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Rewarding Design: SOLIDWORKS as a Creative Tool

CAD Concept Design

Rewarding Design: SOLIDWORKS as a Creative Tool

You’ve seen them before: wild, whimsical, even ostentatious designs modeled inside SOLIDWORKS.

Parts and assemblies that may have no function or purpose outside of amusement for your senses.

It can be startling. Some engineers I’ve worked with—the most curmudgeonly of the bunch—might even be offended at such a sight. “SOLIDWORKS is a mechanical design tool!”

But to them, and everybody reading this, I share my own personal view on this type of modeling in SOLIDWORKS: challenging yourself to create art inside SOLIDWORKS is one of the most rewarding ways to spend time in the software.

Let’s face it – you’ve probably modeled 100 brackets. Some with flanges, and some without. Some with circularly symmetric bolt hole patterns, and some with bolts pointing in six different directions. But at the end of the day, it’s still a bracket.

And in the course of our daily work, we tend to use the same SOLIDWORKS tools over and over. After a while, the challenge of using the software becomes more to do with dodging bugs or dealing with file management than actually experimenting with the toolset.

I’ve been there! It’s hard to find personal fulfillment in that space.

Around the time I gained access to a color 3D printer, I found a way to break out of the monotony.  

Creating art inside SOLIDWORKS allowed me the freedom to explore the limits of my imagination, to design to my desires rather than to drawings, and challenged my supposed expertise in the software.

And it made SOLIDWORKS rewarding again.

Art Requires Vulnerability

Understanding this core concept is essential to harnessing the power of creating art, in SOLIDWORKS or elsewhere. It is why we will always push our own limits and extend beyond our known boundaries when creating art. We’re compelled to perform at our highest ability, higher than we ever have, else we face the fear of disappointment.

It’s a strong feeling. One that is scary, and normally easier to avoid than to expose yourself to. That’s what makes it such a powerful tool for personal growth.

Skill Building Through Creativity

Let me assure you, there is a pragmatic component to my pro-art philosophy.

Only through growing our skillset can we perform “outside our ability.” In reality, we expand our abilities – sometimes in minor ways and in others, substantially.

A recent project I undertook is an example of both simple and significant skill-building through artistic modeling.

Awards As a Platform

At the end of 2014, I was asked to create an award for colleagues at work. It was an honor to be asked, and although I was nervous to embark on such a high-visibility assignment, I accepted. 

I’ll cut to the chase: the result wasn’t overly impressive.

Color 3D printing technology from Stratasys had just emerged and the tools were still very immature, but that doesn’t fully explain the uninspiring design.

In retrospect, I understand that my vision for the medal was limited by my belief that SOLIDWORKS wasn’t a tool for art. That it bears no resemblance to a brush in a painter’s hand or clay on a sculptor’s table.

This particular project certainly didn’t lead me to appreciate SOLIDWORKS’ capacity for artistic expression, but it was a pivotal first step in that direction and still reminds me of an important lesson: creativity is a skill itself, and is developed one step at a time. Creativity requires practice.

Fortunately, this isn’t where the article ends. I want to share this past year’s iteration of the same award, but first a quick word on 3D printing.

The Case for 3D Printing

3D printing is unique in its ability to create complex, full color shapes with minimal skill and labor. Although there are limited materials available and real limitations to size, like SOLIDWORKS it is an excellent tool for art.

There are two distinct reasons why I would recommend 3D printing at least some of your SOLIDWORKS art.

The first is that real, tangible parts add another layer of satisfaction to your efforts. Viewing your design on a flat screen simply cannot match the sensory experience of holding a 3D object that has texture, weight and other physical properties.

The second is that designing shapes that are printable create challenges that are similar to our standard use of SOLIDWORKS. Design for Manufacture (DFM) is a familiar requirement in our work and carrying this constraint over to our art encourages us to carry out our projects until the very finish.

In the course of our normal CAD work, the common rule is that 80 percent of our effort will go into the final 20 percent of the design. The most challenging aspects of our design are heavily weighted toward the little details that allow the part to work as intended. This is where we encounter problems we have no choice but to solve or find alternative routes—or face failure.

Art is no different. The adversity of following rules encourages growth, and ultimately helps create an association between the skills we learn through art with the skills available to us in our work.

One Final, Final Word

3D printing isn’t the only way to bring our SOLIDWORKS creations to life!

If you enjoy woodworking, you might design for manufacture in that medium. Perhaps with conventional cabinet-making tools, or even a CNC router (programmed in SOLIDWORKS CAM, of course).

If you gravitate toward metalworking, you might embrace SOLIDWORKS’ awesome weldment and sheet metal tools for your art. Unconventional use of conventional tools is what this article is all about—explore the possibilities!

And last, or perhaps in conjunction with the above, you always have the option to delve into photorealistic rendering of your art in SOLIDWORKS Visualize. Basic rendering skills can help you decide if your art is ready for manufacture, before spending valuable time and money in that pursuit.

On to the Good Stuff

The beauty of this philosophy is that the growth is limitless. Even after years of creating awards, I still approach every design knowing I’m going to create problems that will be difficult to solve. It’s just the nature of artistic pursuit.

So, let’s review some of the challenges I faced in my latest SOLIDWORKS-designed award.

President’s Club 2020

You’ll recognize this award as the same honor displayed in my first example. Similarly themed too—a beach setting—yet on completely different levels of complexity and skill.

The latest iteration is the result of consistent practice; a cultivated creativity.

And yet, it too was a platform for learning. My uncompromising vision for the award forced me to use SOLIDWORKS in ways I never had before, even after years of use under my belt.

Let’s review some of the noteworthy techniques in this file—some new to me, and some I believe worth sharing.

Sketch Picture

Art is commonly inspired by the images we see, and the Sketch Picture tool is an excellent way to carry that inspiration into SOLIDWORKS. You might use it to replicate an entire scene, or simply mimic a shape that caught your attention.

In this project, I used Sketch Picture to help me replicate this image of a setting sun. Because this is such a recognizable graphic, I wanted to replicate the varying height of the “grooves” perfectly, and Sketch Picture made that task quite simple.


I haven’t found the Dome tool to be used very often in mechanical CAD—I just don’t think it has enough control to be widely accepted by people designing parts to be manufactured conventionally. However, when you don’t need a tightly controlled convex or concave surface it can be an excellent option.

I used the Dome tool to create the underside of my floating island. Unlike the top surface, I wasn’t overly concerned about the shape itself, it just needed a bulging shape to complete the look. Dome did that fast and let me move onto the next step.

Composite Curve

I’m excited to mention this one! Composite curves help us create 3D curves without venturing outside the familiar world of 2D sketching. In a nutshell, you create two 2D sketches on planes that are perpendicular to each other. The composite curve is created by projecting the sketch entities until they intersect with each other.

Here, I have used a composite curve to shape the top of my island. I needed the crest of the island to follow the curve of the land, and to rise up like a sand dune. The shape of the top surface was critical to the rest of the design, and the sketches required minor tweaking as details were added to the island. 

The actual surface was created using a Surface Fill with the composite curve used as a Constraint Curve.

Offset Surface

I use Offset Surface all the time; it’s a versatile tool in that it can be used for many purposes. My most commonly used offset value is actually 0—in which case this becomes Copy Surface.

I wanted the text in the island to appear like disturbed sand, similar to how a castaway might use the beach to send a signal skyward. This meant the height of the raised text needed to consistently follow the curve of the island.

I approached this by using Split Line to carve the text onto the face. I then used Copy Surface on each letter to create a separate surface entity, followed by Thicken to bring that surface into 3D.

One quick tip: if you intend to 3D print your project in color, you may benefit from using a slight negative offset to begin with. This creates a small amount of intersection between your solids that could help small features adhere to the rest of the part.

Move Face

Most of the features we use in SOLIDWORKS are rooted in a sketch, but there are some that bypass that step and fall into the Direct Editing category. Move Face is one that I use often. Any time I want to push or pull a face and can’t be bothered with a sketch, I try Move Face.

In the image above, all three of these faces were created with Move Face. On the island, the outside surfaces were pushed inward so that they were not touching the outside surface of the award. The gray detail on top of the island is what would eventually become the grove of trees; this surface was pulled outward to create the illusion of a canopy.

Custom Appearances

There are several ways to handle color in SOLIDWORKS – you can apply solid colors or complex appearances to faces, features, bodies or entire parts. You also have the option to use Decals, which act like stickers on your model. This is an area where some creativity can go a long way, because the built-in SOLIDWORKS tools are not the most robust available.

I gave life to this model with the help of custom appearances. Both the sand and the trees are JPG files I found using Google Image search. By adding a File Location to your Appearances menu, you can create a space that it easy to drop images in for testing.

If you plan to 3D print a model you have added appearances to, you may need to use a non-native file format like 3MF. Be sure to check System Options > Export > 3MF > Include Appearances to ensure the file prints as expected.

Experiment with the scaling, rotation angle and mapping style to achieve the look you want. To perfectly replicate your vision, you might need to edit the images in Photoshop or GIMP, or create your own entirely.  

3D Texture

On the topic of appearances: did you know you can use them to sculpt texture into your solid bodies?

I first saw 3D Texture demonstrated during a recent SOLIDWORKS World conference. I recall being wowed by the example—a pyramid texture on a shin guard—and felt excited to use it when available.

Fast forward a couple years and I had completely forgotten about the enhancement, blissfully modeling in complete ignorance of its power.

It wasn’t until this model—the art of this model—compelled me to search for ways to make it just slightly more impressive. I had an idea: could I mimic the texture of an actual sand dune?

Ultimately, I didn’t use 3D Texture in this model. I did go through the full process, including the conversion of my sand dune image to grayscale in Photoshop and experimenting with the settings in SOLIDWORKS. I accomplished the goal of giving texture to the island that matched the visual appearance I had applied earlier, but the end result wasn’t as impressive as I had hoped.

Asymmetric Scaling

Hands down my favorite element of this award is the S.O.S.-style “2020” on the island. This was intended as a homage to a difficult yet hopeful year and was critical to what I would consider the “success” of the piece.

It just happened to be the feature I was most uncertain about as well.

That uncertainty led me to leave it for last. I trusted that I would find a way to make it work, especially if I had already invested hours into the rest of the award beforehand. I use this strategy often!

Some of my apprehension was caused by idea that the rocks would all have to appear unique – the effect wouldn’t work if there were obvious patterns or repeated files.

I started with some low poly rocks downloaded from TurboSquid. There were three or four in the bundle, and they came in STL form. As I began opening and scaling them in SOLIDWORKS, I realized my solution: asymmetric scaling.

By scaling the parts asymmetrically (different values in X, Y and Z), I could create an infinite number of “unique” rocks. With the help of Configurations, I soon had enough rocks to proceed.

The letters were assembled by roughly arranging the rocks how I wanted, mating two points to a surface underneath the dark brown dirt, and then slowly rotating the rock into its final position. At this point it was locked into place by mating a third point to the surface. Voila!


Find a way of using SOLIDWORKS that inspires you. For me, it has been creating awards to honor the people around me. The art of it brings challenge, growth and fulfillment.

For you, it may be something else entirely. But if you haven’t tried art, give it a shot. It’s not easy—but that is why it will lead to growth and fulfillment.