Rob Walker Takes Closer Look at Tiny People in Architectural Renderings

Who are those pedestrians forever wandering around, loitering about, or striding purposefully through shimmering architectural renderings? They tend to be non-descript, culturally diverse, and more likely than the general population to favor red shirts. Rob Walker, fresh off his appearance on the season opener of Design Matters, investigated these digital sprinklings of humanity in his most recent “Consumed” column in The New York Times Magazine. “The apparent purpose of these figures is to provide sense of scale—in fact one architect friend of mine refers to these figures as ‘scalies,'” writes Walker of the rendering hordes known also as “people textures” and “populating images.”

In exploring the companies who sell this unique brand of stock photography, he learns that on the virtual horizon are “three-dimensional figures who walk or gesticulate in repetitive loops” while wearing clothes that won’t date quickly (ix-nay on the leopard-printed dhoti pants!). Meanwhile, not all architects are shelling out $70 for a CD entitled 120 Casual People. They get their people the old-fashioned way: by grabbing photos off the Internet and modifying them. DIY approaches have given rise to the celebrity scalie. “[Tim Woods, a professor of architecture at Savannah College of Art and Design] showed me one of his firm’s renderings, in which Anderson Cooper relaxed happily in front of a modified-shipping-container home,” notes Walker. “If that seems absurd, Woods reminded me that the point of a rendering is not to depict a reality; it’s to persuade viewers—whether clients or investors or the public at large— to go along with an architect’s vision and let him or her make it reality.”