False Friendliness: Photoshopped People in Public Spaces

Proposals for new projects arrive on city desks everyday showing vibrant public plazas full of people. But too often those spaces fail to attract people in the way they were portrayed. Are Photoshopped people a deliberate falsehood?

Children run playfully about, chasing pigeons. A jogger passes by, and a businesswoman chats on a cell phone. Seniors perch on the edge of a fountain, watching the throngs of people as they pass.

 photoshopped people in a public spaceIn fact, there are masses of people keeping these folks company, filling an imaginary public space like a dance troupe on a stage. So it goes in the world of architectural renderings and development proposals, where the desire to show that public spaces can become vibrant and active results in a flurry of Photoshopped humans filling the frame.

But are these people a true indication of how a public space will be used, or are they a sort of architectural cheat?

"It can be a mistake for designers to overplay the number of people," says Brent Toderian, planning director of the city of Vancouver, B.C. "Because all they've done is spark the discussion on what's missing in the design. Are we kidding ourselves? Are people actually going to be using the space in the way they do in the illustration? We who are in the business of reviewing designs, commissioning designs, take them with a grain of salt."

But, Toderian notes, cities with less rigorous planning processes could be fooled. Architectural renderings are used primarily by practices seeking to entice customers into purchasing, or investing in their designs. Portraying citizens using and appreciating the spaces is usually central to adding value and marketability to a design or master plan, so they are a common tool for sprucing up a proposal.

 photoshopped people in a public space"Are they dishonest? I think they're wishful thinking," says Toderian. "They're the architectural equivalent of the McDonald's hamburger looking much better in the picture than it does in real life."

Fred Kent, founder and president of the Project for Public Spaces, says the real problem is that the people designing public spaces are often design-driven rather than people-driven.

"You can always see if a design firm knows how people really use spaces.," says Fred. "When you show a picture of people doing something real, people react. Those renderings often don't reflect any emotion, the people are never doing anything natural. They're placeless, senseless and soulless."

Kent places the blame on the spread of computer-aided design. The last decade has seen the use of Photoshop and 3D visualizations increase exponentially to create renderings that are full of photographs of people in the midst of their daily life, but chopped out of the original setting and pasted into a new one. "There's a lot of voodooism going on," Says Kent. "Computer design has taken the humanity out of design."

 photoshopped people in a public space"People usually look at eyes first for emotions such as anger, and this can draw attention away from the architecture in the rendering." Tomasz Biernacki, of Pechara Studio in Napa, California explains. Biernacki struggles with including people in his proposals, but ultimately he believes they are necessary to show scale.

One way he avoids the distraction factor is to use images of people with their back turned to the camera or blurring them, thereby reducing the attraction to the eye. He also uses images of people that are walking around naturally, instead of "using their cell phones like mannequins."

Kent agrees that natural-looking behavior is key. He likes to tell the story of when Robert Redford saw a film created by Kent and his mentor William H. Whyte back in 1980. Whyte secretly filmed New Yorkers as they went about their business in public spaces to see how they actually use their built environment. Redford was amazed. Kent says, "He told me, 'When I saw that movie, I got a whole new sense of what real activities are, all the natural things that people do that are spontaneous.'" That sort of spontaneity is rare in design proposals, says Kent.

"The talent of the illustrator can also be greater than the talent of the architect," adds Toderian, suggesting that beautiful renderings can also be poor representations of the resulting built environment. But ultimately he believes that the trained eye will see through these tricks and understand innately where the problems are.

"Are there the attractions? Are there the uses? Are there the edge conditions and activators?" asks Toderian when looking over a new proposal. "Is there design that will make it likely that people will come in the way that the illustration suggests?' And if not, that's a great point of discussion."



Glad to see this issue raised

The author raises some important issues about how professionals can easily manipulate beliefs of audiences to get their proposals approved.

One of the things I notice in all these renderings is how well dressed and in shape everyone in the pictures are. I wish I could live in the utopias that these designers dream up for architectural projects.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
Director, Professional Development Institute and The Leading Institute
Program Director for Professional and Executive Education
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Je

Perception manipulation.

I wish I could live in the utopias that these designers dream up for architectural projects.

Or in the world of print ads. Or TV commercials. Or sleek cable shows. Or Madison Ave text. Or. Or. Or.

But I agree with the implication that we'd all love our projects to be exactly what everyone needs, to the point of the users weeping with joy at our brilliant designs.



Differentiating urban designers and advertisers

When most people see a beer commercial or a car ad, they often see, and should know, that it is a fantastical representation of reality. (Any guy who thinks that drinking a certain type of beer is what will make him more attractive to women should probably find other hobbies.)

Society expects us as professionals to provide realistic and feasible outcomes for places. While presenting a best case scenario is an accepted part of the work, a placebuilder who sweetens an illustration to make it sellable is creating false expectations, and in my view, is doing the same as a placebuilder who withholds information that would help a client make a more informed decision.

Leonardo Vazquez, AICP/PP
Director, Professional Development Institute and The Leading Institute
Program Director for Professional and Executive Education
Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy
Rutgers, The State University of New Je

Designers and human nature.

While presenting a best case scenario is an accepted part of the work, a placebuilder who sweetens an illustration to make it sellable is creating false expectations, and in my view, is doing the same as a placebuilder who withholds information that would help a client make a more informed decision.

Interesting. IMHO it is human nature to want to look at attractive, smiling people over the alternative. Or nice landscapes over brown lawns and dead trees. Or shiny things compared to dilapidated things.

Similarly, you won't see the b*tchin' Camaro from 1979 with extensive rust or the '72 Pinto in any parking lot rendering. Should we insist the the bondo-heavy Chevy get equal time to the BMI-challenged in our renderings?

What about the reality of office building renderings with weeds in the flowers and poorly-pruned shrubs? Omitting weeds and inappropriate plant choices spec'ed bythe LArch is creating a false impression as well.



As a designer and veteran

As a designer and veteran development reviewer I've always taken such graphics with a grain of salt.

I have also on more than one occasion informed a prospective developer that their beautiful drawings were part of the official record so that they had better be an accurate reflection of what they intended to build.

But I have a bigger issue than the accuracy of computer generated graphics. My issue is that all too many times the photos of completed projects that appear in the professional literature are taken during the one day of the year when a major event is being held and the site is full of people. The other 360-plus days of the year (or at least the random day that I happen visit the site to document it) the space may be practically deserted and exhibiting all the evidence of a planning (e.g. an economic development initiative) or design failure.

Should this practice also be considered deceptive?

George R. Frantz, AICP
Principal, George R. Frantz & Associates
Ithaca, New York

Before and Afters

Another interesting issue is the total lack of people in the photos of places after they are built. Look at any architecture magazine and you have to wonder whether people were ever really meant to be part of the picture. Or even worse - perhaps the people are actually not there!

What must it have looked like in the rendering?

Effective advertising...

Its simply advertising, and it's effective in marketing and getting projects to fruition. Its probably the most honest type of advertising there is out there. The subtle promise of, "If you build it, they will come"....and they actually might. But ultimately its up to the various planning divisions and citizens to know whether or not their city can actually fill and utilize the space illustrated. This is something that the average hired illustrator would not know unless informed.

Not as bad as the trees

Adding people can add a sense of scale, as noted, and can also help to illustrate how the place would function. I believe most viewers will have some sense that it is someone's imagination of how the space will be used, and (hopefully) make their own judgement about its likelihood.

More troubling to me is the use of trees in plan, elevation, and rendering. Far too often, I see trees included on the drawings in places where they will never be planted (utility locations, inadequate soil depth, etc.). I think people typically expect that something as basic tree pit locations would be identified correctly, and are less likely to view the renderings with skepticism.

Where have all the flowers gone...

...gone because they have been picked.

Why do they show mature trees with pristine walkways and grass? Whenever trees are planted they are saplings, and have to grow into mature trees. And when the trees do mature, don't the roots push up the sidewalks, cracking them. And what about the utility cuts that always happen after they are finished? Or the rotting wood? Or weeds? Or litter? Or even vandalism such as graffiti?

Any place looks great, before the people get to it.

Culture of deception

Dear friends,

I'm glad that Planetizen is raising this very sore point of architectural deception as far as public space is concerned. Unfortunately, it merely opens the can of worms of a culture of deception since early modernism -- sell an entirely deficient product while masquerading it as something worthwhile. We have had a barrage of pseudo-political promises of liberation and technological progress if we only allow monstrosities to be built by architects who are mercenaries of the global consumerist system. But the destruction of public space in our times is masked by propaganda that shows surreal people filling in wastelands and having a happy time. This deception is meant to hide the fact that most architects do not know how to design a proper public space, and could not care less to learn how to do it. They still rely upon modernist anti-urban practices true to the ideology of formal designs. But any deception, no matter how base, is easily masked by a nice rendering of happy people.

Just for the record, many of us New Urbanists really DO know how to design public spaces that are going to be used and enjoyed. There is a definite set of rules for doing so, unfortunately ignored by the architectural regime and unknown in almost all the universities. The science of urban spaces began with William Whyte and Jane Jacobs and was continued by Christopher Alexander and a generation of New Urbanists. I have written several articles relating the use of urban space to its geometry, its information field, fractal loading, feeding pedestrian and transport networks, and the concavity of surrounding spaces. None of these concepts are used to design signature projects -- just the same failed formal nonsense. Worse of all, many historically working urban spaces are being destroyed by "renovation", converted by ignorant architects into no-man's lands (of course, their winning "renovation" project featured happy people on the computer screen). Maybe it's time to finally put an end to this deception? Or do we have to wait for another hundred years before we wake up?

Best wishes to all,

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