Hyperdimensional: NFT design systems.

Published by Straith Schreder
November 29, 2022
Hyperdimensional: NFT design systems.
Hyperdimensional: NFT design systems.

We think about NFTs as something like a blank canvas. A collectible can be rooted in pixel art. It can be recorded as video. A collection can be fixed, dynamic, or generative. Tied to a physical object. Or something that feels physical in its own right: something you can touch through the screen. 

3D design can be a really powerful tool for NFT experiences: a canvas for sure, but more accurately: clay that you can shape across a project lifespan. It’s a way of literally creating depth and dimension: evoking a role for the collector, and opening up a portal into a rich storyworld. 

Over the course of the past year, we’ve explored how 3D systems can anchor and amplify NFT experiences. Palm NFT Studio’s Elyse Fulcher and Ryan Goldberg break down the design process behind DC’s 3D collections, and what it means to mold something across a team, a pipeline, and a global community. 

For artists, there are almost unlimited ways to approach or think about an NFT project. What do you consider when working through the format? What do you love about 3D as a medium? 

Elyse Fulcher: There are a lot of different options out there; there are a lot of 2D projects that we love. But 3D does have some distinct advantages that make it easier to change and evolve work over time. When you think about creating on chain, that’s an important consideration. Art persists. Projects have roadmaps. And it’s not just about how long the work lives, it’s where it lives. A 3D collectible can live in your wallet, or it can be adapted into an AR filter, or it can be reinterpreted as an OBJ. 3D gives us a framework for transformation. 

Ryan Goldberg:  The future, whether we like it or not, is going to be an extended reality experience. And in this context, 3D files become more usable and resilient. 

But I think it really ties back into: where do your artistic sensibilities drive you? For me, it's the flexibility of working in three different dimensions that’s really fun. It's not a flat blank canvas. It's a deep, blank canvas to fill up space in a world.

Elyse: And with 3D, often you can get something looking really professional, really premium, really beautiful. When you have dynamic control over lighting and over materials, there's a really easy way to update and push the art. And it’s fun and collaborative to work on that in 3D, in a game engine, because we can make those changes in real time together. In node systems, you can mathematically change the way that that's working. It becomes a lot less about one artist’s hand; and instead, something shared. That doesn’t make it superior to 2D; just different. 3D is like wet clay: collaborative, versatile, simple to use. 

We’ve produced a number of both generative and editioned collections over the course of the past year. What do you consider when thinking about collection design? 

Elyse: Both collection strategies present different advantages and creative opportunities. For hundreds of years, artists have been making images that are experienced by audiences. To release work, you have to relinquish it. When you’re creating generative work, you have to relinquish it much sooner than you would when you’re making a single image, or painting. You’re forced to collaborate with a formula, a literal math formula. It’s going to show you everything. That the things you thought were beautiful: don’t matter. And the things you thought were mistakes: are perfect. It has a wonderful way of pulling the rug out from underneath you. 

When you’re working on an editioned project, you know all the parameters that you’re working within. Editioned art has more guardrails around it, and this can offer a really strong, highly saturated, and highly supervised story to unfold. As always, it depends on the project, the team, and the audience. We work primarily with large IP; in some cases, it’s critical that the story live within a set of boundaries. 

Ryan: Editioned art is what we've come to expect; there’s a thousand years of precedent. 

Generative stuff is the new kid on the block. But there’s a different way of thinking about it: as the difference between drawing, and lithography. When you’re creating something that’s going to be lithograph-printed, you’re working in the shadows, versus painting everything as it is. With generative art, you’re working in the shadows: you’re making all of the elements, but you’re not actually piecing them all together. So you could say that the bar is higher for editioned work. But that’s because for generative work, the bar is filled in by you. 

Think about Chromie Squiggles. You don’t see yourself rendered in human form, but your work is completely unique to you. And an editioned collection can evoke something similar: owning a work that an artist has labored over, knowing that you’re one of 100 people to collect, is amazing. 

Elyse: Creating generative art is like laying down seeds for a garden. Editioned art is a lot more like creating bouquets or flower arrangements individually; curating a number of these arrangements to feel related, taking stock of which leaves need to be trimmed and how the flowers need to be positioned. You're able to put a lot more effort into a singular piece; whereas, a garden, perhaps, you're not going to be as careful. It's a totally different approach to detailed care management, and it’s a fundamentally different experience for collectors, regardless of the features. 

How do you approach actually making an NFT collection? What’s your process as a team?

Elyse: If we're talking about something that's going into production with a client, it often starts with the partner and the IP: the history, the fictional context, the feeling we want people to experience. NFTs allow people to explore and create their identity. We can lift the veil between how you experience yourself online and in real life. This type of identity-driven experience can pair really nicely with generativity. For projects that require real narrative structure, limited edition works better. 

Ryan: In the world of marketing and advertising, you can use design to create desire; to buy a product.  There's a lot of that same intense research at play here. But it’s about more than that. With generative collections, we’re trying to make people feel seen. That’s something I don’t think too many other studios are focusing on right now. But it’s really important. 

With editioned collections like Harley Quinn, people are looking for those Easter eggs. Starting with those elements when we were concepting became an anchor and inspiration for the project. There’s no shortage of references for Harley Quinn. Collecting those references, figuring out where they could live and how they could come to life became our departure point. And from there, we took a lot of left turns. 

Elyse: When there are a high volume of assets that need to be recognizable and made in a short amount of time, we can’t practically sculpt everything to perfection and we can’t buy our assets off the shelves. Our assets don’t exist in the real world, they have their own fictional histories that require a concept artist and a very clever 3D team to bring to life. Kitbashing simply won’t cut it.

Ryan: To get the custom look that we strive for, these things need to be made from scratch.

What advice would you give to artists who are interested in making 3D NFTs?

Ryan: Don't be afraid. And that's true for all art. Don't be scared to mess up or to make something crappy. That's how you learn. I think kitbashing is a really great tool for understanding 3D. You don't have to make everything from scratch. You can't make everything from scratch, especially as a single artist. It’s quite impossible, especially if you're starting out. But inspecting models that you get from professionals that have been modeling for 15 years will give you an understanding of how they were made. Going back through a scene file and dissecting it, and understanding why things were layered and made the way that they were, I think is super important. 

Find something. Find an artist that made something that looks really hard to you. Find something you don’t understand. Figure it out. Go make it. I've done that so many times. You’re probably not going to make it the same way that they made it. But now you’ve learned a new skill. That's helped push me to the next level.

Would you say that after 10 years working professionally in 3D, are you still taking this advice?

Ryan: 100%. YouTube is still my best friend. The industry isn't even close to being done. Harley was all offline rendered, which is standard. Some of the things that we're working on now, though, are in Unreal. And that's a completely new ballgame. That's not something that was around 10 years ago, at least in the state it is now. So learning is always happening. I'm making crappy stuff all the time. And everyone is, you just don't see it. 

Elyse: Learning how to learn is always the first and final advice that I probably have for people that are either totally new at making art or new to making collections. Or maybe they've already made a few collections and they're plateauing or they just want to keep improving. Wherever it is, really leaning into your fundamentals of being a good learner, observe what you like about what you did? What would you have changed if you had more time? Where would you go next time? When you start this over again, if you can level set with yourself and reflect on how something went and write those notes down, you will be leaving a breadcrumb trail for your future self to consolidate all of your learnings and continue to make better and better things. Embracing yourself as a student is probably the healthiest way to embrace yourself as an artist. 

Explore some of the collections we've designed at nft.dcuniverse.com.

3D Resources: