What does it mean to render? When we look it up in the dictionary, the expected definition appears: “to represent by artistic or verbal means.” As designers, this is our day-to-day: expressing our designs to clients and community members, making incredible spaces and places, and capturing the essence of a project.

However, this isn’t the only definition of “render.” The first definition on the page is “to melt down, to extract by melting.” Traditionally used in terms of cooking, this is the idea of distilling something down to its purest form. For designers, that something is the solution we are designing for.

I believe this definition is far more applicable.

While a rendering as a form of representation may be inherently captivating and beautiful, that is not its purpose. Visualization is a means to elicit responses and generate discussion that will inform the evolving design. It serves as the liaison between the designer and the world. Graphic representation makes design tangible and accessible to everyone. For designers, it’s a new lens through which we can analyze ideas, visions, and ambitions. For a client, it’s the moment a hard-lined drawing transforms into a digestible and immediate understanding of their project. For communities, it’s a glimpse into their future, a future that we as designers have a hand in helping thrive.

Looseness in graphics allows for the details to be overlooked – historically the opposite of what designers and architects want. But by removing these details, this layer of “realness” – we allow the vision of the place to come to fruition and be used as an analytical design tool. Four strategies are key to accomplishing this looseness:

Embrace the Looseness

The beauty of a sketch-level drawing is the notion that it is unfinished. Graphic looseness implies an openness towards feedback. Looseness can be achieved through hand-sketching, in which jagged lines, overlapping corners, and dabs of color bring a place to life. Digital techniques can also be used, distilling a photorealistic graphic down to its main experience through post-production techniques. Layers of filters and light-touch adjustments in Photoshop can create watercolor-style images or collages to reinforce the focus on the desired experience, not the details.

Add Ample Entourage, Then Double It

Think about the most cherished public places in your world. Is it your hometown’s Main Street, with sidewalks overflowing with people catching up or grabbing a coffee? Is it the annual state fair fireworks at the local park, where the entire community comes together to watch the display? People are the magic that transform “places” into “great places.” By curating entourage, we can represent the diversity and inclusivity of a space and encourage all people to imagine themselves in it. By activating a graphic with people, plantings, and signage, we not only add scale, but also illustrate how beloved the place we are crafting will become.

Choose Views that Prioritize Place

Consider how a person would experience the space being designed. Content and context go hand-in-hand. While the project may be showcasing a university library, key elements such as where students arrive at the building, how they access the space outside to drop off overdue books, or who is visiting the coffee shop just across the street help to root the library in context. By framing the public realm, addressing nearby uses and activities, and linking circulation throughout, we make it easy for our clients and communities alike to envision themselves in the heart of the project’s vision.

Constantly Realign Your Graphic Goals

What questions are you intending to have answered? Often, as designers, it’s easy to get bogged down in detail – and when we do this, more often than not, we hit the point of diminishing returns. What is your vision for the view, the place, the site? Keep that purity of thought at the forefront. Visualization is our #1 tool to communicate with our stakeholders. It’s important to present our ideas with clarity.

There’s a place for photorealistic graphics, just as there’s a place for abstracted ones. Next time it’s time to choose a visualization path – ask yourself three questions:

01. What is the purpose of this graphic?
02. Whom is it trying to reach?
03. What feedback do I need to elicit to continue designing?

Challenge yourself to “render down” your rendering!

About Abigail

Abigail Gillin, Assoc. AIA is an Urban Designer in LS3P’s Urban Environments practice, bringing a background in architectural design and a drive to create accessible, equitable, and contextually-aware places for all. Abigail’s motive for design stems from an unwavering passion for community building and healthy city growth with an understanding of the tools designers have to shape the built environment. In her career thus far, Abigail has worked on myriad urban design, urban planning, and architecture-focused projects, gaining experience across various scales and telling the story of a place through hand-drawing, rendering, researching, and producing animations.

Abigail earned a Bachelor of Architecture and a Bachelor of Environmental Design in Architecture from North Carolina State University. She has also completed studies in Kefalonia, Greece, focusing on social innovation and architectural research for the city of Athens.