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Q&A with Aleх Shelkovnikov, 3D Designer and creator of ExcelArt

Meet the designer who creates 3D visuals in...Microsoft Excel!

This week, we had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Shelkovnikov as part of our Designer Interviews series where we talk to a wide range of incredible designers whose work has inspired us and will hopefully inspire you too.

Tell us a bit about yourself - who are you and what do you do?

Hi! My name is Alex Shelkovnikov, I'm a senior graphic designer with 10 years experience in the design field and more than 6 of them in Russian biggest IT companies. I specialised in branding, communications, motion design and 3D.

I love doing unusual projects, which can surprise people and break common understanding about design. That’s how ExcelArt was created. I invented my own method of creating three-dimensional illustrations without 3D software, using only Microsoft Excel spreadsheet program. And I’ve been working on and sharing this project for 5 years (more on that later).

Where did you learn to design and why pick 3D?

I've actually been drawing all my life. I remember when I drew my first portrait when I was 6. That was Lenin’s portrait, copied from an old soviet banknote :-). Later when I got my first computer, I started learning Photoshop just for fun.

"I remember when I drew my first portrait when I was 6. That was Lenin’s portrait, copied from an old soviet banknote"

It was around the year 2000 and I was living on the edge of Russia in the Far East. There was no Internet, I was an unsophisticated child and Photoshop’s opportunities seemed fantastic! During this time I was also studying Flash. The software is a bit forgotten nowadays, but back then it was super popular for creating websites, animation and even games. After I started learning how it worked, I got first freelance projects.

Despite my strong passion for drawing and using software, I never formally studied design or graduated from a design university. That just didn’t happen. However, I consider professional improvement as extremely important activity and I always self-educate and develop that way. I took courses, watched video lessons and read a lot. Once, I had read all the textbooks about graphic design in Russian and even reached scientific theses. I found an online scientific library and bought access to PhD and doctoral theses. I even got a discount!

In terms of working in 3D, it's something I picked specifically. Through working and studying within graphic design for many years, i've developed a gut feeling for it. At some point, I felt that 3D graphics would be deeply integrated into many brands communication systems and would be often be shown in adverts and online. I spotted that a while ago. As 3D software became more affordable, the proportion of animation content started growing. Various design talks and conferences presented more and more 3D work. Seeing all this play out, I decided to study at “Real Time School”. It’s a famous educational center in Moscow. I had completed a Cinema 4D course there and later I took a Houdini course too.

Fortunately it turned out that I was right. 3D has become very popular with advertising, identity and branding. I have already taught some of my colleagues about how to use 3D software because of the demand for it. Moreover, I participated in Cinema 4D video course recording, creating a chapter about render compositing on Photoshop.

3D design has become really popular over the last couple of years, with many services incorporating it into their branding - why do you think that is?

There are lots of reasons, but here are the ones that I think are the most important:

  1. 3D graphics are significantly more flexible - For instance, you can make a model of a character and prepare it as a rig (a skeleton for a 3D model). After that, there will be no difficulties in creating tons of new images with this character in many different poses. If it was 2D, you would need to draw a new illustration each time. So, 3D is a huge time saver. Besides that, you can render any picture in any size either for postcard or billboard. Again, in raster graphics you are limited with the original size of image.
  2. 3D is strongly connected to animation - Any serious 3D software has a wide variety of tools for animation. That’s extremely important now. Big brands use animated content more and more across all channels. Motion design is spreading offline too. I frequently see screens on the roads, where printed billboards had placed before.
  3. There are many things which are just simpler to present in 3D - For example, exhibition stands and interiors. Using 3D it’s easier to imagine space, understand furniture positions around the place and measure its size.
  4. Finally, it’s just attractive and beautiful - We're now able to create gorgeous realistic compositions and then visualise it, using different simulations in a way we can’t even imagine. This software gives us many opportunities for artistic experiments and creating absolutely new forms of design.

One of the most fascinating things about 3D to me is figuring out how your brain works when it comes to thinking about what you are making - can you give us some insight into your process? How do you concept, then go through the stages? How do you know what part to start first?

Actually, I’m not really focused on the technical side of the design process. Substance is more important to me than shape. That’s the reason I prefer to spend more time searching and forming the idea. I try accumulating ideas even while working on another task. Sometimes an interesting idea comes up to my mind when I just walk on the street. All my ideas are written in phone notes, but the most valuable are copied to my big notebook.

If I have to carry out a specific designing task, I can use creative methods of ideas searching. I took a lateral thinking course and it comes in really helpful, I would definitely recommend something like that for creatives.

Top of my list of recommendations is TRIZ - the theory of the resolution of invention-related tasks, a classic brainstorm method and mind mapping. But my favourite one is working with words, linked to the project. I start by raking them apart, finding their roots and finding suitable visual metaphors for them. This way perfectly works with tasks connected with branding and illustrations. For one big task I usually come up with at least 10 ideas. Then I filter them, find the best and finalise them.

In terms of technical details, that one is more simple! Firstly I analyse the scene in my head or make sketches. The next stage is blocking - it is fast placing of big undetailed objects to define a scene composition. Modelling, details, texturing, lighting, rendering and compositing go next.

References are another important part of my job. I have a rule. I try not to use the same type of work as a reference. In other words, if I need to design a landing page, I don’t look for other landing pages. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary to follow the industry trends, designers and studios. But for references it is much better to take them from other fields. In fact, interior, industrial and cinematography projects would be a great reference for graphic design. More often, the idea comes from the meaning of a project.

I think so many designers have 'learn 3D' on their New Years resolution list - what advice would you tell designers who are new in the space?

In my opinion. The most important thing in life is doing what you love without any regrets. 3D graphics has many different ways of usage in different industries. That’s why in the beginning it is much better to define what you like most of all: creating characters, drawing incredible illustrations, inventing interiors, preparing game content, etc.

After choosing the direction of work you have to learn the software you might need to accomplish your goals. For example, 3D Max is an industrial standard for exteriors and interiors, Maya is popular with animation, gaming industry uses Unreal Engine or Unity and so on. That’s why it is so critical to understand what you want.

"It’s worth noting that learning a particular software program is just the beginning. The rabbit hole is unbelievably deep."

It's worth noting that learning a particular software program is just the beginning. The rabbit hole is unbelievably deep. Let’s look at motion design. Someone who has learned Cinema 4D immediately faces the problem of graphics composing. They might need After Effects, which is another huge piece of software. And later they may want beautiful textures for his models and now they need Substance Painter. Many things can be easily modelled on Z-Brush or Moi3D. Another significant choice is between Octane and Redshift, which are two opposite sides of engine rendering software. And, of course, everyone would like to make trendy textures and particles, here you have the choice of Marvelous and X-Particles. The last one isn’t an independent program, just a plugin, but its functions seem as powerful as a separate software. Is all this even enough? Funny thing is that this isn't a full list of required tools a modern designer might need. In many different 3D specialisations the situation is similar. So I recommend every newbie to be ready to study all of this their whole life!

I always say that everyone has to decide what they like. Because studying and spending time on something you dislike is impossible. At some point your mind would start resisting and you give up everything. Don’t choose what is trendy or brings lots of money. Choose what you love. Learn to hear yourself and your heart.

"Don’t choose what is trendy or brings lots of money. Choose what you love. Learn to hear yourself and your heart."

What are some of the challenges with 3D design that other designers might not know?

There is a tendency which bothers me. The belief that entering into 3D takes of software experience, so that leads to many designers focusing on the technical aspect. They go deeper and deeper, learning buttons, slide bars and plugins. Technical skills grow, but the quality of work doesn't.

Designers sometimes forget that learning a piece of software is not everything. They forget about design basics: composition rules, typography, shape formation, colours. Without it you would never create something great and unique. No matter how good you are at software. There are lots of good books about design. And the older a book is the better it is. Don’t forget about Bauhaus and Swiss typography school. Everything has already been invented - grids, colour theory, composition. Everything is developed, described and systemised. Just take this knowledge and use it at work.

Another problem is generating ideas. Try looking at the hashtag #motiondesign on Instagram you see hundreds of rendered spheres. This is not unique and interesting. I want to say: “Stop! Get off the computer, spend some time creating something cool rather than rendering. The world doesn’t need another sphere, it needs your unusual point of view!”

"The world doesn’t need another sphere, it needs your unusual point of view!"

What's your favourite piece of work in your portfolio and why?

I like the “Gamification” poster. This work is about gamification as a trend, about interfering with gaming mechanics with every aspect of our life: work, leisure, family life. I tried to visualise the metaphor - a man of the future, completely gripped by gaming mechanics.

In the picture we see a man, tied up with wires, with a gamepad in his hands and VR-glasses on his face. We see he is old enough, he’s got a beard and rough skin, but he is wearing teenage clothes, such as shorts, trainers and T-shirt. This tells us about his real age inside. He is an infant who is still helped by adults. But instead of people, adults are technologies.

We see long mechanised hands satisfying his needs for food and others. Humanity creates technologies and wants to put responsibility for controlling life and making decisions on them. Meanwhile, people would relax and entertain, which the main character does in the illustration. Pay attention to the cubic, low-polygon style of it. It looks like a pixelated game. The hero has already become a part of the world wide game.

I try not giving any assessments on my own illustration. Whether it’s good or bad, everyone can decide himself and make up their own opinion about this problem.

Your ExcelArt project is mind-blowing. What made you start designing 3d visuals using Microsoft Excel?

That was an experiment. I wanted my brain to work differently and expand the borders of my creativity. The thing is that all tools really restrict us in some way. There's a point you start thinking whether you are standing on your own idea, or on the possibilities of the software you are using. I made a goal for myself: create a digital illustration using an unusual tool. It didn't matter how it was made, it just couldn't be with professional 3D software.

I started my research. I tried one thing after another. Then I came across an uncommon Microsoft Excel feature and tool. I was playing around and experimenting. Finally, I invented how to squeeze something cool from it. Today I have been using ExcelArt for training non-standard modelling skills for nearly 5 years.

I created a Youtube video course about ExcelArt in 2018. People started completing it and sending me their works, made on MS Excel. By the way, many of them had never tried digital graphics before. ExcelArt is super simple as anyone can learn it without any specific knowledge. There was even a lawyer, who drew a 3D iPhone following my lesson! I’m so glad for social media support I have from my followers, for their works. It gives me enormous energy!

Furthermore, some of my followers just like the simplicity of MS Excel images. That's the peculiar benefit of using Excel!

How long does a typical visual take to do in Excel? It seems like you need incredible patience!

The funny thing is that it’s not true. The time it takes to make 3D graphics in Microsoft Excel is the same as 3D software. Sometimes even less. Not more than an hour for a medium-detailed illustration. And about a few hours for something more difficult.

If you're interested in seeing how it's done, check out my project on Behance where I compare the potential of Microsoft Excel and Cinema 4D. I made the same illustration in both programs and compared a few characteristics: image creation speed, picture quality and overall impression. In terms of comparing time, Microsoft Excel won! And the final result wasn’t worse in my opinion.

Moreover, I completed the 366 days ExcelArt challenge in 2020. According to the rules I’d been creating one picture each day on MS Excel during the year. I’d have failed if it had taken too much time. It’d not happened just because of simplicity and speed of the method.

I want to mention the simplicity of the method one more time. When you look at the picture, you don’t think this is unreal. I always see comments like “crazy”, “junkie” and even worse! People think that’s impossible to repeat, and I do some sort of magic. But it’s not as hard as they think. As I said before, there is a course on my channel, where within 10 lessons I explain what to do on details.

ExcelArt is a great method. It would be nice to spread this idea wider, and it could become the entry point for everyone who wants to create computer graphics, but still a little intimidated by it.

What are you looking forward to in 2021?

I suppose 2020 has taught us a crucial lesson. For the last couple of decades we have paid attention to work and technology but we have completely forgotten about each other. Now more than ever we need to remember the value of human life. I hope the crisis will be over in 2021, but we will help each other more than before and continue spending time with our families. Technology is important but there is nothing more important than people’s lives.

Where can people follow you and find out more about your work?

I am always open for new projects, collaborations and opportunities and would be glad to talk and give professional advice. You can find me on Instagram, but big projects I usually post on Behance. And, of course, follow me on LinkedIn.


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