Uses of 3D printing in graphic design and visual communication

3D printing involves making things – 3 dimensional objects – which is generally not what most people think graphic designers do. However, graphic designers have actually been designing 3D objects since the early days of visual communication – from books and brochures through to signs, packaging, merchandise, folders, cards and advertising hoardings. The question is, will 3D printing have a role to play in visual communication? Will it change the solutions we design, or the way we design them?

Collaboration across design disciplines

Most current applications of 3D printing involve making parts or prototypes for everything from consumer products to medical prosthetics, architecture and machinery. Forbes’ article The State of 3D Printing, 2018 quotes research by Sculpteo that says the most popular applications of 3D printing are prototyping, production and proof of concept models. Graphic designers often work with product designers, architects and business clients, so to collaborate effectively they need to keep up with industry developments in 3D printing and related technologies.

3D topographic maps

The examples above are from Thingiverse, which has thousands of 3D designs uploaded by users. The topographic map of Yosemite was generated via the handy Terrain2STL tool.

Information design and data visualisation

Complex data means nothing unless you can understand it! ‘Big data’ can sometimes be made more understandable using 3D modelling. The article How 3-D Printing is Revolutionizing the Display of Big Data explains how a translucent 3D-printed model is combined with coloured lights to enhance meaning and convey information.



Complete typefaces are being developed for 3D, just as they are for print and screen use.

Business cards


3D printing can be used to create prototype or small run packaging designs, and enables more complex shapes than some alternative methods.

The above examples are just a few of the areas of visual communication where 3D printing is being used. Some other areas include signage, branding and education. As the technology develops, 3D printing is likely to be used in ways we can’t yet anticipate, especially if it reaches widespread use in the home and a wider range of materials (particularly eco-friendly materials) are available for everyday use.

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