During my second semester as a graduate student at Iowa State, I learned how to create those fancy photo-realistic interior design renderings that are all over the internet these days. You’ve probably seen them on HGTV on shows like Fixer Upper or Property Brothers. I was instantly obsessed with how to make my renderings look as good (aka real) as possible and spent hours tweaking the settings in my software program.
But after a while, I became a little disillusioned with these hyper-realistic images of spaces that didn’t exist. I even wrote my thesis on the emotional response viewers have to a room image that looks more like a sketch vs. a photograph. Spoiler alert: there’s no difference and the less real image is sometimes more effective. For my last two major projects, I did not present any photo-real renderings.
When I became an instructor in the interior design program, I taught my students how to make those fancy interior design renderings, but I also pushed them to explore alternate communication methods that weren’t quite so real.
Now, as a practicing interior designer, I do not offer photo-realistic interior design renderings as one of my services. For the record, I’m not referring to perspective room views that are obviously computer generated. I’m referring to the images that are so realistic you aren’t sure if they’re a photo or not.
Why? What’s the big deal with those hyper photo-realistic interior design renderings?
The most important reason that I don’t offer photo-realistic images is that I don’t want to mislead my clients. If I create a room rendering that looks exactly like a photograph of the finished space, I wouldn’t blame my clients for expecting the final result will look exactly like that image.
And that is pretty much impossible.
Problem 1: What You See Isn’t What You Get
The problem is that even the best software can’t replicate the exact conditions of that space and how the materials will look in real life. The lighting will change, and computer screens depict color differently not only from real life but from each other. For example, a yellow hue could look brighter and sunnier on my screen and duller and dirtier on yours. The difference might be subtle, but I don’t want my clients getting hung up on how the selections we’ve made look on a screen. If they do, it could cripple the vision for the project and throw a huge wrench in the timeline.
Problem 2: The Client Feels Left Out
Second, photo-realistic renderings can make the client feel like the design is a done deal. They can get frustrated because there doesn’t seem to be room left for them to give feedback or make changes. They might feel slightly alienated or left out of the process if the rendering doesn’t show exactly what they envisioned, and it can be harder for them to articulate what they don’t like or why the design doesn’t resonate with them.
Problem 3: They Are Ridiculously Time Consuming
I get so frustrated with HGTV because they make these renderings seem like they’re a normal everyday part of the design process. In fact, HGTV has teams of people whose entire job is dedicated to producing those super cool animated walk-throughs and renderings. They have professional software that costs thousands of dollars, and they have computers that are tricked out for exactly this purpose.
I am a one person design firm with a three-year-old MacBook Pro and no fancy software. If I truly wanted to create a realistic rendering for my clients that accurately depicted all of the selections – furniture, lighting, materials, and architectural detailing – it would take me at least 40 hours. That would be for the first image with some economy of scale for additional views of the space.
If I bill a minimum of $100 per hour, one image would cost my client $4000. I don’t know anyone who wants to pay for that. Furthermore, I’d rather spend a fraction of that time improving and refining the actual design (you know, the one that gets built in real life) instead of creating a pretty picture.
Yes, I could outsource my renderings, and if a client really really needed one, that is what I would do. But, I would offer that realistic rendering reluctantly for the other reasons I listed above.
So What Do I Show My Clients?
I used a software program called Chief Architect that I chose because it lets me create three-dimensional views at the same time that I am drawing the floor plans. After I have my layout in place, the time involved with generating a quick perspective view of the space is minimal.
The software has different styles I can apply to the views depending on the stage of the project. If we’re at an early point in the design process and don’t know the finishes yet, I will show a black and white line drawing perspective along with the floor plan and elevation views.
Below are examples of drawings I presented for a more traditional bathroom remodel that I’ve been working on this week:
These drawings allowed my client and I to have a productive discussion about the layout and some of the details on the vanity. For example, once she saw the linen cabinets bookending the vanity, she decided she prefers wall cabinets that come down to sit on the countertop instead.
Once the design has been a little more refined, I might use one of the colored views to show how the color and material application could look in their space. I present these images primarily so they can see how different varying proportions of color and material affect the feeling of the space.
The floor overview option is pretty cool because it’s like a floor plan in 3D. This type of image is a great way for clients to get an understanding of the entire space we’re remodeling.
My favorite style of rendering from Chief Architect is actually the watercolor view with a line drawing on type. This style gives a sense of materiality and color, but it’s obviously not “realistic.” And, the line drawing further serves to make the image feel more like a sketch and less like a rendering. This is the technique I used for the vanity image above and the shower below.
At this point in the process, I haven’t spent any time on the tile layout. I haven’t even included the valve trim in the shower. I’m just trying to nail down the layout, and I love that I can quickly generate multiple options for layouts. Yesterday, I spent around an hour and a half developing four different options for the shower wall based on my client’s feedback.
These quick iterations, which can also be done with sketching, are instrumental to my design process because they help me catch issues before they happen in real life. For example, how am I going to deal with the baseboard intersecting with the shower curb? Or should I tile the back of the shower half wall and if I do, how will that affect what’s on the other side?
I feel like the two hours I spent on these layout alternatives will help my client feel more confident in her final choice. I would rather spend my time (her money) on this type of problem-solving and evaluation than on obsessing over making a rendering look as real as possible.
If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen the two fireplace images above. They’re two of several options I created for a fireplace makeover project. I’ve designed four major fireplace remodels so far this year, and being able to quickly visualize the proportions of the built-ins and materials has been invaluable for my clients.
I’m not knocking the value of photo-realistic rendering in the right situation. In commercial projects and very high-end residential projects, they can be instrumental in moving a project forward. But, if we’re talking about typical residential remodeling and construction, I’m just not convinced the time and effort required to make them is necessarily worth the value that they add.