Modo and 3D printing a perfect pairing for Kaenon sunglasses design

Design by Harald Belker for Kaenon.

3D designer Harald Belker uses Modo to deliver stunning frames.

Fancy automobiles and slick high-end sunglasses rest at seemingly opposite ends of the design spectrum. You might be surprised to find, however, that the creative approach behind prototyping these products from scratch is not so different -- at least not for renowned 3D designer and Modo® enthusiast Harald Belker

For much of his illustrious 25+ year career, Belker's focus on automotive design has seen him develop everything from posh rides for major companies like Mercedes Benz and Porsche to futuristic autos for blockbuster films like Minority Report and Tron: Legacy. Over the years he's also branched out into designing other products, including toy racers for Matchbox and ANKI Drive, though a chance meeting many years ago opened the door to expanding his repertoire in a very different direction.

Belker bumped into Kaenon Polarized co-founder Steve Rosenberg at a BBQ, and the two hit it off. When the offer to design sunglasses came up, it seemed like a neat change of pace. "I thought 'why not? Sounds like fun,'" he recalls. "'I can always use a good pair of shades, and how cool would it be to wear one that I designed?” This spun out into a steady gig as Kaenon's exclusive designer.

Over the past 11 years, Belker has created more than 50 different frame prototypes, many of which have become staple sellers in the Kaenon line. This, of course, is also alongside many other projects design projects he's tackled across the automotive, film, and industrial design industries.

"I have always been somebody who likes design for the principle of creating something new," he says. "Working in film lets me do that to an extreme. One day I design planes, another I design weapons or spaceships. The beauty of designing a real product is that it has to work and succeed on a different level. I love the application of good ergonomics and believe good design has to make its function better and easier."

With sunglasses, half of the equation is style, but the other half is in how people wear it and how a sport frame performs under extreme use, Belker adds. "It's just another challenge, and I love challenges," he says. "So it is not that different than designing a car, at least to me it isn't. To me it is form language in either case. I approach it the same way."

3D printing sunglasses with Modo
Modo helped me tremendously and really made me a believer in using 3D as a designer.

Harald Belker

Modo and 3D printing changes the game

Earlier on in his career, Belker sketched everything out with pen and paper in exquisite detail. He was reluctant about transitioning to digital, especially after his experiences with CAD discouraged him from using 3D modeling as a creative tool. All of that changed when he discovered Modo. 

"It helped me tremendously and really made me a believer in using 3D as a designer," he says, adding he now loves working with Modo and it has completely changed his life as a designer.

Many of Belker's designs still start out as quick sketches, but once the idea is roughed up, he turns to Modo to flesh out the design, model it in 3D, and then render it for presentation. He finds that modeling polygons in 3D not only suits his creativity-driven design style, but it also delivers a tremendous boost in speed and efficiency to his process. Paired with the magic and ease of 3D printing, this has been particularly useful in his work at Kaenon.

"When I drew the frames by hand, I had to revert to straight views to show an accurate picture of the design, but it is almost impossible to envision what the whole frame looks like in a wrap-around shape," he explains, noting that Modo lets him now capture lots of different render views while being able to showcase prototypes in a more realistic way.

Getting physical models created from his sketches was another challenge. "I had to guess my dimensions a great deal so that a modeler in Italy could make a model by hand," he adds. 

The back and forth process between the US and Italy was slow and time consuming, as it would often take up to three or four revisions, says Belker. Now he saves time and money by sending his first round of Modo-drafted prototypes to John Vegher at San Francisco-based 3D printing shop Moddler, who turns around an accurate 3D model grown in plastic in a matter of days for a fraction of the cost. 

"Stereo lithography (SLA) is revolutionary and huge in the world of design," says Belker, who finds getting 3D printed models of his Modo prototypes to be invaluable. "As great as it is as a designer to design and model your own designs quickly, the added bonus of a SLA model for physical assurance that scale, proportions, and styling is correct is beyond words."

Modo in use for product design and printing sunglasses in 3D
Showing how Modo can be used for 3D printing

Framing it up in Modo

For Belker, the creative process of designing new Kaenon frames in Modo begins with laying out the right geometry. Using previous designs as a reference point, he's created clean walls of geometry that he can easily snap his design to.

"This way I can focus on modeling a shape that I envision and after I like it, I will push it in place by using the background geometry as my guide and snap it to it, he says. "Once that looks right I can thicken the geometry and start making small adjustments. Keeping the polygon count low is always key in moving things around efficiently."

Absolute accuracy in dimensions and geometry are critical, whether he's working on basic optical frames or wrap around sporty sunglasses. Being able to view his work in progress from any angle in Modo gives Belker valuable instant feedback on his design which makes it easier to tinker and adjust until it's just right. He also enjoys sketching in 3D with polygon models to rapidly iterate on his ideas and finds that clients like having lots of design options to choose from. 

"I can generate a variety of designs based on the original, therefore offering slight variations and additions," he says. "Naturally the renderings are one of the biggest selling points of any product shot. With HDRI lighting and a few presets I can generally get the idea across without any hassle."

A model for success

Right now, Belker is hard at work on the Kaenon 2016 line and also continues to design new and exciting toy cars for ANKI Drive. He also recently wrapped up a few weeks of design work for director Ridley Scott's eerie sci-fi sequel Prometheus 2. Lately, he's been testing out the MeshFusion plug-in for Modo and hopes to use it on an upcoming project soon. 

Between juggling lots of different projects, he also carves out regular time to dig deeper into Modo's capabilities and pick up new tricks to use in his design process. He finds, however, that the best time to tinker and learn isn't when he's on-the-job. "That is why I take time off at least for a couple weeks to learn new things within the program," he says. "If you are on the clock and have to deliver, I find it hard to experiment and explore the endless possibilities of Modo."