What Are 2D and 3D?

By Clare Edwards ; Updated September 15, 2017
Special glasses let you see some movies in 3D.

"2D" stands for "two dimensional." 2D shapes include squares and circles. "3D" means three-dimensional. 3D shapes have depth; examples include cubes and spheres. These terms are important in art and design -- in computer animation or cinema, for example. Graphs, diagrams and models can be 2D or 3D; the terms are also used metaphorically to talk about the depth or complexity of a piece of work.

Two Dimensions

Dimensions define the space that an object can exist in. Imagine a fine line; this has only one dimension, length. If you add a second dimension, width, you have a 2D or two-dimensional space. 2D or two-dimensional shapes have length and width but no depth. They are flat, like a comic strip or a drawing. Circles, squares, triangles, rectangles -- these are all two-dimensional figures.

Examples of 2D

A 2D graph has two axes, generally called X and Y. Most drawings, photographs, paintings and standard picture books are all two-dimensional. 2D animations are flat; although the impression of depth can be created in some elements using light and shading, this is usually restricted to the background. Cartoons like "Scooby-Doo" and "The Flintstones" are examples of 2D animation. Standard movies are 2D; there is some impression of depth because they are recorded in the real world, but the image on the screen appears flat.

Three Dimensions

2D spaces have height and width. If you add a third dimension, depth, you have a 3D or three-dimensional space. 3D or three-dimensional shapes have depth as well as length and breadth. Pyramids, cubes, spheres and cylinders are examples of three-dimensional shapes, as opposed to two-dimensional triangles, squares and circles.

Examples of 3D

Three-dimensional graphs allow three axes instead of the more usual two. A sculpture is an example of a three-dimensional model. In contrast to an ordinary picture-book, a pop-up book has three dimensions. In animation, 3D means that elements are constructed so that they appear to have depth; examples include feature-length animations like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Shreck" or "Wall-E." In cinema and TV technology, 3D refers to techniques that make the picture appear to have depth. Typically you need to view 3D TV and movies through special glasses to see the effect. (See References 5)

Other Uses of 2D

The terms "2D" or "two-dimensional" can be used metaphorically to mean a work or element of a work that lacks substance, nuance or sufficient thought. A character in fiction who is badly written and lacks personality may be described as two-dimensional or, more informally, 2D. An over-simple system or approach to a problem can also be described as two-dimensional.

Other Uses of 3D

The terms "3D" or "three-dimensional" can be used to describe a system, approach or work that is sophisticated, thorough and in-depth. A three-dimensional character in a book or movie is believable and realistic. A three-dimensional approach to something takes in all the important factors instead of focusing narrowly on just one or two.

About the Author

Clare Edwards has been providing Internet content since 1998. She has written and translated for a variety of markets: everything from technical articles to short fiction and essays on alternative spirituality. She holds a certificate of higher education in electronics and audio arts from Middlesex University.