It’s time that visualisations started representing the world around us, writes Evie Martin
Every day, adverts, billboards, films, magazine covers, and the news media influence the way we see our societies. In my experience as a built environment professional, I have seen designs for swanky, sky-high apartments inhabited by white, young heterosexual couples, TV adverts featuring slim, young, female secretaries topping up their middle-aged white male bosses’ wine glasses, and whole marketing campaigns featuring entirely white casts. Times are thankfully changing but not as quickly as I would hope, especially within built environment visualisation.
As a young designer, I can increasingly recognise that this is a result of systemic ideologies and no longer a fair representation of the society I live in. My colleagues and I know that we have a responsibility to look at the imagery we are producing for our projects, however big or small, and to challenge the representation of people we are showing and, ultimately, the stories we are telling.
Whether it is a render, a collage, a vector graphic or a hand sketch, it is fairly usual that we complete our visualisations under tight time constraints so that we can ‘sell’ the project to the client or even the public.
From a design perspective, many of us will have used a library of collected characters, prioritising positions, angles, or colours and retrofitting them into the image where they seem to ‘fit’. Or we have mindlessly thrown in a few characters from minority groups so as to ‘balance’ an image out.
As such, I’ve often walked away from a design feeling unsatisfied or even disappointed at my choice of representative imagery. How often can I really say that it was truly reflective of the society I see with my own eyes?
I have come to realise that any collection of figures or characters tell a story, and we hold so much power in having the choice of what story we tell in our visualisations. As a resident of Leeds, I see every colour and ethnicity, I see single dads carrying two children, gay couples holding hands and mixed-race families enjoying their picnics on Hyde Park. So why aren’t these the images I’m seeing in the industry? Why aren’t these the images and perspectives I’m drawing? Why aren’t these the stories I’m telling?
The People Library is now a hot topic in the studio, and it is fantastic to see it being used widely
There is a form of tokenism that doesn’t have a place in architecture and design anymore and our ever-diverse teams are striving to alter the way the whole industry operates. Put simply, the stories we choose to tell should have more meaningful thought behind them.
For my everyday job, I wanted to create something to refer to and make sense of the people, the lifestyles and the cultures that reflect the communities for whom and with we design our places. As a result, with the support of Vicky Casey, BDP Belonging and Human Space, we devised the BDP People Library; a collection of characters that have been created with diversity in mind. It is just the start of an ever-growing resource for our practice that comes with guidance on inclusivity and representation in our project visualisations.
The library will eventually become ‘open source’. When we feel that it has been populated by as many diverse figures as possible, we will open it up to the industry for use and further development.
Importantly, we have already open sourced the guidance document, enabling others to access the thought process which we supply to visualisers we work with or anyone who would like to reference it. As we develop this crucial tool, we make continual reference to the changing nature of our society and the need for research into demographics of the cities and places in which we design.
It also provides a breakdown of the protected characteristics (UK) and the Ontario Human Rights Code (Canada) and things to specifically consider for each one when creating visualisations. Considering age, race, height, weight, ability, gender, and religious signifiers should all come into play when we think about who is included in a visualisation.
The People Library really will be an ever-evolving, ‘live’ project
We want to avoid tokenism, challenge stereotypes, consider power dynamics and then to check and challenge our own observations with our diverse design teams and communities. We might ask each other: does this image embrace a range of ethnicities, cultures and perspectives? Do the visualisations feel genuine and trustworthy? Are the graphics biased to my own experience and background? Will this exclude or offend someone? Does this promote existing stereotypes or challenge them? Am I encouraging a better, more inclusive vision of the future?
Only when we have robust answers, are we able to progress. More importantly, it helps us to have the conversations that matter, not just to visualisations but to the creation of a better, more inclusive society. The conversations can sometimes be difficult but enlightening, and we must keep the discussion going.
The People Library is now a hot topic in the studio, and it is fantastic to see it being used widely. As it is used and developed, it means I am constantly learning how to be a better architect and a better citizen.
The Library and the accompanying guidance have recently been deployed for a regeneration project at Castlefield Viaduct in Manchester and was used as a tool for The Women of the World Foundation, an organisation that was looking to challenge and improve the representation of women in the construction industry. The days of looking at imaginary visuals where women in construction see themselves represented by stereotypical male figures in hard hats needs to be over.
The People Library really will be an ever-evolving, ‘live’ project and I really enjoy receiving suggestions for new characters to design. Months after its inception, I am still adding new characters to the Library that show different ways to represent diversity with characteristics I have not yet thought of. Whether that be a visible form of disability or just an item of clothing that symbolises a part of a particular culture, it all feels important and for the industry, it feels like we are on the verge of something fundamentally game changing.
For more information about the BDP People Library, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Evie Martin is Part II Architectural Assistant at BDP