Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Map and the Territory

Or, the danger of photorealism and client expectations.

I've written before about the benefits of sketches on this blog and my reluctance to embrace photorealistic renderings. This is not a wildly popular view, and I have made no secret of my reasons for this preference. Part of my reluctance stems from the ease with which clients and designers alike mistake the rendering for reality.

The very photorealism that makes a great rendering so attractive is itself a danger precisely because the illusion is so perfect. There is no room for interpretation, no gestural linework hinting at a design without fully fleshing it out, no vagaries. And the risk one takes with showing a photorealistic rendering is the expectation that what you see is what you get. This can be a very great danger if the staff who are creating the renderings are not guided by the staff who are creating the buildings. Suddenly that incredible soaring cantilever has to get dragged back down to earth, those enormous expanses of glass get criss-crossed by structural members, the roof garden suddenly sprouts exhaust fans and intakes, that delicate floating stair gets bloated and heavy, and all of it can hurt the relationship between designer and owner.

This is a powerful tool that needs to be used with care. (image from
I was recently on a conference call with some owner's representatives who were furious that the proposed cast-in-place entry tower could not be guaranteed by any concrete subcontractor to be perfectly consistent in color. Furious that there would be a whole host of concrete ties on a facade that they thought would be completely monolithic. Furious that the expectations set by the renderings we showed misled the client. 

Our failure was to set client expectations properly when we presented these renderings (and failing to insist on showing the things that make a building buildable in the renderings). Our client's failure (and the failure of his representatives) was misunderstanding what the renderings were supposed to do. They forgot that renderings are representations, not reality; they are the map, not the territory.

Photorealistic renderings do have their uses, but relying on them to solidify a design can be risky. A photorealistic rendering is a fait accompli, and if the designer is even slightly off the mark, it can strike a discordant note with a client . A photorealistic rendering can't be changed in an instant, and the level of detail in such an image can lead to a succession of renderings attempting to achieve perfection. Rather than getting caught up in realism, I like to give the rendering some abstraction. Simple black and white snapshots of models (SketchUp, Revit, whatever) serve most purposes for getting a feel for a space or a mass. Gestural color and texture can indicate materials without implying that the material will exactly match that Prismacolor marker you happened to have handy. This gives the designer some working room to meet a client's expectations without committing to a perfectly crystalized final product. Allow the rendering to have fluidity and vagueness and room for imagination.

The most effective tool, in the right hands. (image is Concrete Sketch Pencil by 22 Design Studio)

Any designer worth her salt will have renderings in her toolbox, but a quick and dirty sketch is still my preferred tool. A sketch that a designer can make while in that client meeting can be a tremendous tool to include the client in design decisions and give them the feeling of being heard and understood. Sketching with the client watching and giving input can also have a huge positive effect on a designer-client relationship, especially if the designer has the technical skills to execute sketches well It is a collaborative effort that directly interprets ideas and concepts into lines and form, and at the same time solidifies the communication between designer and client.

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