Case Study: Students at Niagara College explore information graphics through 3D illustrative techniques


Case Study by Robin Nisbet RGD, Instructor at Niagara College

Image: 'Bunny Fashion Show' by Meghan Badea, Student RGD 

Graphic Design students in a third year Illustration Techniques class at Niagara College were asked to illustrate or convey a story or a set of actions in a single three dimensional picture. 


Students could approach this assignment as either a continuous narrative showing the same character performing multiple actions, as in an illuminated manuscript, or as an illustrated 'assembly-line' where various events are portrayed to create a kind of time-line. 


Project: 3D Illustrated 'Story'

I created this project as a pre-cursor to working on information graphics. For last year's course, the assignment did not require students to use 3D illustration - instead, they were asked to create three separate information graphics to be used in conjunction with a newsletter. I found that students had a difficult time organizing the information in a visual way - most resorted to bar graphs or other simple charts which were well executed but not very innovative. 


For this year's assignment I decided to approach the concept from a different angle. The project was left more open - students could choose their own subject and were asked to create an interesting story through graphic illustration. The story needed to represent the passage of time or a change in the subject through a series of progressive actions. They were only required to create one vector illustration, but the trick was to combine multiple 'scenes' or actions into a single image. This got them thinking about using one visual to convey different things - the way an infographic works. They needed to consider how the information could be broken down and conveyed through graphic representation in a way that made sense. 


I expected this year's project to have a more successful outcome because I realized the importance of shifting focus from 'how do I represent this information graphically' to 'how do I tell the different parts of this story through a single image'. 


Process and Tools 

As a warm-up to the project, students were asked to create a three dimensional room. The idea was to strengthen their understanding of working with 3D and encourage them to use these skills to design an image that can be used in multiple ways. 


The final 3D 'story' was assigned to be completed individually within a two-week period. Students were required to use Adobe Illustrator.  


For students who chose a simple narrative for their projects, they were asked to illustrate the progression from a different perspective (i.e. from a bird's eye view or from the ground looking up). No matter what narrative or idea the students chose to illustrate, they were required to show a minimum of three different actions or images. 


Approaches varied widely among the students, ranging from How-To instructions for stringing a guitar to characters performing actions in three separate but related rooms. 


'How To String A Guitar' 

The art of playing guitar has been a passion of mine ever since my teenage years. With this particular illustration assignment, I felt the need to walk through a string application process in response to the common confusion experienced by beginners. Artistically, this was a chance to further explore my understanding of gradients and how they could suggest a form of realistic design while working in Adobe Illustrator.

I began with a sketch of very simple organic shapes that followed the curvature of the guitar. These were later brought to life digitally where they could be tweaked to completion. I displayed depth in the piece through subtle value changes and minimal drop shadow placements. I wanted the final image to create a physical connection with the viewer and convey a desire to strum the strings and hear what the guitar would sound like  Shaun O'Melia, Student RGD


Some students had a lot of difficulty conveying the three dimensional aspect of the project, while others struggled to create a character with the appropriate weight and volume rather than one with the look of a paper cut-out doll. 


Overall, the approaches that worked best were the ones contained within a single setting with a single character repeated in different poses and actions. 



I wasn’t quite sure how this assignment would be received, but I think it was very successful.


This year I left the project relatively open-ended in terms of the subject, letting the students choose what they wanted to illustrate. Next year I may introduce more strict parameters, asking for a specific set of actions that would more closely reflect the type of content represented in an actual information graphic. I was very pleased that students understood the intended outcome of the assignment and created unique illustrations - hopefully the project achieved the goal of helping them look at information in a different way.



It was challenging to take a 2D simplistic style and turn it into a 3D image as well as mesh four scenes into one picture. Overall the task was enjoyable because it pushed me to think about combining four images into a single scene. - Joseph Mccusker, Student RGD


'Setting Up a 3D Printer'

Making a how-to layout without using the traditional frame by frame approach made it an interesting experience and resulted in a more complex final piece. I enjoyed it and wouldn't mind doing more 3D drawings in Illustrator. - Mike Mazzuocco, Student RGD 


Educator Takeaways 

  1. Be specific, but also leave room for interpretation. Once students begin their careers as designers they will realize that the amount of input they receive from others will depend heavily on the project and the people involved - they should be familiar with the process of creating a piece with strict parameters, but should also understand how to operate with more freedom and still create something that meets the requirements.  
  2. Challenging students with something new can help them discover methods of design they might never have tapped into before. While some students struggled with the 3D element, helping them work through it was a great opportunity to open their eyes to a different design approach and help them develop these skills. 
  3. Don't be alarmed when the project doesn't go exactly as planned. Not every project is going to suit every student, but often the students' interactions with the assignment will help an idea evolve into a better learning experience. 

Student Takeaways

  1. Using a two dimensional program to create a three dimensional space is difficult, but it can be a lot easier if you think about changing your perspective. Try getting away from the computer screen, go back to basics and just draw it out - the simplest approach is often the best way to tackle design perspectives. 
  2. Sketching out different scenarios is the first step on the path to the final image you create on the computer. It's a great way to get the ideas flowing and work out the bugs. 
  3. Think outside the box - find new and interesting angles to explore and approach the image in a new way to keep your designs fresh and interesting. 


Interested in submitting an Educator Case Study to appear on the RGD website? Email