A variety of simulation tools, including optical design and analysis, have benefited by many years of evolution in software functionality and computing power, thus making the notion of virtual design environments a reality. To simulate the optical characteristics of a system, one needs to include optical performance, mechanical design and manufacturing aspects simultaneously. To date, no single software program offers a universal solution. One approach to achieve an integrated environment is to select tools that offer a high degree of interoperability. This allows the selection of the best tools for each aspect of the design working in concert to solve the problem. This paper discusses the issues of how to assemble a design environment and provides an example of a combination of tools for illumination design. We begin by offering a broad definition of interoperability from an optical analysis perspective. This definition includes aspects of file interchange formats, software communications protocols and customized applications. One example solution is proposed by combining SolidWorks1 for computer-aided design (CAD), TracePro2 for optical analysis and MATLAB3 as the mathematical engine for tolerance analysis. The resulting virtual tool will be applied to a lightpipe design task to illustrate how such a system can be used.© (2005) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.