SEEING IS BELIEVING: The Power of Design Renderings to Share Your Story

The advent of Building Information Modelling (BIM) has opened a whole new range of possibilities for three-dimensional digital design renderings. Not so long ago, when we wanted to share a new building or renovation design concept with our clients (and often their clients), the options were limited.  We could either provide a hand sketch or three-dimensional physical building model, using clay, paper, foamcore, wood or other materials.  The result was often beautiful and effective for sharing the project vision. But it was also time consuming, static and, relatively speaking, a costly added expense.  These realities limited the use of these methodologies.

Today, our clients, their stakeholders and potential donors expect to see what is coming long before a shovel hits the dirt.  Fly-throughs, animations, 3D printed models and even immersive, mixed and augmented reality worlds—allowing users to feel like they are walking through the building—have increasingly gained traction.  However, renderings continue to be the primary tool in the visualization toolbox for compelling design storytelling.

design rendering for Muhlenberg College
The design rendering for the J. Conrad and Hazel J Seegers Union expansion at Muhlenberg College has been used to share the design vision with potential donors, students, alumni, faculty, staff and the local community.

The Storytelling Power of Design Renderings

Most stakeholders struggle to read floor plans and visualize a space as an architect is describing a design concept. Relative to the timeframe for planning, design and construction of a project, renderings are an efficient tool to visualize ideas in three dimensions.  They can also be helpful for seeing the multi-dimensional impact of potential changes.  While there are costs associated with creating and updating renderings to reflect design revisions, the investment is considerably less than implementing significant changes during construction.

The biggest advantage is the value design renderings provide for communicating with stakeholders throughout the life of the project. Project timeframes can sometimes be years from the start of planning and design visualization to actual construction and occupancy.  The following are just a few of the benefits design renderings can provide:

Capital Campaigns

It is crucial to have images that capture the essence of a project in a way that fosters enthusiasm and engagement with potential donors. Renderings can convey not only the overall project aesthetic, but also highlight naming opportunities. They can also show how programmed spaces are designed to function.

Project Approvals

Whether it is local officials, neighborhood groups or internal decision-makers, an artistic expression of the vision for a new building or renovation creates a sense of connection for all stakeholders. Many campuses are woven into the fabric of a community, so institutions need to convey how a proposed project fits into the existing landscape, impacts views and creates community connections. Using renderings to evoke a positive emotional response ultimately helps to secure critical approvals for moving a project forward.

Stakeholder Engagement

Students, alumni, faculty and staff and community members all want to know how proposed updates will affect their daily lives. Renderings, sometimes including before and after concepts, can provide clarity and enthusiasm to positively engage stakeholder groups.  A rendering can simply and effectively answer many questions. How will traffic patterns change? Will there be a new coffee shop added to my walk across campus? Will the proposed project also add a new outdoor amenity to the campus?  How is the new space going to be used?  Will I have access to new technology?

design rendering studies of campus building facade
Renderings are an efficient tool to visualize concept ideas or the multi-dimensional impact of potential changes. This series of renderings shows the progression from an initial concept image to facade studies as the design advanced to its final form.

Common Misconceptions About Design Renderings

Computer-Generated Renderings Can be Done Quickly

The number one misconception regarding design renderings is that computer-generated means they can be done quickly.  There is some truth to the idea that using digital modeling software allows the design team to output multidimensional outline massing views fairly quickly.  However, these are far from the sophistication of renderings used to convey concepts to potential donors or stakeholders.  In addition, the level of detail depends on the status of the project.  Façade materials, architectural details and interior finishes are often not defined in the early design phases when renderings are typically needed.

Pre-planning is key for meeting rendering needs.  It takes time to first gather information, build the three-dimensional digital environment, apply materials and then generate the images. Often, the graphics specialist must add design details into the model based on anticipated aesthetic direction as the actual design process continues in collaboration with the client.  Each multi-dimensional view requires entering thousands of data points into a computer-generated model to create the desired image.  It varies by individual technology resources and project complexity, but run times for generating renderings can range from several minutes to several hours for a large scale, highly detailed rendering.

As a rule of thumb, the farther along we are in the design process, the less extra time will be needed to fill in the significant detailing gaps and the more accurate the rendering is going to be in comparison to the final building.

Renderings Show Exactly What Will Be Built

Another common misconception is that renderings, and especially photorealistic renderings, are a precise illustration of what can be expected in the final result.  The challenge to this commonly held belief relates to timing. Renderings are often needed during the early conceptual or schematic design phases. This is before potential donor-requested design refinements are integrated or the full program has been finalized.

There are many details that shape the project aesthetic, including interior design packages and furniture selections. These specifics are determined during the late stages of schematic design and design development. Therefore, it is critical to alert potential donors or stakeholders that renderings are a concept representation rather than a finalized illustration of future reality.

Getting Started with Design Renderings

Clients who need renderings for an upcoming or ongoing project can start by gathering the following Information. This typically requires input from campus stakeholders/decision makers, such as Development Office personnel.

Small details become apparent in photorealistic design renderings. Therefore, this style is a good choice when the design has been finalized..

Defining Rendering Style

The first step in any rendering request is defining the desired style. Generally, this is whether the final result should be photorealistic or artistic.  Photorealistic images are a good choice to convey design certainties.  For example, if a major donor is on board and concrete design decisions have been made, photorealism is a useful tool.  Even small details become apparent with this precise level of illustration.

Sketch-style, artistic renderings work well for conveying general concepts while allowing for future refinement and detailing decisions.

However, if the project still requires board approval or if simply communicating general concept ideas, a sketchier, artistic rendering may be a better option. This allows people to interpret the design for themselves, cognitively filling in the blanks based on what they want to see in the project.  This, in turn, helps them feel more connected to the project and accepting of the vision.

It also provides the flexibility to adjust and refine design elements later on in the process. A trim detail may be obscured by a pen lineweight and a fabric pattern might be covered by a watercolor stroke.  Many details are implied rather than depicted with acute accuracy.

Determining Content and Quantity

Determining the number of renderings needed goes beyond budget and schedule analysis.  How the renderings are going to be used can help to define, not only the content but also the quantity.  While most renderings are used for multiple purposes, there is typically a hierarchy of needs.

For donor-driven projects, it is important to consider naming opportunities, focusing renderings on spaces of most interest/contribution potential for donors. Conversely for a campus perimeter project that is subject to town planning group approvals, renderings that highlight design vernacular and viewsheds might be the top priority.

Scale is also very important to consider.  The level of detail that will be evident on a large poster or billboard is far greater than a thumbnail image on a brochure.

Communicating Do’s and Don’ts

Identifying key features to be included or avoided prior to creation of initial draft views leads to a more efficient rendering process.  Often Development Officers or Campus Recruiters are valuable resources for this information. If there is a targeted donor with specific likes/dislikes, it may be beneficial to have a version of a particular rendering just for that individual. Campus branding, colors and styles should also be shared as part of the rendering development process.

Awareness of diversity, equity and inclusion must also be considered for the entourage, particularly in photorealistic renderings.  Entourage is defined as the building surroundings, such as people, animals, plants, textures, shadow and light, that provide scale. These details help convey what the space will feel like or how it will be used.

The Right Rendering for Your Project

Renderings are a compelling tool for allowing stakeholders to explore and review concepts throughout the design process.  There are many visualization approaches and styles, each with benefits and drawbacks.  Take the time upfront to review and define what makes sense for your unique project. This will foster a more efficient development process and lead to a better final product.  Ultimately, the best rendering approach communicates the character and tone of your project in a manner that resonates with the intended audience to ultimately make your vision a reality.

Carson Parr, AIA, LEED BD+C, is a Partner at RLPS Architects.  He leads the firm’s higher education practice, helping clients with campus programming and planning, project design and construction. An NCARB registered architect, Carson, holds a Master of Architecture, Community and Urban Design, from Pennsylvania State University.  He serves as a student mentor and is a board member and past president of AIA Central Pennsylvania. Carson is a LEED Accredited Professional and a WELL Accredited Professional to assist clients’ in achieving sustainable design objectives.

Dustin Julius, Associate AIA, is an architectural designer at RLPS Architects who collaborates with clients during early planning and conceptual phases to translate program objectives into design solutions.  He helps clients define building details and share design vision with stakeholder groups. Dustin is particularly skilled in the development of renderings, massing studies, fly-throughs and concept sketches.

Blog Editor- Jodi Kreider, LEED-AP