What is Product Visualization? The Magic of Making Beautiful Images

Will Gibbons by Will Gibbons | Last Updated:   August 13, 2021

Product visualization is a specialized subset of design that sits at the intersection of marketing and visual effects. It is the practice of rendering still images and animations of physical products designed to increase sales.

Since becoming a Product Visualization Specialist, I’ve found the title Render Artist much easier to say, so we’ll use these two interchangeably. Product rendering is a very specialized field that isn’t often recognized or understood by the general public. Let’s take a look at some of the most common questions relating product visualization and see if we can clear some things up, shall we?

Origin of Product Visualization

I studied industrial design in college. Industrial designers create products while being sensitive to aesthetics, ergonomics and cultural appropriateness. Today, industrial designers use CAD software to realize their ideas in a digital 3D space. Once a digital model is created, designers use rendering software to add textures, materials and lighting. The final output of a 3D rendering software is a computer-generated image (CGI) or picture, called a rendering. The rendering closely resembles the product that will be manufactured.

Industrial designers are busy people. They’re often tasked with many jobs, only one of which is rendering. Typically, renderings are shown during a design review. A rendering can be like a more photo-realistic version of a sketch. When used for decision-making renderings only need to be ‘good enough’. High-fidelity renderings are usually created by a specialist with lots of experience.

Industrial design skills include, research, brainstorm, sketch, mockup, test, refine, CMF, CAD, Render, and finally prototype

To grab your attention, businesses invest in creating irresistible advertising visuals. You’ll find these on e-commerce websites, print ads, billboards, digital signs, TV commercials, social media campaigns and more. As technology improves, so does the demand for high-quality CGI. Brands spend more money every year on unique, aspirational, informative and alluring media to boost product launches.

I’m a minimalist who didn’t want to produce consumable products. I chose to specialize in creating renderings and animations of products. By overlapping my passion with a market need, I’ve made a comfortable living creating CGI. Since I didn’t know of any officially-recognized title for this position, I decided to call it Product Visualization.

What Skills do Product Visualizers Need?

Based on my industrial design background, here’s what I think render artists should focus on. While you don’t need to study industrial design to become a product visualizer, many of the skills will overlap.

  1. Communication – Verbal communication is critical to working with clients, understanding new products, explaining your ideas and asking good questions. Equally important is written communication for email and documentation. And finally visual communication is critical. Being able to use images to illustrate an idea or concept is at the core of what a product visualizer does.
  2. 3D Rendering – Render artists use 3D rendering software to create photo-realistic images and animations. To specialize in making stunning images, a render artist must be exceptionally familiar with the software. Most designers are tech-savvy and able to create decent renderings. Thus, a product visualizer must be a pro with one or more rendering programs.
  3. Design Principals – To speak intelligently about image-making, a product visualizer needs to understand basic design principals. Contrast, value, composition, color, texture and aesthetics should be second nature. This is akin to a poet’s vocabulary. The more one knows these, the easier it is to create a wider range of excellent images.
  4. Physical Properties – Light and materials are fairly complex subjects and at the heart of understanding them lies physics. Understanding how light behaves when it interacts with different materials is key. Diffuse, specular, transmission and emission properties help to define material appearance. By understanding these concepts, one can take direction and create results that meet the clients’ needs.
  5. Technical Computer Skills – Throughout the process of creating renderings or animations, roadblocks will emerge. These can range from technical software or hardware limitations, hardware malfunctions, software bugs, the need for non-existent software, plugins or code, missing codecs and scene size optimization and management of heavy data sets to file format conversions. Basically, when you’re not rendering, you’re troubleshooting or playing tech support. It’s critical that a render artist be comfortable digging around for solutions to solve the inevitable technical issues that will arise.
  6. Taste – On the other end of the spectrum of the aforementioned technical skills is taste. Taste refers to one’s ability to know what looks good. This can be from choice of color palette to lighting, to graphical composition and more. Many people can become good technicians and learn how to use a software, but the ones who excel at product rendering have good taste.
  7. 3D Modeling – While not critical, it is important to have some experience with 3D modeling. Normally, clients provide 3D models that the visualizer will use. Yet, these models often lack fine details. CAD models used for engineering must meet certain standards. What makes a good CAD model for production does not make a good model for rendering. Being able to change a client’s 3D model, add detail, optimize hierarchy and add props all come in handy when working as a product visualizer.

While not a comprehensive list, these are the big ones that stand out to me. With a solid handle on these skills, one can feel well-equipped to be a product visualizer.

Should a render artist use a Mac or PC?

The operating system isn’t critical to the completion of the job. Just like a carpenter needn’t limit himself to a specific brand of tools. Yet, not every software is compatible on both operating systems. Often, a product visualizer will need to consider what set of software she will use and let that determine the operating system.

That said, more software runs on Windows and due to how customizable PCs are, you’re likely to see a product visualizer on a PC. 3D rendering and animation applications usually need a beefy computer to run smoothly. Usually a computer is configured for the specific software one will use.

I get my custom PCs tailor-made by Puget Systems and enjoy their legendary and friendly customer service. If you’re considering getting a new computer soon, call them up! (not paid to say this)

Another reason you’ll see many render artists on a PC is thanks to the visual effects industry. VFX is the department responsible for making all the computer-generated effects you see in films. Many tools developed for VFX have are now used by render artists. Some VFX software and CAD programs are only available for Windows, thus making it a bit more popular than Mac OS.

Finally, it’s almost always been more cost-effective to build a powerful PC than a Mac.

While you’ll always find exceptions to the rule, many software packages used for product design and development are Windows-based and due to how easy it is to build a custom PC, that’s the best choice for product visualization.

What Software do Product Visualizers Use?

There’s two different paths a file can go down for product rendering. Sorry, there’s no way around it… this will get a bit technical.

Using NURBs data for Rendering

Most CAD software creates forms using a ‘language’ called NURBs (non-uniform rational b-splines). This language is optimal for describing forms and relationships between parts for manufacturing. Critical distinction: For manufacturing. CAD files are like the 3D version of vector data and are ideal for machines that produce physical goods.

To keep cost down and to speed up the process, it’s helpful to use NURBs-based models for rendering. This means, the manufacturing data can be used with little modification. The down-side is that few render engines are optimized to use NURBs-based models for rendering. Also, NURBs data isn’t ideal for some aspects of rendering.

CAD software like Solidworks, Fusion 360, CREO and NX all have some rendering capabilities. But, they’re often quite basic and are not fully-dedicated rendering tools, leaving much to be desired.

KeyShot has made a name for itself by being a standalone render engine that is able to read more than 40 3D file formats, many of which are NURBs-based! Luxion, the makers of KeyShot have chosen to focus on being a user-friendly tool for designers. Now, it’s become an industry-standard render engine for product visualization.

One drawback of using NURBs-based models for 3D rendering is that there are limitations as to what can be done with the data set. Since KeyShot was not originally developed to compete with VFX tools, its feature set isn’t as rich as dedicated VFX tools.

Using Polygonal Data for Rendering

All major visual effects software normally creates forms using polygons. Polygons have their own set of rules and features optimized for creating VFX (not manufacturing).

When budget isn’t a primary concern and the client wants to create advanced animations or visuals, then using polygonal data is the best option. Unfortunately, this often requires re-modeling the CAD model in a different software using polygons.

When the client wants to do the following with their product, it’ll be critical to have the product modeled in polygons or in a VFX tool:

There are quite a few render engines available for most major DCCs (digital content creation) software. These render engines usually come in the form of plugins, which must operate within the host application. Below are a list of some of the most popular DCCs along with compatible render engine plugins.

So, which software do most render artists use? The line between VFX and product visualization is becoming fuzzy. Someone coming from product design and development, will most likely use KeyShot since it works so well with CAD models. But, if someone comes from a VFX background they will likely use a popular DCC and accompanying plugin render engine. This allows one to create more complex visuals.

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What Companies Hire Product Visualizers?

If a company produces physical products, then there’s a good chance they would benefit from product renderings or animations. Over the course of my freelancing career, I have noticed some companies are more likely to hire product visualizers.

  1. Startups – Startups or young companies that are launching with a single or new product usually are in need of visuals to populate their websites, social media profiles and advertising campaigns with visuals.
  2. Consumer Electronics Companies – Any business that produces consumer electronics faces stiff competition and needs to make their products look irresistible to drive sales. Often, the marketing imagery is what makes a brand stand out against its competition.
  3. Appliance Companies – Appliances are large household products that are often expensive to prototype and logistically difficult to photograph. The larger a product is, the more space and extensive of a lighting setup is required to create photographs of it.
  4. Technology Companies – Many business that use technology or innovative materials to solve complex solutions rely on educational videos that use visuals to demonstrate how their products work to solve problems.
  5. Jewelry Companies – Because it’s so expensive to produce a large catalog of jewelry made from precious metals and stones, and how shiny these materials are, lots of companies rely on rendering to replace photography of their jewelry products.
  6. Companies Producing Products Made of Special Materials – Some companies create products from materials that are inherently difficult to photograph. For example, glass and polished metals can be tricky to take photos of due to how reflective they are. Controlling reflections of environments and the photographer’s camera is nearly impossible, which is where it makes more sense to use CGI.
  7. Automotive Companies – While automotive rendering is often done by specialists who are steeped in car culture, like appliances, cars are expensive, large and difficult to prototype and photograph, making them excellent subjects for product visualization.
  8. Architectural Companies – Architectural rendering is also its own specialty usually referred to as Arch Viz or Archiviz. For the same reasons it’s more affordable to render a car, it’s more economical to render a building interior or exterior, both commercial and residential.

How Much Money Do Product Visualizers Make?

How much money a render artist earns depends on skills, specialty, demand, experience and employment status. Of course, as skill level, experiences and demand for one increases, so does earnings potential.

One of the largest factors in earnings potential is employment status. An in-house, full-time render artist will likely to earn between $75,000 and $130,000. A big factor is location. Of course, this position in Silicone Valley will pay more than it would in rural Indiana.

The earnings potential for a freelance render artist is far higher. It’s not uncommon for an experienced self-employed product visualizer to earn between $150,000 to $200,000 per year. Another benefit of working as a freelancer, is that you can be location independent.

Pro tip: If you live in Singapore, India, Thailand or Brazil you don’t need to earn as much to cover living expenses. Do not fall into the trap of targeting local clients if you can earn more serving clients in other countries!

Like any other field, so much depends on demand, specialization, marketing and personal network. Generally speaking, freelance render artists have a higher earnings potential than in-house employees. Note, I said earnings potential, not median income.

Does that Clear Things Up?

I went to school to study industrial design. When I chose a major, there was no such field as product visualization. It’s a small niche I’ve found my way into by following my personal interests. Companies that launch new products need product visuals, so I marketed myself to them.

I am fortunate to love what I do and want to help you make a living doing something you’re passionate about. Hopefully this primer on product visualization has been helpful.

Will Gibbons
Will Gibbons is an industrial designer-turned rendering specialist. He's trained and worked with some of today's most recognizable brands and now is focused on creating the best product visualization content on the internet.