Why People in Visualizations Is a Gamechanger

When you’re about to show the world a project you’ve been working on for years, you can’t risk getting caught with a poor visualization. So how do you spot a bad job before it’s too late? Asking one of the sharpest Visual Artists we know, there’s one element worthy of some extra attention.

When it comes to high-end visualizations, your audience is not getting less picky. Today’s expectations of 3D imagery are sky-high as to technical skill, creativity, and emotional leverage. And out of all elements at play, people (you might recognize this from the real world) are one of the most challenging ones to deal with.

To blame is nothing but human biology, which obviously didn’t spend millions of years learning how to spot a fraud for nothing. In other words: people are tough. And to replicate the looks and behaviors of people requires deep knowledge in a wide spectra of complex subjects: from human anatomy to natural movement patterns in different environments, cultural codes and local trends.

Poorly executed, people can eliminate all sense of credibility to your vision in seconds, leaving but a slightly itchy feeling of awkwardness behind. So why don’t we put all our creativity into visualizing breathtaking buildings instead?

A hard-proven trick that reveals a poor render

The short answer is that crafted with the right time, skill, and care, people can bring an almost magical spark of authenticity to the imagery, helping the audience connect with your vision in a deeply personal way.

But how can you be sure you’ve got a winner at hand, and not a potential disaster? What kind of design flaws connected to the people in the image are worthy to look out for to separate a world-class render from an amateur job?

Eager for answers, we turned to Frej Agelii, who, besides being one of the world’s most experienced Visual Artists in this field, happens to be our dear friend and colleague at the TMRW headquarters in Gothenburg.

The wow is in the story: the story is in the people

To Frej, the secret behind a winning visualization is not merely the quality of the composition, shadows, light or other technical aspects (even if those are super important as well, he points out). The wow is in the story. And using people is probably the most effective way to bring stories to life.

The question we need to ask ourselves is what kind of people are the perfect ones to hero your story? Which characters are best equipped to attract the attention, and emotional engagement in the perspective of your audience?

Visual Artist Frej Agelii in action at TMRW Gothenburg office.

Picking the right actors for the scene

When visualizing a project, the creative process has a lot of similarities to making a film. And just like in Hollywood: A big deal in crafting an intriguing image is to choose the perfect actors for the scene. From the main characters that first catch your eye to the extras providing an engaging sense of everyday life in the background. Each person has a unique part to play and helps determine the emotional value of the story.

Architectural visualization of Parkway for Bosa, people socializing in big kitchen
To make a scene like this look authentic, you need to find characters with the right looks, natural facial expressions and body language. Moreover, the original photos must’ve been shot from the exact right angles with eyes fixed at the same point.

“The vital question is not what kind of people fit into the environment but how they help the story unfold. What happens if we place an old lady on a bench peacefully feeding the ducks while watching the city come to life in the background? Or a busker playing guitar in the middle of a crowded square? There’s a lot of testing going on before we find our actors.”

— Frej Agelii

In short: If the casting feels slightly off, you should sort it out before you buy a suit for the Oscars. Besides, creating a winning scene takes a lot more than picking the perfect set of folks.

The secret behind the authentic vibe revealed

When you’re in the humble business of showing people a potential future of their own — the most critical eye is to be expected. And if your audience can’t relate visually and emotionally to the world presented: worst case, you’re done. Considering the extent to which cultural codes differ, research is key in creating a natural ambiance.

“To capture that authentic vibe, you need a deep understanding of the place, stretching from specific climate and weather conditions to culture and local activities. And details like how children play and what kind of games they’re into. In this phase, there are no shortcuts. And it’s one of the most common flaws that help you separate a top-class job from a budget one.”

— Frej Agelii

It’s clear these things aren’t done in a day. And as you probably figured out, there’s even more to it. The following error is slightly more challenging to spot.

Watch where they’re going

And this time you’re not getting your answers by studying the characters’ looks or actions. What you need to focus on is what will happen next.

 “In city scenes, a typical flaw is people heading towards the same point, which in reality would cause a collision. A bicycle going in an unnatural direction will disrupt the flow of the scene, just like someone walking too fast or too slow, considering their location. And the thing about flow is: If one single detail’s off, it can make the whole scene feel unnatural, even if you don’t see it.”

— Frej Agelii
Architectural visualization of Region City for Jernhusen, exterior of central station in dusk, location gothenburg
The more people: the bigger complexity. In crowded environments, simulating natural movement patterns becomes considerably more demanding. Like in this one, showcasing the Central Station in Gothenburg, Sweden.

And speaking of directions, people actually have another crucial role to play, namely as guides of the viewer’s eye.

“Your goal is to make the viewers stay as long as possible and engage in the story. And eyes always follow the people. So characters allow you to control how your audience travels through the image, ensuring they’re not slipping out. It’s a powerful technique when you master it.”

— Frej Agelii

The magic in the final touches

So characters are selected to hero your story, carefully orchestrated to play the right strings of emotion, authentically behaving and moving towards the desired areas of the image. Does this mean we’re done? Not quite. You don’t want to forget the details. And as in the real world, there are a lot of them. 

“Have you ever seen a visualization with people hanging in the air? That’s what happens when you don’t get your shadows right. Then you have the reflections and lighting corrections to deal with. When it comes to final touches — every detail have to be spot on to make the scene convincing. If not, the previous work is pretty much for nothing.”

— Frej Agelii

Can you spot the difference? Today, high-end realistic visualization comes down to the smallest of details.

An artform of it’s own

Hopefully, you feel fully charged with insights on how to separate a master-class visualization from not-so-brilliant one, by keeping a sharp eye on the people. Considering what it takes to visualize people in an authentic way, no wonder there are only a few Visual Artists in the world ready to operate on this level. It’s almost like an art form of its own.

Did you enjoy this little sneak peek behind the architectural visualization scene? Feel free to indulge yourself even more through the links below.

Good ideas deserve outstanding visualizations