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 and some online design services 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.
As a small design firm working, we’re working non-stop to design and manage our clients’ projects. 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.
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 clients can visualize 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.
Below are examples of drawings I have created for some of my projects over the past few years.
This image was created to show the new plan for a kitchen remodel for a South of Grand home in Des Moines that is part of a complete home transformation. Not only did we completely reconfigure the space, but this perspective view allowed us to illustrate the impact of planking the ceiling with white oak. This style is as close to photo-realistic as I currently offer.
Saturday 29th of October 2022
Hi, Jillian, I'm actually a client who, (at age 60+) is planning a remodel for the first time. I found your post because my husband and I are struggling to visualize materials and redesigns we've chosen to do. And while I asked upfront and several times during the process if my interior designer could offer us these renderings, we haven't seen any and are quickly closing in on final timelines/costs from the contractor. I wondered if it was unrealistic to ask to 'see' something more than black and white blueprints that often we don't understand what we're looking at! From a customer perspective, when I'm spending $200K on a small condo reno, I don't want to make a major mistake...and I would be thrilled with the type of rendering you offered above, as long as we could swap out a color or two to see the difference if we didn't like our first pick. Thank you for posting this topic. It's been helpful.
Saturday 12th of November 2022
Alison, I’m glad you found it helpful! I think that the firm you hired should have clarified what was included in their design package up front. Some firms still use AutoCad and don’t offer any perspectives at all. I tend to think in 3D, so perspectives are a must for me as a part of my design process.
Friday 9th of September 2022
That's the problem everyone faces; they think they will get what they see in the photo, but it is impossible in every situation. Sometimes images are twitched to look better on social media, the same as what we do with our pictures with editing. What do you think about how a person should approach a professional to get what they want?
Thursday 6th of January 2022
I like how that rendering looks more like a sketch. That is the kind of look I want too. It would look a lot more real that way.
Monday 27th of December 2021
Hello Jillian, interesting approach. Where I work we use Home Designer Pro for initial preliminary meetings, to sort out things quickly without wasting time and then for the final presentation we always do very realistic renderings.
People love the approach, as no time is wasted on any part and at the end client see exactly what they will get. 95% of of the objects proposed for the design concept are modelled and used in the rendering hence it's a very effective.
But I see your point and agree as well, for small teams or one man army designers it does not make much sense, as realistic renderings cost money and they really take time (even with todays computers).
Great discussion, look forward to reading your blog.
P.S. Question: Why do you use Chief architect and not their interior design version of the app - Home Designer Pro? Is there a particular reason?
Monday 3rd of January 2022
Hi George - thanks for the comment! We use the perspectives out of Chief all the time and will apply generic materials and use generic forms for lighting and furnishings. I can't fathom undertaking the expense to model every item used exactly because we use different items on every project. Also, we just don't have the equipment to run the renderings in a timely manner.
I use CA Pro because I do all my own cabinetry design. I wanted all of the features included and didn't want any limitations as I was coming from Revit.
Monday 20th of December 2021
Jillian, Finally, a designer who's more concerned about the design process and the client than showing off how realistic they can make a rendering. Hooray for you! I'm a very old school architectural illustrator who sold many interiors and architectural designs using pen & ink and maybe a little wash or marker. I teach a class in Interior Design presentations at a local university and they are all gung ho about teaching the students how to do the hyper realistic renderings. There is a place for those in mega budget projects...I agree with your approach. I've found that a design is never really "finished" until the materials are actually ordered and the hammers start swinging. Clients love to be part of the design process and a more artistic rendition...say in markers...leaves room for discussion. I can do 10 marker renderings showing many options for the price of one fixed "final" photo real rendering. Anyway, I'm going to pass along some of your thoughts to my colleagues. Thanks. Bill
Monday 3rd of January 2022
Bill - I agree with you 100%. I also taught both hand and computer rendering. I love PR renderings for students because they have no other way to realize their designs. However, in the real world, the project is always in flux. PR renderings make no sense to me, especially now, when we are constantly tweaking due to supply chain issues. The design is never really done until it's done.