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Concept designer Alex Senechal kindly shared his weapon design workflow and awesome Visual Design Basics tutorial completely free for the first 50 people!
Important Weapon Design Aspects
Weapon Design is a large topic and something you can never be good enough at, but I’ll give a few quick things I think are very important (especially for Weapon Design) but also design as a whole.
Always be asking yourself questions that may help to improve the design. The goal is to be constantly poking holes in your design, look at it from other people’s point of view. Every person who looks at your design will have an internal dialogue of how they judge and understand any artistic work, and it’s your job as a designer to account for these and try to answer questions for them visually. Who uses it? What are its needed features? What goal does this design fulfill? How does it work? How many people does this spaceship hold and what is its function? Explain them visually as well. This is sometimes called perceived affordance: when someone looks at something they should have an intuitive idea of how to interact with it and understand the function and purpose of a design. If they are asking additional questions to understand your piece, it probably has a bad design.
Research your subject, even if it’s a random sci-fi thing or a realistic handgun. Many avid firearms enthusiasts will note that my handgun is actually quite impractical and not very functional. We can observe how people react to our work to see our flaws and shortcomings to great effect. It’s actually very awesome to get feedback and see where you could research more. Since this was my first time designing a semi-functional weapon and a handgun, I used World of Guns on Steam for some functional reference and a bit of Google.
Even for my past sci-fi weapons, I was constantly trying to explain how these imaginary mechanisms would function. For example, my first rifle fired anti-matter or more specifically anti-hydrogen, so I researched into how this would work, roughly some parts needed for deploying this weapon, and also some after-effects of it. One of the after-effects of detonating an anti-hydrogen weapon would be gamma-rays, so I designed a part meant to protect the user from this radiation after the discharge. My friend Chin Fong told me once: if you figure out how it works it will design itself.
Materials are also incredibly important, one should make metal look like metal, plastic look like plastic. I don’t claim to be a master of this, but I try to have some basic rules in my head when designing things. Avoid making everything look like some box shape and same edge widths all over. You need to have soft and hard edges and a variety of bevel types and sizes to contrast one another. You can see this clearly on the image below.
A quick example: if you have a rubber part – try to make it softer, if you have plastic – use bevels more than chamfers, if you have CNC metal – use more chamfers. Of course, these are not accurate, but making even small rulesets for choice can help distinguish materials. The more you learn about how and why to make choices on the material the better, of course.
How did the idea come?
I really was bored in an airport for 15 hours since I messed up my flight, so I started drawing this weapon. I usually only draw 1 concept (with a mouse or iPad) and refine it until I have something to remember. I don’t do thumbnails or “random” generation for ideas.
To me, this feels so imprecise and without intent. I will usually draw something until I feel the broad idea is figured out, then I can spend my time asking myself smaller questions during the 3D model production and refining the idea to the final.
It really depends how interested and passionate I am about the design. Some come right into my head, but sometimes I look for good things. My friend Sheng said once: you just have to get the bad ideas out. Depending on the subject I will go right into 3D, especially for characters as poly modeling feels like sculpting. Sometimes I get proportions in ZBrush extra rough and model over. I often break down parts of a design, making lists of my goals, functional things or ideas I want to implement. Recently I’ve spent 2 days and made a 3-page paper on a design before I started it. It 100% depends on the requirements of the design and how I feel about it.
In art, I get a lot of pleasure out of shapes and forms, nothing feels better for me personally, even if some function is sacrificed (at least in my personal work). I try to find a balance, and I enjoy the novelty. I don’t even really know how I came up with the idea for this handgun. I probably enjoyed the shape contrast of the curve in the back and the angular shape of the frame in the front and the fact that I could have some clear plastic.
Material Production Approach
When it comes to materials, I don’t bake anything anymore as I use tiling textures and sometimes procedural texturing in KeyShot. I am actually a very old-school guy as I still use Photoshop and simply mix textures and values until I get something I am looking for. I have rarely ever done any texture painting with Photoshop. You can get good roughness mats to work with from here or from CG textures (right?). I use my concept folder which has decals, effects, textures, etc. to quickly put things together.
I have a decent size texture library with anything from custom textures to the ones I bought and edited. I just play around with them. Mostly I’m editing the textures, adding or removing details and playing with levels in Photoshop. Most importantly I play with brightness and roughness sliders in KeyShot itself. Most of my work is going into the roughness maps as it should.
Usually, I’m looking at the reference in real life or online to try and get my materials looking good. In KeyShot it’s important to switch around HDRIs when working on the materials and look at the documentation so that you are making them correctly. Having a good contrast between matte and glossy materials helps give contrast to one other, making them pop. We can use this to guide the eye as well, the value is very important in general. I usually keep my concepts fairly clean though and forego a lot of wear, but it really depends on the design.
I generally prefer to always build things up evenly. This probably comes from my habits when I made Halo 5 environments, working in phases and such.
I think it’s incredibly important. 99% of the time I see people struggling with the model because they went into detail far too soon, and made large choices without a clear vision.
When we build things up evenly, we can focus on the relationship between the parts. Once you have made large choices, say detailed out the entire grip, but the rest of the gun is a blockout, you’re now constrained by that initial choice and work put in.
Beyond the art side, adding bevels too soon will make changing forms and complicating the modeling process. Be patient, learn to see things in the rough stages and you will reach the end with a good result rather than getting off on how hot your early bevels are.
Two quick tips for Fusion 360: 1) use the folder system to organize your design as it is extremely helpful for quickly working with many objects. Just right-click on “bodies” and create a new folder. 2) If you click and hold over a model you can select objects through the solid, and even click and hold to select an origin plane through your model.
How does the Shape Contrast work in Weapon Design?
I usually have a few examples I like to show when it comes to the shape contrast, I’ll show how I used it on my weapon design.
I used the curve of the suppressor to make the highlight more interesting and contrast the flatness of the slide. I always look at how light is hitting the object and if the contrast is in order. Even small bevels can add fitness and shape/form contrast to an otherwise flat object. Try to not make everything all hard or soft, this is crucial for having dynamic high contrast designs.
When it comes to shapes I choose a mix of curved and angular shapes. Not only does it make it clear to the brain which part of the gun is the front and which is the back but it’s also a nice contrast to please the eye. I do this on a macro and micro scale. Of course, a lot more goes into these choices than just shape contrast such as hierarchy, 70-30, balance, flow, etc.
I go into depth on these topics in my Visual Design Basics Tutorial. Important news: the first 50 copies are free, so hurry up!
Visual Design Basics Tutorial
In my tutorial, I cover the basics of Visual Design and explain every topic clearly with practical examples so you can apply it to your own work if you’re a 2D or 3D artist (the same principles apply). I also included a weapon design demo where I break down my problem solving and thought process so you can see how I apply these theories in Fusion 360! Here is a video giving a quick overview:
There is so much great information out there. In fact, I dedicated a whole PDF and folder to it in my tutorial with design breakdowns and infographics, as well as some amazing articles and videos to help people continue learning. If you already have my tutorial – GO CHECK IT OUT! It’s the folder called EXTRA CONTENT.
My friend Jihoon Kim who taught me a lot about design has a Facebook page dedicated to design and design feedback. I highly recommend joining. He’s also been writing a book on design for the last two years, so keep a lookout for this.
Mike Hill has a few amazing talks that are a must-watch for any designer. He goes into what is our job as a designer as well as explaining why certain designs are working and some are not. He’s extremely insightful.
As far as the books are concerned, check out these:
- Architecture: Form, Space, and Order by Francis D. K. Ching
- The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman
Alex Senechal, Concept Designer
Interview conducted by Kirill Tokarev