Pictures speak louder than words…

From slick computer graphics to 3D models, getting the right message across is a ‘must-do’ for the equitable development of sustainable communities

During a recent regeneration project in London, a tenants group grew so frustrated with the incomprehensible information being coming their way from design and regeneration professionals that they sent two tenants from the group to study on an urban design evening course. These two then became trusted ‘translators’ and advisors to that the tenants. Public engagement initiatives and research projects across the UK reveal that the public has valuable knowledge of place to impart, as well as the energy and initiative to participate. But in many cases, the public, as well as planners (increasingly engaged with policy and stakeholder management rather than design) and councillors, can be distracted by glossy graphics or a skilful computer visualisation. The problem is acute: so much so that graphics company Urban Graphics, together with Urban Design London, is producing an online guide to effective communication in urban design.

A recent planning skills research project managed by Julian Hart of Lancefield Consulting, with support from knowledge exchange programme UrbanBuzz, brought sustainability experts and academics from a range of disciplines together to critique recent planning applications in terms of detail. ‘It has been a fascinating process,’ says Hart. ‘These are technical experts on the built environment, but none of them have day-to-day involvement in the planning process. From the first panel meeting, there was unanimous condemnation of the content of the submitted planning applications as ‘shallow’. Many were described as little more than publicity material for proposed developments.’

Plans, drawings and images are used for a variety of purposes: they inform the design process; communicate ideas to, and build the confidence of, stakeholders; they aid promotion, marketing and selling – and they enable assessment and validation of design schemes.

Assessment and validation is a key part of the development process. Lack of clarity and understanding related to proposals can lead to poorly designed schemes actually being built. Yet effective assessment relies upon successful communication. There are two sides to the communication process: information must be presented in an appropriate format for the target audience, and the audience must receive and understand it.

Traditional communication tools, such as physical models, axonometrics, plans, elevations, perspectives and artist’s impressions are familiar to professionals and public alike, although not necessarily well understood by the latter. Artists’ impressions, in particular, can be prone to misinterpretation as they are frequently not accurate in terms of perspective and provide a visual guide only. When it comes to 3D computer models, although these may be accurate (the 3D Glasgow urban model is accurate to 20cm and is used to showcase planning applications in situ, see page xx), many 3D models have been created for presentation purposes and are more akin to a computer game environment than to reality. There are few 3D models simulating traffic jams in the pouring rain. Computer 3D graphics images can be created with varying degrees of realism, and some are very accurate to real life proposals. However, they are only meant to be a representation or an impression; or to represent a virtual reality. They are rarely, if ever, precise indications of how a place will look. Many models have valid uses as analysis tools, however. Flooding, pollution, and light and shadow, amongst other variables, can be accurately modelled using computer simulation, with great benefits to those capable of interpreting – and presenting – the resulting data.

All artistic and computer generated images should be cross-referenced with measured drawings to fully understand and appreciate development proposals. All image types can ‘tell fibs’: aerial viewpoints show a development from angles that humans could never see, whereas eye-level viewpoints offer a more realistic impression. Often, the devil is in the detail – the lush landscaping, bright sunny weather, shadows (which are rarely represented according to the season) and building materials may not portray the actual development as it will really look.

Urban Graphics

Urban Graphics is a collective of creative designers and cartographers specialising in graphic design and illustration for urban design, planning and regeneration projects. Th teams works on all scales, from single promotional documents to the design and delivery of complete graphics packages for major projects.

Graphics for Urban Design

Published by Thomas Telford, Graphics for Urban Design by Bally Meeda of Urban Graphics provides an essential resource for practitioners, academics and students. It provides clear guidance on the understanding, commissioning and preparation of graphic presentations for urban projects.

‘Extras’ are usually added to the mix to create a vibrant, lively or atmospheric feel: cobbles, people walking, cyclists, lighting and elegant street furniture create a positive effect, whereas traffic jams and bus queues aren’t quite as welcoming.

contents: Technology, space & place