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Cool Macworld Product: SketchUp

by Adam Goldstein, co-author of Switching to the Mac: The Missing Manual
01/17/2006

Macworld San Francisco was as exciting as ever this year, with an entertaining keynote, a huge show floor, and thousands of attendees. Exhibitors showed off everything from iPod headphones to iPod radio transmitters to iPod cases.

Fortunately for the people who came to Macworld for the Macs, there were still plenty of non-iPod products on the show floor. Adobe showed off the newest version of its Creative Suite--along with Lightroom, its new competitor to Apple's Aperture. Guitar Center demonstrated tons of neat musical instruments and software packages. And Apple let visitors play around with the new MacBook Pros (or would they call them MacBooks Pro?).

My job was to traverse the show floor looking for a gem. Not just a product that has a big PR campaign associated with it, but one that does something truly original and useful. Past the rows of video games and rainbow iPod cases, I finally found my pick. So which product got my Coolness Vote this year? A neat design tool called SketchUp.

About SketchUp

figure 1

A view of a "log cabin"-themed iPod. From start to finish, sketching the model took less than 10 minutes

In the jargon of architects and graphic designers, SketchUp is a computer-aided design (or CAD) program. In other words, it lets you design three-dimensional models of houses, furniture, cars, and just about anything else you can imagine. Of course, CAD programs have been around since before the Mac itself--so what makes SketchUp different? Well, as its name suggests, you use it for sketching models, rather than building them in painstaking detail. So while you might use a program like VectorWorks or AutoCAD to put together the exact blueprints for a house, you would use SketchUp if you'd just thought of a really cool idea for an MP3 player design and wanted to see it from different angles.

How It Works

Once you have an idea for a design, you simply open up SketchUp and start drawing. The program has the standard shapes you'd find in a program like Illustrator--rectangles, circles, arcs, and so on--so with a few clicks, you can put together a rough two-dimensional outline of your model. That's when the fun begins.

To turn your flat sketch into a model, you "extrude" (or "pull") a shape into three dimensions. Suddenly, your rectangle is a box, or your circle is a cylindrical Roman column. You can repeat the process, too—extruding the side of your new box, say, so the box becomes deeper. You can also "sweep"--or rotate--an object. That's the process that you'd use to turn a circle into a sphere, for example. And there are many other ways to get 3D models, including dragging around the pre-designed models of domes, trees, and people.

Once you have something in three dimensions, you can start drawing two-dimensional shapes onto the sides of your three-dimensional ones. It's a cinch to draw windows right onto the façade of a house, for example, or to draw a screen onto your new MP3 player design. And as it turns out, those new shapes are extrude-able, too. In a cool tutorial provided with the program, you actually design an entire staircase by simply drawing the steps onto a wall and then "pulling" them out into three dimensions. You really have to try it to realize how cool it is.

figure 2

Another view with 2-dimensional figures added. Very easy to do with this software.

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