Efficient, aesthetic, suitable – style definition for 3D, AR, and VR

Sascha Blättgen
August 9th, 2017

Visual design has a long and storied tradition. Still it is a lively and dynamic topic and constantly exposed to current influences and trends. With the emerging technologies of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) designers have to learn how to create impressive and positive experiences for users of these media.

There are hundreds of tutorials on developing 3D applications, but one part routinely left out in these tutorials is the style definition for the visualization. There is a wide range of visual options that carry distinct advantages and disadvantages.

This article is a quick summary of possible styles, each illustrated with examples from video games.


Photorealism is characterized by being as lifelike as possible – from detailed textures to high-polygon models to real-world lighting.

While there are different variations of photorealism and each application differs from the next there are some common principles. The photorealistic style offers a user experience with maximum immersion, a realistic world resembling current movies.

Especially objects like single machine parts in an industrial context are well suited for a photorealistic style, keeping very close to the real-world product.

The price of this realism is a lot of work. The high detail grade requires a correspondent development effort. In short, photorealism aims to be as life-like as possible, with high demands on hardware and implementation.


The mixed style is not an actual style but an umbrella term for the endless possible combinations of different styles. For example, a style could use realistic lighting and textures but exaggerate the proportions of the models. It is a stylized view of reality with a variable degree of abstraction.

Source: Brink



In this style, the developers have a high degree of freedom for their design and can adapt the style to the use case. Mixed style is suited for many applications. It can create a coherent world that appears realistic enough so users accept it without hesitation, but still has the freedom and possibilities of a stylized display. For a SEW Eurodrive project we recreated the company’s trade show booth in virtual reality in a mixed style. Users consistently described a strong immersion.

In cooperation with Festo we created an application to display products using augmented reality. Products are displayed virtually in a real-world context and this way can be zoomed or viewed from inside.

The mixed style is the most varied style and therefore used most often. The variable grade of abstraction enables designers to match the requirements of the device or application. It is at home between realism and complete abstraction, a stylized display of reality with varying implementation costs.

Cel Shading

Cel Shading is a display style that renders 3D objects so they appear hand-drawn similar to a classic animated movie.


In this style, the model is not shaded smoothly but with only a few levels of brightness. Usually very simple textures are used to further enhance the cartoon look.


Cel Shading offers simple models and colors that can improve perception and readability of the application. Well used cel shading can also become the foundation of a unique look and feel.

A coherent cartoon world can have a higher acceptance than a shoddy realistic world. The style makes visual design easier, leaving more creative freedom. For example, animations and effects can be strongly emphasized or exaggerated without becoming irritating – because the world does not have to be realistic to be coherent.

The decision to use a cel shaded style strongly depends on the respective application’s context. When a photorealistic display is unnecessary, cel shading can be used to visualize many things very well. The style’s strength lies in highlighting playful elements. It should be used accordingly.

Cel shading gives 3D objects clear readability reminiscent of classic cartoon animation. It appears playful and friendly. Thanks to a clear visual structure it can be easily used as long as no photorealistic displays are needed in the application.

Low Poly

Early 3D video games had to follow strict limits for the creation of objects. They capped texture size and number of used polygons. Today, thanks to increasing hardware performance those restrictions are gone, making use of a limited 3D style a conscious decision.

Source: Overland


Source: Supershot



Graphic effects that were not possible in early 3D applications give a new charm to the rather angular style. Low-poly objects appear clear and illustrative. The style is not only visually strong and renders quickly but may also be the most efficient to develop. Textures are usually monochrome or low-detail, mood is set through lighting and effects. Unlike for photorealistic style there is no need for large implementation efforts.

Low Poly is a visual style well suited to show processes clearly while keeping app development time down. Like with cel shading, the world is displayed coherently without mixing styles. This visual style is appealing and also quick and efficient to implement.


The importance of three-dimensional space for human-machine interaction is evolving due to 3D visualization, augmented and virtual reality. One advantage is that the degrees of freedom of 3D application design are no longer limited by technical infrastructure which makes it possible to support every use case through an appropriate form of visualization. The styles presented in this article serve as starting point and inspiration, only showing a selection of possible styling methods. The possibilities in 3D space are manifold and just wait to be explored in projects.

If you are interested in the subject and in 3D services you can find more examples and informations at our 3D Visualization services section.


This article has been created in cooperation with Lucas Plabst who completed a internship for his study in our office in Munich, spring 2017. The progress in finding a 3D / AR / VR style is an important ingredience that is necessary to successfully adapt new technologies.


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