It wasn’t long ago I’d see a 3D rendering or piece of highly detailed art and feel blown away.
The texture, the lighting, the level of detail. The way the designer captured the reflection of a streetlight in a pool of water, or the tangible thickness of a plastic headlight, or the fine fibers on the stem of a plant. The closer it came to photorealism, the more impressive it was.
I didn’t necessarily have that feeling while viewing a photograph of the same scene. What was so awe-inducing, so mesmerizing, wasn’t necessarily the image itself. It was the sheer amount of time and experience it took to make it. The painstaking work of shading, lighting, texturizing it took to make an image take on dimension and life. I appreciated the end product, sure. But what meant more was the process behind it. Knowing someone spent hours learning this skill and hours more perfecting this one image.
Just a few years later, that sense of wonder is gone.
Today, I (and likely you) scroll by dozens of these images without a second glance. I see dancing blobs, intricate cubes, luminescent organisms, and none of it impresses me anymore. No render or animation evokes that sense of awe and respect I felt before. It’s not that I’ve seen so much of the same thing over and over again – and I have. It’s that our tools have become so good and so accessible, anyone is capable of incredible work at a certain executional level. And so, it’s not so incredible anymore.
Want to animate a scene of dancing robots? You can download the templates for free to get it done in an hour. Want to make a 3D rendering of a car? You can find the asset online, change the color or texture inside an automated tool, and you’re done. Or, you can plug it all into an AI platform and it will create it for you (probably better than you could have yourself) in seconds. The final image is roughly the same as one someone took days or even weeks to achieve. You probably couldn’t even tell the difference now if both were side by side. The visual made through painstaking process, then, doesn’t have the same impact.
"But I’m curious, now that everything is 'good,' what it will take to evoke awe or respect moving forward. If yesterday's great is today's good, what is tomorrow's great?"
A decade or so ago, I’d marvel at a beautiful button I stumbled upon online. The lighting, the shading, the feeling that you could actually touch your screen and push it. If you wanted to create something “back then,” you invested time and energy learning how to do it. You’d master the process through trial and error, spend dozens of hours trying to get it just right. In doing so, you would inevitably infuse your own personality into it. The end result was an inarguable testament to your dedication and skill. We knew what you put into it, and regardless of whether it was our taste or style, we respected you for it.
It’s like seeing a trained body in real life. You meet a guy who exercises hard, eats clean, dedicates the time and effort into working out, and regardless of whether you’re attracted to him or envy him or not, you are impressed by him. You understand this result could only be achieved with discipline and sacrifice, and you can’t help but admire it. There’s no cheating or speeding up this process. It takes hours of work, every day, to get what this guy has. (That is, unless steroids become so widely accessible the process is no longer required. But even then, you need to put in the work.)
Between our tools, free assets created by other people, the advancement of AI and abundance of tutorials, a certain level of execution is now widely available in the design world. What was once impressive is now the numbing baseline. What was once exceptional is now commonplace. My standards haven’t necessarily risen. It’s just that the “wow” factor has disappeared. Beauty has been standardized.
Perhaps rather than replacing craft, this age will lead to a deeper appreciation for it. We can buy a factory-made replica of a luxury bag and no one would know the difference when we wear it. However, we still long for – and many still spring for and proudly wear – the handcrafted, Italian leather bag made by the original designer. One might think the proliferation of cheapness would devalue the real deal. The luxury brands might have had the same fear at the beginning. Yet, we continue seeking out the original because we appreciate and respect the meaning behind it. The mastery, the source materials, the recognition of the brand name.
No matter the industry or craft, the good always rises to the top. But I’m curious, now that everything is "good," what it will take to evoke awe or respect moving forward. If yesterday's great is today's good, what is tomorrow's great? Will we start drifting back to analog? Will we have to be more aggressive and open about sharing our process?
I don’t know for certain what will impress me again in the near future, but I know I’ll feel it when I see it.