If you’re not familiar, a render is a digitally created visualization of a design concept, be it architecture, product design or otherwise. In the world of architecture, renders are used to realistically show what a design for a building, urban space or landscape may look like. The main distinction from ordinary architectural drawings being that renders show a three-dimensional impression of this design. In essence, a render should ‘sell’ the design to the audience.
So here are my concerns: why are most of the renders we see always in sunny weather, with skies bright and blue; colours saturated? Why are there palm trees shown in a cold climate and exotic jungle flowers in barren urban squares? Why are all of the buildings and cars so clean and sterile? Most importantly, why are all of the people depicted wildly attractive, or smiling intensely, or both? I like to call these ‘sunshine and rainbows’ renders, and I think they are representative of the bigger issues of diversity and honesty in the modern architectural field. A digital skeleton in the closet, so to speak. I see these renders often, and it’s certainly not just us students, the big architectural offices are guilty of producing them too.
Constant sunny weather and bright blue skies aren’t harmful, you might think, and to an extent you’d be correct. But ask yourself this: what kind of world are you showing in your render? Are sunny weather, attractive people, and tropical plants supposed to make your design better? Why are we so averse to showing realistic depictions of human beings as we really are? As consumers of renders ourselves, why do we not question the renders we come across when they do not depict an honest and realistic world?
Perhaps we’ve all experienced the implicit dilemma that arises when making a render: you have to realistically depict your design ideas and you want to give the right impression. If you leave it empty, devoid of natural elements or people, it’s going to be a barren, apocalyptic scene. If you leave it too abstract or artistic, it’s not going to show your design realistically. If you decide to fill it with life; people occupying the spaces, trees, cars, wildlife; you now have to construct a life-like scene around your design. That is a precarious task. What kind of people should you depict? By showing who you think might occupy your building or public space, you will invariably leave people out. It feels like you can only do wrong, so you play it safe and put in the smiling, attractive, able-bodied, heterosexual people that you know won’t stand out or be questioned.
Practical limitations & time constraints can also play a role during competitions or the final week leading up to a design presentation. Certain visual material is just easier to find for use in your render than other material, and when time is of the essence, you don’t want to spend hours looking for usable images of specific types of people on Google. It’s an enormous task create a convincing render, and usually it’s difficult enough to create something that resembles what you want your design to be, let alone accurately depicting the people that will inhabit it.
This culture of architects, students and teachers being hyper-focused on renders seems to be some kind of self-reinforcing downward spiral, where it’s an unspoken social pressure to have a nice-looking render on your presentation poster, or your design is not worthy. It’s exactly this pressure that drives students to create monotonous & similar looking renders without fully considering the world that is being represented and the people that are being misrepresented. These are then seen by other students, and the cycle continues. I’m guilty of this myself.
Looking at the architectural world, there does seem to be a shift towards more honest renders. New technologies, better software and an ever-growing online collection of visual imagery make this possible and more attainable for all of us students. But we too have our role to play. So, here is my plea: let’s be more open about renders. Let’s talk about them more and let’s think about them more. Let’s represent a realistic world with realistic and diverse people in it. Let’s reflect about the renders we make: if they’re here to stay, let's make them wonderful.