beings in the scene.”

Where 3-D renderings really have the advantage are in cost and time, as well as visualization of not-yet-built products.

“Visualizing what new construction will look like, it’s definitely helped in the construction and architecture world,” Custer said.

He expects more companies will begin exploring opportunities to utilize the quickly advancing 3-D technology.

“It’s definitely a fun industry and it’s growing like crazy.”

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