What is low poly art?

Low poly art is a style that grew out of the early days of 3D animation. Here you'll learn its history, how it's used today and its cultural impact.
Jun 8, 2021 • 4 minute read
Francesco Solfrini @francescosolfrin
Technical Co-pilot
Cover photo for What is low poly art?

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Within the design community and outside of its boundaries, there has been a lot of talk around low poly art. But what is it?

This short article will answer this question and show you:

  • Where low poly art as a design form originated

  • How it’s been affected by technological evolution

  • When it became a style of its own

  • How low poly design permeates today’s culture 

  • Why the time for low poly design is now

What? All that in a 5-minute read? Yes, I promise.

Ready for the ride? Come aboard to explore the world of low poly art design.

 

What is low poly art?

Low poly art is a form of digital design famous for the use of polygon mesh: a collection of vertices, edges and faces that gives a distinctive polygonal look to the subject represented.

Therefore, poly is short for polygon.

Look at these mountains:

Mountains low poly art

 

Now take a glance at this funky pink pig:

Pig low poly art

See the hard edges and flat surfaces in these designs? That’s exactly what you can see in a geometric polygon, which gives this form of art or design its name.

 

What’s the meaning of "low" in low poly art?

This type of design has its origins in the 1990s when 3D graphic software started to be employed in video games, special effects and animated movies.

Do you remember the look of the first Legend of Zelda games? Back then, 3D technology was in its infancy and the processing capacities of computers and gaming consoles was limited. 

Game creators needed to develop immersive environments still guaranteeing speed and performance (what’s called a high frame rate). To address this need, they designed characters and entire worlds with that distinctive 3D poly look. Fewer polygons meant better performance. 

Games fanatics happily traded off the unpolished look for higher speed and a more enjoyable gaming experience. Link had to sprint through Hyrule, not shuffle along like Grandma!

So here you have it. The word "low" in low poly, comes from the number of polygons employed in a specific design. 

Are you curious to know why creators of special effects and animated movies can design sophisticated high poly graphics instead? That’s because movie rendering doesn’t happen in real-time, so they can take advantage of low frame rates.

As you can see, low and high poly designs are relative terms and depend on where the 3D graphics are employed. It also depends on technology, as we’ll discover in the next section.

 

How technological evolution has affected poly design

Let’s indulge for a second in nostalgia and pay tribute to some of the original poly design cult games: Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.

And how can you forget Super Mario 64? When that game came out in 1996, it made lots of noise because of its innovative (at the time) 3D graphics.

Mario 64 low poly art

 

As technology evolved and computing power increased, video games’ creators took advantage of it by designing environments with an always higher number of polygons.

To understand how far the technology has come, watch this video that compares the original Final Fantasy 7 (1997) with its remake from 2020. The difference is striking!

And while the original looks almost childish in its simplicity, I think we can all agree that we cannot help but be drawn to it (read on to understand why).

 

Low poly as a style

It was around the late 2013 that low poly design emerged as a specific style.

As Wikipedia tells us: content creators like Timothy J. Reynolds recognized how the usage of fewer polygons sharpens the focus on essential artistic elements like form, lighting, and texture.

This effort was similar to the one undergone by painters like Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso who tried to represent the world by decomposing their subjects into elementary or geometric shapes.

But it wasn’t the art community to establish low poly as a defined style. Once again, it was the world of video games.

Planet low poly art

 

In 2013, Mirror Moon EP, a space exploration game that made low poly a deliberate aesthetic choice, was launched. The following year, Richard Whitelock’s Into this Wylde Abyss was released. This survival game counts the low poly style as one of its key features.

From there, a whole genre developed with hundreds of low poly game titles published. Their impact on the world of design is clear when we see how popular this trend has become today.

 

Low poly art today

Today, artists and designers adopt this style by choice, not because of practical limitations.

low poly art with dark grey shapes 

There are several reasons for the adoption of low poly as a style:

  • It helps the viewer focus on essential design elements.

  • It evokes a sense of nostalgia. 

  • It creates a unique and striking look.

  • It allows for experimentation, especially when low and high poly elements are combined.

  • It gives a futuristic look when integrated with high definition techniques.

 

Cultural impact of low poly art

This form of art is becoming increasingly more popular and is permeating different aspects of our culture.

Some of the most talented artists and designers have adopted this style to express themselves.

That’s the case of Giselle Manzano Ramírez with her Famous Artists Portraits.

Frida Kahlo low poly art

Image by Giselle Manzano Ramírez

 

Pop culture has been influenced by it also, as we can see in these iconic movies' scenes made in low poly style.

However, when you see that Tesla has gone fully low poly for its first pickup, the Cybertruck, you realize this is not just a passing fad.

Tesla Cybertruck

Image courtesy of Motor Trend

 

Your time is now

From artistically brave talent to innovative companies, low poly is now willingly adopted to express concepts in a pure, uncompromised fashion.

What about you?

Are you ready to start your first low poly project?

Post a project today.

 

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