People in architectural drawings, part 4; complicating factors

By Gordon Rugg

This article is the fourth in a short series about finding out what people would really like in life, using architectural drawings and fantasy buildings as a starting point.

The first article discussed how if you show people a range of possibilities, including possibilities that they would probably never have thought of, then their preferences can change dramatically from what they would initially have told you in an interview or questionnaire.

The second article looked at regularities in people’s preferences; the mathematics of desire, applied to buildings.

The third article examined changes in preferences and in fashions over time; it also examined the issue of practicality, and how practicality could change over time as a particular technology becomes obsolescent.

In today’s article, I’ll look at some complicating factors which need to be kept in mind when examining this area. For instance, why does the sun always shine in architects’ drawings? There are sensible reasons, and they aren’t just about optimism…

Sunshine and rain: Two scenes from Japanbanner4 v2Sources of original images are given at the end of this article; first image slightly cropped to fit.


One good reason for showing scenes in sunshine is visibility. This is particularly important if you’re using the image to convey practical information, as opposed to producing a work of art. The brighter the lighting, the easier it is for the viewer to see what’s going on.

The same principle applies in the opposite direction in reconstructions of archaeological scenes. Many of those scenes are chiaroscuro, i.e. a mixture of brightness and shadow. This is because conscientious artists don’t want to include anything in the image which is just guesswork, rather than evidence-based, so they obscure any uncertain parts of the scene with strategically placed shadows, smoke and clouds.

Resolution and options on the imaging software

As usual with any technology, the software and hardware you’re using to produce an image of a building will at best nudge you in directions you might not want, and at worst will actively get in your way.

Software is likely to make surfaces, including grass, look very homogenous and very clean, without any of the blemishes brought by time and weather and wear and tear. This is particularly noticeable in real buildings where surfaces that were once gleaming white are now stained and dingy.

Software will also nudge the user towards including a few standard images of people in the scene, from near the top of the menu of standard images. Those images probably won’t include children running around, or people in wheelchairs, or skateboarders, or people selling copies of the Big Issue. Including diversity will probably take a little more effort, and will probably be an early casualty of tight deadlines and budgets.

This isn’t just an issue of social inclusion. A building needs to work for the range of likely users and activities it’s intended to support. Different groups of users, such as people in wheelchairs, will each have their own requirements and preferences; omitting them from the illustrations makes it that bit more likely that they’ll be forgotten in the general design process.

Time taken to think through the detail

When you’re producing a working model or a working diagram, you’re often working against a deadline and/or a budget. The more detail you put in, the longer the artwork will take, and the more it will cost. This will nudge you towards producing a model or image that shows the main features, but doesn’t include what you consider to be the minor details.

One problem is that your idea of what constitutes a minor detail may be very different from the client’s opinion and/or the end user’s opinion, not to mention other the opinions of other stakeholders such as the health and safety people.

Sometimes those details will be a matter of aesthetics and personal preferences; sometimes, though, they’ll be very functional and practical. The risk for the designer is that the client will view this detail as symptomatic; if you’ve got this detail wrong, what else have you got wrong as well?

The averaged faces principle

Another side effect of images that don’t show fine detail is that they may be perceived as more attractive because of the lack of blemishes. An obvious example of this principle is images of celebrities whose skin blemishes have been smoothed out with Photoshop.

This has been widely assumed to be because younger faces tend to have smoother skin, and because youthful appearance is perceived as more attractive than older appearance. However, there may be another effect involved as well, or even instead.

There’s been a fair amount of research over the years into perceptions of faces. One strand of this research involves averaged faces, where several photos are superimposed on each other to produce an average face.

The title of one paper from this research sums up one key finding elegantly: Averaged faces are attractive, but very attractive faces are not average. (Alley & Cunningham, 1991)

Why are averaged faces attractive? Nobody really knows. One possible explanation is that averaged faces look familiar, and familiar objects tend to be perceived as more attractive, if other things are equal. Another possible explanation is that they have fewer distinctive features, because those features have been diluted away in the averaging process. This could make them more attractive because they require less mental processing than more detailed images.

There’s a sporting chance that the same principle applies to images of buildings, where slightly fuzzy images without much fine-grained detail could be perceived as more attractive because they require less mental processing.

Closing thoughts

People who produce images of building designs are nudged by technology towards producing images which look like a cross between a tourism brochure and something from the Stepford Wives. The images they produce will tend to omit detail, and will tend to be bright and clean.

That’s a problem, for various reasons. One reason is that the image is subtly misleading, in the direction of optimism rather than realistic identification of key issues, and away from the direction of social inclusion. Another is that the image shows the best case for that building; it doesn’t show how the building’s design will work in rain or snow or gales, for instance.

In the next article in this series, I’ll look at ways of identifying common user activities and requirements that should be incorporated into the design process, and that can be handled cheaply and simply, producing significantly better designs as a result.

Notes and links

Sources of images in the banner:,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art_accession_2005.355.JPG

“Kinkaku3402CB”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

Related articles:

Overviews of the articles on this blog:


2 thoughts on “People in architectural drawings, part 4; complicating factors

  1. Pingback: People in architectural drawings, part 5; common requirements | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: People in architectural drawings, part 6; conclusion | hyde and rugg

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