Dennis might be the most represented designer we have to date on Render Weekly. Unless you are just finding Render Weekly for the first time you know how impressive his work is. It was our honor to find time to talk to Dennis and find out a little more about him.
Where are you from?
I was born in Moscow, Russia and moved to the US when I was 17, which was in the late 90s.
What are your favorite bands? Brands? Childhood tv shows. Childhood toys or games.
My favorite band is Florence + the Machine. I think everyone should experience being at her concert at least once in their life -- just so much good energy and pure joy. I also like a large variety of good old analog synth music: “Makeup and Vanity Set”, “Carpenter Brut”, “Com Truise”, “Ladytron” are among the top artists in that scene that I enjoy. I also like metal bands like “Tool”, “Rammstein” and weird stuff like “Heilung”.
Brands. Apple, Leica, MUJI, Porsche are among the top of my list.
My favorite movies are Blade Runner and Alien (that whole Ridley Scott universe including Prometheus), pretty much everything by Denis Villeneuve, David Fincher and Christopher Nolan. Anything where Syd Mead was a designer. I think I watched “Friends” an unhealthy number of times. “Office” is a good way to relax your brain as well. As a child I enjoyed very silly things like Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future and Babylon 5. I really liked all of the Dune games (quest and RTS), most of the quests from Lucasarts (like Indiana Jones, Loom, Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and so on). Duke Nukem 3D was a big time waster for me as well..
I spent most of my childhood playing with metal construction kits -- a Soviet version of Lego. Remembering that I enjoyed building things helped me in my decision to pursue design.
Do you have any hobbies outside of being at the computer?
Photography is a big hobby for me. I’ve been taking pictures since I can remember myself. My dad gave me a film Nikon camera when I was about 14 years old. Now I shoot mostly with my beloved Fuji X-H1. I still love black and white film, but lately I’ve been too lazy to go through the whole process of developing and scanning. I used to have time charts in my kitchen that showed how long you need to go through each chemical for different kinds of film stock that I used. At some point my kitchen looked more like a chem lab.
I think if I had more free time, I would like to learn how to write music. But every time I get into music, I stop once I realize how big of a rabbit hole it is.
Where are you based currently?
Los Angeles, California.
What is your profession?
I’m trying not to narrow myself into a single profession. I found that once you set the boundaries of a “profession”, there is very little to no value in it. I just try to do what I love. I work as a software engineer, concept designer, product designer, visualization artist. I don’t know how to bunch it all into a single profession =)
How did you get into rendering and design?
I got into rendering way before I got into design. I worked as a rendering technical director for the majority of my life in the visual effects (since 2000). Somehow the ability to recreate something from real life on a computer was very gratifying and that was my everyday force for about 12 years.
Design came out from a very long personal search. At some point, visual effects became repetitive and a bit meaningless. I dived deep into psychology, neuroscience and software engineering. This lead me to the field of artificial intelligence, where I worked for the past 4 years. It solved the “meaningless” part, but created another problem. It’s just not creative and not three-dimensional enough -- at least for now. I started looking into other fields and industrial design clicked right in. It’s a very meaningful profession with a huge impact. It is very creative and challenging. It is partially built on top of the skills I already have.
Few years ago, when I was still working as a software engineer, a colleague of mine sent me an article that showed how Jony Ive was inspired by Dieter Rams in a lot of ways. It compared the products of these two different eras and showed similarities between different products from Braun and Apple. At that point in time I had no idea who Dieter Rams was and what the hell is industrial design.
That article changed all that. It was one of those moments when you read about something and understand that this is what you secretly wanted to do all your life but just didn’t know it. I started reading more and more, bought a bunch of books on Dieter Rams, Naoto Fukasawa, different books on materials, production techniques and just dove in.
When I got my first book on Rams and started reading it, the first thing that shocked me was Dieter’s birth date. He was born on May 20, 1932 - exactly 50 years before me. I’m a very rational person and understand that statistically there is nothing to write home about, but for some reason it felt a little magical -- as if I had a connection with this amazing designer.
As the time to get deeper with practical knowledge and skills came, Tim Zarki was -- and still is -- my guiding mentor. All the practical skills I have are because of him and his course at Learn Squared - Industrial Design Foundation. If anyone wants a secret shortcut into industrial design - that course is just it!
Tell us about your design process.
It is very painful, haha. I constantly force myself to delete parts of the design that are not necessary.
Problem solving is the conscious part of my process. This is where I make the decision of what to add or what to delete. It’s also a very grounded process. I constantly think about how people would potentially use the product and try to imagine what it would feel like to hold this object in their hands.
Shapes and aesthetics appear on a subconscious level. I don’t really know how to talk about this aspect. I have my idols - like Naoto Fukasawa, Dieter Rams, Syd Mead, but the aesthetics comes from within. I think it is a combination of things I’ve been exposed to throughout my whole life. It may be a comic book, a movie, something I saw on the street. I sometimes take pictures of interesting textures and shapes that I see and I probably internalize everything later on.
Do you have a favorite design of yours? Can you give us a story about how it came to be?
My favorite is probably the “Personal Communication Device”. It has been a bit of a curse for me really, because the design came out effortlessly in a matter of a few hours from idea to a finished render. I was thinking about AI voice assistants. User interactions are slowly moving into that space. We’re not there yet because today AIs are lacking common sense knowledge. Interaction with an AI requires a very large cognitive strain on the part of the user to think about every sentence so that Siri or Alexa can understand it and then provide the user with a useful action. When the dialog is effortless -- the dynamics will shift towards voice interfaces. And this is where this device comes in. It has a camera, 3d scanner, speaker, microphone and means for wireless internet access.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I tend to gravitate to functional minimalism. My essay on that subject is quite self explanatory in what is it that I do. My ultimate goal is optimization of when the product is used and when it is not used. I’d like my products to be effortless but also not grab attention when it’s not needed.
How would you describe your rendering technique?
Not so long ago, I used to add a lot of imperfections, such as dust, scratches and fingerprints. But now I care mostly about the shape language and making sure the materials are clean and unambiguous. I think it shows that I shifted from rendering as my primary craft to design that is gradually taking over my work.
What would be your advice to those who seek to improve their own design skills?
From my personal experience, designing something in a vacuum can lead to a creative block. What helped me was to seek out real problems that I’d want to solve. Those problems are everywhere. If there were no problems, we would be living in a utopian Star Trek universe… which we don’t. This realization unleashed my creativity so much that there is really not enough hours in a day for me to do designs.
Design is foremost problem solving and not art. This part is very important to understand and internalise. Design can become art, but my personal belief is that it shouldn’t. When design becomes an object of art, it results in a product with a very short life span. I try to prevent products from becoming art objects.
Design something everyday and make sure you enjoy it more than anything else in the world. This is what has been my primary force for improvement.
Look for inspiration in unrelated products and fields. Nature is very creative and has a lot to offer.
Read “Mastery” by George Leonard!
What would be your advice to those who seek to improve their own rendering skills?
Observe the real world. When I started rendering I became obsessed with how things look in real life. I’d see some very complex material and would immediately start thinking how would I create a shader for this particular situation.
Try to render everyday. It helps to decouple rendering from design. You can render shader balls or some abstract geometry.
Something I have a hard time doing is pushing myself out of my comfort zone. It’s easy to fall into a trap of reusing your own materials from project to project. Try to work on something that you have no idea how to render. This will push to do the research and eventually to new ideas.