Software Preferences at Award-winning Firms

image: Peter Summerlin
image: Peter Summerlin

In our experience, there seems to be common interest among landscape architects as to what design software other firms are using in their offices.  As technology is rapidly changing, the only constant is that we must regularly decide if the latest and greatest software has potential for our specific practice. Knowing what other successful firms are utilizing might be helpful as we wrestle with these decisions.  Similarly, academics are curious of the latest practices in an effort to either integrate or validate course objectives.  It’s with this curiosity in mind that we talked with 15 recent ASLA award-winning firms from across the country about the software they use in creating illustrative perspectives. The firms surveyed range in size but altogether represent 40% of the National ASLA awards in General Design and Analysis & Planning for the past 3 years.

For context, most high-end perspectives are created across a series of software programs. Typically, a 2D drafting program is used to build the site in plan view, a 3D modeling program projects up the site plan into 3-dimensional space, a rendering program exports 2D graphics with advanced materials and lighting, and a post-processing program is used for touch-ups and final edits. The results of the survey are broken into these 4 categories and are shown below.

Software preferences at 15 award-winning firms from 2013-2015. image: Michael Keating
Software preferences at 15 award-winning firms from 2013-2015.
image: Michael Keating

Extended Analysis

Not surprisingly, AutoCAD was almost ubiquitously favored at every firm we contacted. In a few instances, however, firms were also using additional 2D drafting tools like Vectorworks and Revit. What might be a surprise to some is that Rhino 3D was the most widely used 3D modeling program, with 87% of the firms preferring this software. SketchUp Pro was also well represented with 53% of firms surveyed using the software in their workflow. In certain cases, firms would employ both programs because their employees have personal preferences for one or the other. For example, one firm surveyed uses both Rhino and SketchUp because they have found that their project managers prefer the ease of SketchUp, while production staff and recent hires are more comfortable in Rhino. It should be noted that there is the ability to transfer a model between both programs. While 3DS Max  has amazing potential, few firms use the program in their offices. Many cited 3DS Max’s steep learning curve (or perceived learning curve) as the reason.

In most instances, post-processing represents the final step in producing perspectives. This step might include digitally inserting people or plant material that are cut out from photographs, or adjusting the overall lighting and saturation of the image.  The survey results for this category were universal, with every firm utilizing post-processing and specifically using Adobe Photoshop in that process.

Conclusion

These results are not to imply that every firm should mimic these software packages. Certainly the type and size of firms play a massive role in that decision.  They do, however, pull back the curtain and tell us a little more about the techniques behind some of the compelling perspectives we see among the award winners. Maybe a deeper question is, what should dictate where software trends go from here? Should client expectation, competing firms, or personal interests influence software decisions? And, is it the responsibility of principles or production staff (those creating the perspectives) to stay current with trends and dictate software choices?

Highlights

  • We surveyed 15 ASLA award-winning firms to see what software they choose to use in the development of their illustrative perspectives.
  • Rhino 3D was the clear favorite for 3D modeling, but SketchUp Pro is also heavily used depending on user preferences.
  • The results bring up a discussion about who might influence software integration into firms – entry level production staff or principles?

by Michael Keating, Student ASLA, 3rd-year landscape architecture graduate student at Mississippi State University along with advisor Peter Summerlin, ASLA.

3 thoughts on “Software Preferences at Award-winning Firms

  1. CS-Cart.com August 3, 2016 / 9:50 am

    Thank you very much for the news, it was very interesting and informative.

  2. Mike Schumann August 10, 2016 / 2:00 pm

    I find it strange that none of the software being used by these firms is designed specifically for landscape architects and designers. AutoDesk has abandoned any efforts to integrate landscape design functionality into Revit and has no intention of providing tools for what they see as a small market opportunity.

    How did you choose the software included in the survey and why is it missing so many tools specific to your constituents?

    • Michael Keating August 12, 2016 / 4:25 pm

      Hi Mike. The information was gathered by asking representatives of each firm open questions about their firm’s software preferences. For example, I asked them what software they use for their 2D drafting work, what they use for 3D modeling, and what they use for image rendering and post-processing, if they do it. The survey was not structured in a way that forced them to choose from pre-defined answers. Almost all of the programs listed above are used across multiple disciplines.

      The purpose of this survey was simply to see what software was used in the production of perspective renderings at some of today’s awarding winning firms.

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