3D as a second language

The advantage of knowing 3D in the creative thought process

Knowing different ways to say the same thing


There is a theory that knowing a second language strengthens your primary language. It states that a second language speaker gains an advantage that is more than the sum of the two languages, it’s called multi-competence (Cook, 1991). Vivian Cook, a professor of applied linguistics at Newcastle University, proposed this theory in the early 1990’s.

If we borrow that theory for a moment and apply it to the creative thought process, instead of communicating verbal messages, the result is surprisingly the same.


The language of sketching


Let’s take creativity to be the cognitive process that we need to develop (I assume I’m talking to designers), and let’s say that our native tongue is sketching. Most of us have learned since our youth to sketch as a way to represent ideas and we have become so skilled at it that it has almost become a transparent process, meaning that the execution of the thought is largely unencumbered by the process of sketching.

How the sketch informs the creative thought process varies from person to person, but in general it does offer a first incarnation of an idea and a platform on which to elaborate it. It is every creative thinker’s biggest challenge to go from “seeing it” in their thoughts to putting it on paper.


The language of 3D software


Enter 3D software that can give shape and form to anything, it can bend surfaces that you could only dream of sketching. It can instantly make something green, yellow or polished stainless steel. It can also inform you in ways you never thought of asking, what is the mass of that blob?

Such software is commonplace in design firms, from architects to industrial designers to Roller coaster engineers, but not everyone at that firm knows how to use it. It’s a different language from sketching; it’s as distant as English is to Spanish – the overlap between the two languages is minimal at best.

However, those that speak sketching only and those that speak 3D software only collectively are not equal to one who speaks both because sketching affects how you use 3D software and 3D software effects how you sketch.


Think one way vs. thinking two ways


The idea that creativity and speaking more than one language are a symbiotic fit occurred to me when I first read Vicolo Cannery by Steinbeck and then followed it up by reading Cannery Row also by Steinbeck. Although the two stories are identical, the imagery was totally different in the Italian version versus the English version.

In Steinbecks novel, when I read “motorcycle”, a nice rusted old Knucklehead Harley come to mind, but when I read “motocicletta” the imagery was that of a beat up Vespa.

The same if you think of a cube and sketch it or if you think of a cube and build it in 3D, it’s the same thing but they look completely different.

So the question becomes, is it an advantage to have two version of the same thing? If you live in the creative field, then the answer is undoubtedly yes. The only drawback might be a slower speed of thinking, which was also found to be the case with second language speakers, because there are more options to consider, the thought process is invariably longer (Cook, 1997). In the case of a creative thinker though, what’s the rush? The more ways you see something the better.


The Problem of translating an idea


In the world of design it is quite common that the design lead is not the same person that will produce the drawings. This is somewhat understandable because burdening that position with the task of production is not the best use of their time. So typically the design lead will sketch out the idea or find reference images to describe it and push it down the pipeline of production, refining the idea as it starts to take shape.

There are two weak links in this process, the first is whether or not the translation from the design lead to the team was successful and the second, and more critical, is whether within the mind of the design lead the creative thought was translated in meaning, not just lines.

Just like in real life language translations, cultural understanding of the meaning is the key (Sedivy, 2012). Translating word for word is not only inefficient but often wrong. If the design lead knows 3D software fluently, there would not be a need to translate, greatly reducing the possibility of communication errors.

This seems obvious, and the design lead does not need to become the 3D production source, just needs to be able to speak it correctly, keeping their valuable time free for creative thinking.

The real benefit of knowing 3D software fluently is in the cognitive advantage the designer has in the thought process. Simply by having experienced more ways than one to draw a cube we are aware of the process itself independent of the idea we are conveying.

This awareness can inform us while within the creative thought process itself. It is clearly an advantage over the sketch only or 3D only designer who is seeing the idea in one way.

I look back at when I worked at one of the largest architecture firms in America and how we struggled to integrate the senior designers into the 3D and production workflow. We tried everything to get the designers to create in 3D but to no avail, they were simply to slow or could not get their idea down correctly.

This was not really their fault, we all know how difficult it is to learn a new language, but there is a world of difference between being told that you can only communicate in a new language versus using your new language to compliment your native tongue.

The trap here is how fluent are we in the 3D software we will be communicating in? There is a threshold of fluency, below which it is a hindrance and above which it is a gain.

If designers learn how to “speak” 3D software, it will not only facilitate the communication process in production but will give them an extra tool in their creative cognitive process.



1              Cook, V. J. (1992), Evidence for Multicompetence. Language Learning.

2              Cook, V. J. (1997), The consequences of bilingualism for cognitive processing.

3              Sedivy, J. (2012), “Does Speaking in a Second Language Make You Think More, or Feel Less?”


Paolo Bertolotti, NY

for full disclosure, I’m fluent in Italian, Spanish and English.