Architects' renderings don't always accurately represent people. A U-M prof's app could change that.

Architect Bryan Boyer remembers his surprise at a piece of feedback he received while presenting renderings of a project his firm was working on for the city of Detroit. Staff in the city's planning office told him the people pictured in the renderings didn't "look like Detroit."

"I was like, 'Oh, wow,'" Boyer says. "We really had tried to make it look representative … and it just wasn't resonating with our colleagues."

Now, Boyer, an assistant professor of practice in architecture at the University of Michigan and co-founder of the architecture studio Dash Marshall, has turned that learning experience into an app. Boyer co-created "People Party!," which allows architects to populate their renderings with human figures representing real population metrics in the areas where the architects' projects will be located. 

After their meeting with their Detroit clients, Boyer and his colleagues began looking at census data to provide more accurate and objective portrayals of the communities for whom they were designing.

"You can make the most amazing design proposal, but you show it with only supermodels and people will be like, 'Well, this doesn't look like my city. This doesn't look like my community. This isn't for me, obviously,'" Boyer says. "All of that effort is counterproductive at that point because you've just alienated the people that you hope to attract to your proposal."

The eventual product of the studio's effort was People Party!, which can auto-populate a rendered scene with diverse human figure illustrations using demographic information based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

"With People Party!, you can very quickly create images of a crowd," says Boyer. "And those images aren't just generic. They're actually rooted or connected to the specific reality of that place."

The app is designed to create scenes that feel as realistic as possible based on demographics including race, gender, age, body type, and mobility limitations. Figures can be shown using wheelchairs, canes, and crutches.

"We wanted the generation of the population in the image to be akin to the experience of trying to photograph a building that exists in the real world," Boyer says. "... If I go to downtown Ann Arbor and photograph a new building that I've just built, the people who are there are the people who are in the pictures, and that means you don't really have any choice about that. We think that's really positive because it means that you end up with a crowd that feels real rather than curated."

Boyer says response to the app's early testing phase has been positive so far, and his team is hopeful about expanding uses for the technology beyond architectural renderings. 

"We've seen [interest from] marketing firms, exhibition designers, furniture designers, product designers, and people who are making business analytics reports," he says. 

Sabine Bickford Brown is a freelance writer and editor based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at sabinebickfordbrown@gmail.com.

Photos courtesy of Dash Marshall.